Come to think of it, they’re chin-ups. Progression is always going to be hard. But if you break it down well, you can work out an effective training process, one that works for you.
In the last post I did on chin-ups, I took a look at the general movement, with varying degrees of assistance from the legs. So you didn’t have your entire body-weight hanging from the bar.
In this post I’m going to talk about grip strength and how to develop it.
Clearly, if you’re going to be able to do chin-ups, you’ll need to be able to hang from a bar. This can be a lot more difficult than is sometimes suspected. Considering that we’d like to build up to multiple repetitions of the chin-up, being able to hang from a bar with a straight body (a dead hang) for 45 to 60 seconds is a good goal to shoot for.
You might find it easier to hold the chin-up position at the top, rather than the bottom (as pictured, using a resistance band for assistance). Don’t think of pulling your chin up, that might just tighten you up through the shoulders. Think instead of pulling your elbows down to your hips, that will help to keep your shoulders down away from your ears. If you can hold this position without assistance for 20 to 30 seconds, you’re doing exceptionally well.
If all of the above is too intense, try a farmer’s walk instead. Pick up two heavy dumbbells – one in each hand – and go for a 30 second walk around the gym. You’re not doing anything with the dumbbells, except for holding on to them tightly. Because of the dynamics of momentum, each time you take a step the dumbbells will feel heavier. Step as gently and as slowly as you’d like. Bear in mind that if you weigh 80 kilograms, you’ll ideally want to build up to doing a farmers walk with at least 40 kilograms in each hand, preferably 50 or more. If you can hang on to more than your own bodyweight, it’ll put you in a very good position when it comes to chin-ups.
Even if you can hang from a bar for 60 seconds or more, the farmer’s walk is still a valuable exercise for developing your grip strength.
One of my favourite grip/arm exercises are towel curls and extensions with a kettlebell. Kettlebells are convenient, but of course you can use any heavy object that you can thread a towel through, or – and this can be even better – a heavy bag with thick handles. Towels or some sort of fabric train your finger and hand muscles much better than a solid bar ever will.
Direct arm training is an interesting topic in relation to chin-ups and power. It’s easy to over- or under-train. Too much and you’ll be fatigued all the time, too little and you won’t manage to strengthen your weak points. I’m currently spending almost none of my training time on curls and extensions, because I find working on the actual chin-up five or six days per week is helping me to progress well, and if I add in direct arm training I fatigue too much.
Finally, there’s the wrist-roller. This is excellent – but they’re hard to find so you may need to make one. Basically you’re walking your hands one at a time, so that you unroll or roll up the rope which has a weight attached to the end. If it’s very heavy, there’s a tendency to only take very small steps with your hands. But if you want to work the muscles through a large range of motion with this exercise – and I think it’s good to do so – you want to take large, controlled steps, flexing and extending your wrists fully. Don’t rush this one, take your time. It’s good for endurance and bar-control.
When it comes to structuring your training, if you use the basic chin-up/squat/stand technique that I outlined in my previous post on chin-ups, that can remain the primary focus of your training. Do as many reps or sets as seems appropriate to you.
Then you can choose some or all of the above exercises, depending on what you find rewarding and what you think might help you develop. Keep in mind that these are assistance exercises, and by themselves they won’t magically make you any more awesome than you already are, but they can help you to bring up your weak points.
Rest as much as you like in between each set. It’s strength training, not calorie burning, so recovery time is important. Go again when you’re ready, and only when you think you’re capable of working strongly and completing a satisfying set. If you were to train in this way it might take you 15 to 25 minutes to complete your session, which is time well spent. If you train for much longer than that it might only fatigue you excessively, and if you spend much less time than that you mightn’t get enough work done to provide a good strength stimulus. Remember that you grow stronger in between your training sessions when you’re recovering, so sleep enough, eat enough, and train enough – whatever all that means for you. Find out by experimenting, with awareness and curiosity.
As usual, let me know how you’re going...