_ If you can’t do a chin-up, a lot of people like to recommend jumping or climbing up to the bar, and lowering yourself down with control. If you can’t do the positive part of the movement, at least you can try training the negative aspect.
Now, lowering yourself slowly from the bar can help you to get stronger, it can certainly make you sore the next day (a feeling that’s often mistaken for ‘getting stronger’, but isn’t necessarily so), but all the controlled lowering in the world isn’t going to give you the skill of pulling up.
If you have some strength for slow, controlled negatives from the bar (let’s say you can do five or so in a row, taking three to five seconds to lower yourself fully), something you can try is partial-chins: lower yourself until the bar is the same height as your eyes – your upper arms should be almost horizontal – then pull yourself back up to the top, and then do a full controlled lower all the way to the bottom. This will give you an experience of actually pulling-up, but through one of the easier portions of the movement.
All that being said, I’m not really a fan of the controlled negative – I don’t find it helpful, and I don’t find it enjoyable. It feels like going to do chin-up training without doing any chin-ups, which is not particularly satisfying.
_ If you have access to a massive rubber band, these can be an excellent tool for adding some assistance, without making it too easy – which is to say, if your strength is developing, but you aren’t yet strong enough for a set of full bodyweight chin-ups, the bands are excellent. They give you an experience of lifting and lowering your body through space, and as long as you keep the body straight, they’ll help out really well with that hard part of the movement at the bottom, but they’ll give you less assistance at the comparatively easy top part, as your body approaches the bar.
The one thing to keep in mind is not to bend at the hips. If you let the legs swing forward, you’re reducing tension on the band, which will give you less assistance to complete the movement. So maintaining body tension is key, and as with the basic chin-up movement, you want to focus on keeping the chest broad and pulling the shoulders and elbows down towards the hips, rather than pulling the chin up towards the bar.
Speaking of difficult parts of the movement – the two hardest parts of the chin-up, in my experience, are a: starting from a fully-extended ‘dead’ hang at the bottom, with your arms straight and your shoulders up around your ears; and b: that bit in the middle where your upper arms are horizontal. Getting through that middle bit is a sticking point for many people – they can do the bottom portion, or the top portion, but smoothly pulling through the middle part can be pretty tough. As for pulling from a dead hang, this is controversial, and there are many people who believe you simply shouldn’t do it – the joint stress is too much. I think it’s a good skill to have, but you’re never going to get it without developing some degree of awareness through the scapular area and once you develop that awareness you’ll know how safe it feels for you, personally, to extend. Never go further than what feels safe.
All this brings me to the pullover, which is an excellent exercise for learning how to engage from an extended position:
_This is one of very few exercises I really like using an exercise ball for. Make sure the shoulders bear most of the weight, the head is supported, and the neck feels naturally aligned. Some people like to drop the hips to emphasise the stretch through the abs and back, but I find that uncomfortable and prefer to squeeze my glutes to keep the hips lifted and stable. If unsure, use a bench instead:
_You can use a dumbbell or a barbell as you like.
It’s a great assistance exercise for chin-ups. They look nothing alike, pullovers and chin-ups, you’re lying on your back, with straight arms, pulling a weight up above your chest, but if you focus on the upper-arm aspect only, the action is actually the same as doing a chin-up. The upper arms begin behind or beside the ears, and as you pull the weight, your upper arms continue to what would be that mid-way sticking point if you were doing a chin-up. The difference is, of course, that your arms would be bending at the elbows and you wouldn’t be lying on your back.
What the pullover is good for, is developing an awareness of the latissimus dorsi – if you don’t have an awareness of the lats, or if you don’t have strong lats, your chin-ups will always feel laboured. The job of the lats is essentially to pull the upper arm from above your head, down towards your torso - on pretty much any angle. At the extended point of the pullover, when you lower the weight behind you, allow your shoulders to shrug up towards your ears naturally, and you’ll feel a stretch down the sides of your body and into your back. Thems your lats stretching, thems is. As you pull the weight back above your chest, imagine you’re pulling your shoulders down away from your ears and you’ll feel the lats squeezing.
You can bend the elbows a little if you like - the more you bend the elbows, the more you move the workload into the triceps, and the straighter you keep the arms, the more the lats bear the load. Work in a way that you find comfortable and satisfying, that does not strain your joints, but extends and works the muscles. This is best moderated by your feeling. Use a dumbbell or barbell as you prefer, and pick a grip width that feels good for your shoulders.
Adjust the technique in whatever way suits your mobility. This is not some vague self-protecting ass-covering guideline I promote for beginners only - it is crucial to developing skill, strength, athleticism and body awareness. Developing a subtle and detailed body awareness will serve you well, and will only deepen the more you train and investigate your feeling for strength, support, leverage and movement efficiency - all of which are crucial components to building your chin-upping ability.
It’s okay to arch your back when you’re doing a pullover. You’ll probably feel a stretch through the chest and abdomen too, and it should feel comfortable and satisfying. The pullover will give you the feeling of engaging the muscles from a stretched position. Never lift too heavy on this exercise, and don’t allow yourself to lower the weight so far that you feel weak or vulnerable. It should feel like a pleasant stretch through the back and shoulders. Engaging the back muscles in this way will feel similar to how you engage them to start a chin-up from the dead-hang position, except that the load is significantly less, so the risk of injury is significantly reduced.
There probably isn’t much more to say about the pullover if you’ve never done one. Pick a light weight, and try it out if you like. Then as you’re training, try to feel, try to become aware of how this feeling of pulling from an extended position would translate to hanging from a bar and starting a chin-up. The lats engage, and you press the bar forward, as outlined in the scapular pull exercise from Part Three. In fact, the pullover would be a helpful to train before you try the scapular pull, which can be a bit stressful on the joints for some people, so I might need to have a little think about the order of these posts...
Read the previous chin-up posts here.