Complete with heavy boots...
I really like chin-ups, they’re one of my favourite exercises because they’re a great test of strength, a good personal measure, a yardstick, a bench mark, a what-cha-ma-callit. For whatever reason, I find them a rewarding and meaningful exercise.
But people get the test and the training method mixed up all danged the time.
It’s like school – you don’t just study information that’s pertinent to the test – the purpose of the test is to see whether or not your education is actually giving you an education. If you do only study what’s going to be on the test, you’ve just wasted your education. Likewise – you test your strength to see if your training is working; to see if it’s providing you with the athleticism it should. If you’re not progressing, you aren’t the failure, your training methods aren’t working for you. That’s what your test-results mean. Your training should be more comprehensive than just vainly attempting a test you can’t yet complete.
And, like education, your training should be thorough and broad enough to equip you for life, and it’s good to remember that tests are nothing more than measures of progress. Unless you’re hanging out a window, your ability to ‘do a chin-up’ is probably not that relevant. But being able to pull your own weight, literally, having good stabiliser muscles and all over strength – which is to say – having a functional body with strong joints, good mobility, impressive lung capacity and endurance, well that stuff will serve you for life. That’s a good education for your body.
You know if you’re fit, and you know if you’re not. By far and large, testing measures are used by people like me (trainers) to try to justify our jobs and make you feel like you need us if you’re going to progress. Who cares about that?
You can tell if you’re where you want to be, you can tell if you’re walking the path you want.
So don’t invest too much in the testing methods. Don’t just bust your ass attempting the test – break it down and sort your physical education into practical things that you can do, skills and strengths you can develop, rather than trying to take your end-of-year test at the beginning of the course, before you’ve learned anything, before you’ve developed skills. That makes no sense.
Chin-ups don’t make you a ‘real man’. Skinny guys, fat guys, dudes with too much hair, not enough hair – our virility is suspect. It’s questioned all the time. Your ability to do chin-ups or the amount of hair on your chest has about as much to do with your ‘breeding quality’ as does your favourite colour shirt or whether you like fancy cars and table linen, which is to say: it has zero relevance.
And dudes who pride themselves on how much weight they can lift are accused of being simple, superficial pin-heads. Everyone’s a critic. Look around on the internet and you’ll find plenty of people telling you you’re not a man and exploiting your fears. It’s all just someone else’s prejudice. It takes spectacular strength of character to remain resistant to the guilt and shame that surrounds the simple size and shape of our bodies, but hey – I’d rather invest in developing my strength of character than spend that time pandering to other people’s expectations.
If you’re a woman, you’re supposed to look thin, beautiful, and save-able? You should train, but you’re not allowed to look strong? Just do cardio, but don’t develop any muscle? Oh, you don’t wanna look like Madonna. Why not? You don’t want to look like a fit, autonomous, successful, vibrant and healthy individual? What kind of bullshit is that?
Confidence comes from actions, abilities and your belief in yourself. What good is it looking ‘fit’ if you aren’t? ‘Toning’ is a completely meaningless term – it refers to a look, not any actual training method, and it’s basically code for looking alright but not really being strong. What the hell is ‘too strong’ supposed to mean? Being strong is always going to be more meaningful than looking like... anything. Your strength on the inside, your strength of character can be reinforced by developing the strength of your body, by achieving the things you thought you could never do.
So anyway, that brings us back to the main point of my blog: do what you like. Find it, train it, do whatever works for you. Have fun, and experience joy and freedom through movement.
For those of you who would like to be able to do chin-ups one day, read on...
It’s easy to think that chin-ups are just too hard – it’s easy to be aware of the huge gap between how strong we feel and how strong we think we need to be, and it’s hard to imagine being able to cross that gap. Usually we just start training, pulling as much weight as we can, and we get discouraged because it’s too damn hard.
The opposite method actually works best. Chin-ups are as much about coordination as they are strength, arguably more so. The way to develop your coordination is to go really light on the weights, and just run through the movement patterns. It’s easy to go too heavy because we’re aware that we’ll need to be able to lift a lot of weight, but that actually gets in the way of developing your coordination.
The neuro-muscular connection starts to develop under only the lightest load. You need to get familiar with taking your body through that particular range of motion, so the best way to start learning how to do chin-ups is with very light resistance. That way you can get a lot of total reps into your training, without fatigue, and it’s through constant repetition that we develop skills. If you constantly overload on the weights, it’ll be really hard to actually get a feeling for the shape of the movement.
Think of your chin-ups as a skill, rather than a strength exercise. Skills require repetition, attention to technique, awareness and if you go to heavy too soon your technique will start to break down and fatigue will prevent you from being able to complete enough reps for your brain-body connection to develop properly.
So, if you want to master the skill, rather than just ‘burn calories’, the way to start doing your chin-ups is through getting used to the range of motion.
Even if you think you can increase your loading parameters and you really want to go heavier, it can still be a good idea to hold back. You may be able to do a chin-up already, but if you can only do one or two you probably aren’t aware of your back muscles. Unless you’ve gone through a process of specifically investigating your own back, when you go really heavy the arms take over and that’s where you feel the strain. If you lessen the load a bit, you can start to become aware of the pulling action through the shoulder-blade and mid-back areas, which is really where you want to start pulling from when you’re doing chin-ups.
It’s often difficult to get dudes who want to be strong to back off, because they feel like they’re cheating and they want to be doing a ‘proper’ chin-up. Ironically, the opposite is true. It’s necessary to back off so that you can develop your coordination – if you overload yourself every time you’ll never get to the point of being able to do a full, ‘proper’ chin-up.
This means there’s no such thing as cheating. There are simply the techniques that serve you and those that don’t. There are easy techniques, challenging techniques and techniques that are beyond your reach. Through appropriate selection of techniques, we can increase our strength and coordination and progress so that the techniques that were once beyond your capabilities become useful.
A partial chin-up is just as valid a training technique as is a full chin-up – the former isn’t ‘cheating’ and the latter isn’t ‘better’, they’re just different techniques. Which comes back to not deluding yourself, and using the techniques that are useful, with awareness, and progressing to the more challenging techniques, when you’re ready.
All that is just another way of saying let go of judgement. A chin-up, and your ability to do one, is completely meaningless. It’s only a big bunch of training techniques and testing measures. Use what’s useful, discard what is not, and break down your training down so that you can establish a path and a process that will take you from what you can do now to what you want to be able to do.
Anyway, to today’s techniques, the introductions to the chin-up movement!
To the left, you’ll see pictures of me doing a few variations of the chin-up. The top picture is the most basic. Find a bar that you can set to about the height of your neck or chin (or find a higher bar and grab a step to stand on – whatever). Grab the bar with a grip that feels comfortable for your joints – at both the bottom and top positions of the exercise. Stand on one leg (you can stand on both legs if the one-leg version is too hard), squat all the way down holding onto the bar, and then pull yourself back up, using a combination of your leg muscles and your upper body muscles.
Clearly with this technique, you are in complete control of how hard you’re working your upper body pulling muscles. You can move as fast or slow as you like, see what’s comfortable, what feels safe, and what you discover.
The next pictures represent more challenging variations of the same principle. You can set the bar a little higher, say around the top of your head, and with this technique you jump off the ground up to the bar. Still try to go through as complete a range of motion as you can, from straight arms at the bottom, to getting your chin above the bar at the top.
If you want to try the standing-on-a-swissball variation, please do so – it isn’t easy. Make sure you have a firm grip on the bar, before you transfer any of your weight onto the ball, before you even get on the ball.
If you want to increase the difficulty even more, try doing a one-leg version, standing on a basketball or something similar. Reducing your stability on the ground will challenge you to rely on the pulling action more, because you’ll get less support from your legs.
You’ll also notice I have my hands in different positions in the photos. That’s just to give you some options. You can hold the bar however you like – both hands forwards, or backwards, or one hand forwards and the other hand backwards (that’s called a ‘mixed grip’). Do whatever’s comfortable.
As much as I’d love to give you a reliable or specific program, I can’t really do that without knowing where you – as an individual – are at. And anyway, that could get in the way of your own discoveries. But I can give you guidelines that I think are helpful, and you can work within those parameters, or outside of them, depending on what you think will help you to progress. Play. Experiment. Try more training, or less training. More loading, or less loading. Whatever.
As a vague rule of thumb, if you’d like to develop your coordination and improve at this exercise, try to shoot for at least 100 repetitions per week. You can divide them up however you like – you can do a few each day, or a lot and then take a couple of days off, whatever works. If you find that you’re getting too fatigued on 100 + reps per week, try an easier variation. We’re going for numbers not intensity, so we can get the nervous system used to the general movement. I prefer these techniques to using a pull-down machine, where you’re sitting down and you pull the bar towards you, because when you’re actually moving your own body through space it’s more relevant to developing the right kind of coordination and movement patterns.
In future posts, I’ll break the movement down more and talk about grip strength, the difference between the shoulder and scapular joints, and other things, but for now I think it’s good to just focus on familiarising yourself with the broad movement without much tension.
Try to feel the scapular and mid-back muscles working, be aware and curious, and see what you discover. Learning how to do chin-ups can be a process of development that takes months... and months... so don’t pressure yourself too much. Be prepared to start and stop training, as you need, and try to see all things in perspective.
If you have any questions or observations, please feel free to leave a comment.
8/8/2011 09:27:09 pm
I started my chin-up training this week! Using the first variation of the assisted chin-up you've posted here. I only did 15 reps (in sets of 5) as I wasn't sure how I'd feel afterwards, and I'm glad I held back, because even assisted, when you're pulling your own bodyweight *through space* it's a totally different experience to using a pull-down machine or using the assisted chin-up machine. The chin-up machine especially just completely cuts out like ALL the movement of your body below the shoulder-blades!
8/8/2011 10:47:33 pm
Hey, fancy that - grip strength will be what I'm looking at next. Probably followed by something about the difference between the scapular and shoulder joints. The thing with grip that gets a bit awkward is recovery. If you train your grip too hard, it can be difficult getting enough quality resting-time for your hands. If you don't train it enough, it's hard to progress. If - at the end of your gym session - you just go for a 30 second walk, holding on to really heavy dumbbells with your arms relaxed as they can be by your sides, that can be a good place to start.
9/6/2011 07:05:54 pm
Hullo again, I have come to report on how my chin-up training is going! For I have found some interesting things!
9/6/2011 07:46:58 pm
It's true! I never went through the process I'm recommending! I went through stupider processes which yielded poor results, which basically amounted to just muscling your way through it, and it took a long time to refine my technique (note: refined technique refers to efficient and effective movement patterns, rather than some sort of elitist technical doobywhatsit).
9/6/2011 07:48:58 pm
PS. How do you spell it - is it a pumice stone? Some sort of mild exfoliant for your calluses would probably help. Some degree of hand toughening is unavoidable I suppose.
9/7/2011 10:57:23 am
Nah, the calluses make me feel bad-ass. But as for the actual pullups, sheesh, I never even thought of which hand was in what grip with which leg off the ground etc...! It gets a bit absurd eventually doesn't it?
9/7/2011 11:15:41 am
Sounds like good experimenting!
9/10/2012 12:42:02 pm
I'm just browsing around your site for the first time, interesting read
11/11/2012 02:33:47 am
Just did my first chin-ups yesterday! By which I mean, partial chin-ups. I had both feet on the ground. And I only did two. But I am proud of myself!
11/11/2012 11:46:34 am
Great! How much recovery you need varies depending on training schedule (including intensity and volume) and how much you're eating and how much sleep you're getting. Often when people start training, they start trying to eat less, which generally interferes with strength gains.
3/23/2016 05:36:29 pm
I love this! I pretty much have zip upper body strength, but have been trying to slowly bring more movement/strength in all of my body. So been doing LOTS of hanging, and now I can add this. I love how you say to train and get the movement down. Starting tomorrow, not sure if I can get even 50 a week, but will shoot for 10/day at least to start.
3/28/2016 04:41:34 am
That sounds really great! It's already a rare skill for an adult to be able to hang comfortably from a bar. It's been a while since I wrote this first post in the chin-ups series, and I don't think the high number of repetitions I initially recommend is actually necessary.
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