There’s a difference between testing and training. Simply put, training is what you do to develop your strength and athleticism, and testing is what you do if you want to find out where you’re at.
In terms of processes, well one is a process and the other isn’t. That’s fairly simple.
So training could be thought of as the process of development.
If you are fairly strong, you can use chin-ups as a tool, an exercise, for your training. But if you aren’t very strong, chin-ups won’t be a useful tool for training, though they may be a useful tool for testing your strength. It comes down to this: one does not develop by simply attempting a test one cannot do, over and over. Development requires a process.
Many coaches and personal trainers – I don’t think it’s a particularly sophisticated approach – treat most or all training sessions as if they’re testing sessions. High intensity, challenging exercises, performed to failure or near-failure, week-in, week-out. I want to grant the benefit of the doubt and say that there is some degree of applicability to this method, but I really don’t know if that’s true.
The difficulty is finding the sweet spot, which has led many people to favour training cycles. For a couple of weeks or maybe a month, you’ll perform relatively easy exercises, you’ll get used to the coordination, to moving efficiently and safely. Then for a month you might increase the load, and really start to challenge yourself. And then over the next month or two, you’ll increase the load even more, and shoot for a few one- or three-repetition-maxes. Which is, to say, you’re lifting the most weight you can possibly lift, for the designated number of repetitions. It becomes the test at the end of the training cycle, if you will. Then you take some time off, and rest well.
In this way, you’ll have three or four testing weeks (or even that few individual testing sessions) per year, and a whole lot of time devoted to understanding and listening to your body, as well as challenging it. You have periods of time dedicated to developing movement awareness and efficiency, you might select particular exercises to help bring up weak points or support the main exercises you will test yourself on, and you can focus on a period of discovery or development without every damn workout feeling like it’s just comprised of random intense things.
Of course, unless you have some reason to value your maximum effort sets or fastest sprint times or whatever, there’s no real need to even have testing phases. You can just challenge yourself with various progressions, as they come up for you, simply for fun.
It seems to me that I can attempt true, dedicated one-rep-max testing sessions up to about three times per year, without getting a bit burnt out. Maybe if I structured my training differently and was actually competing in powerlifting or some kind of strength sport, I’d be able to endure – and recover from – more, but at this point in my life it is what it is. When I focus on a kind of quiet, personal development I seem to do better than when I focus on hitting big numbers too frequently.
So in terms of chin-ups – and the progression of your strength – what does this all mean when it comest to improving your capacity to do them?
There’s nothing special about chin-ups, except that they’re really hard, and as such, they are used as a measure of worth or strength for all kinds of athletes and men. This is problematic for a number of reasons, but anyway...
I have written mostly about support or assistance exercises. Work pullovers into your training, and farmer’s walks, and they should help your chin-ups. This is because of technical considerations and because of strength development – the pullovers help you get familiar with pressing forward and engaging the lats – it helps develop body awareness, and it also stimulates strength development – and the farmer’s walks primarily stimulate strength development in terms of grip – so that exercise is focused more on getting strong than on becoming aware.
You need both, of course. Awareness and strength. Because your ability to do a chin-up is a test of body awareness, your capacity to move efficiently and to apply leverage, and upper-body strength.
If you’re not investing in all areas, your progress will be less than optimal. But that’s fine too – play to your strengths. If you’re weak, you can focus on movement efficiency, and if you’re strong, you can get away without needing to pick apart a movement or you can jump into more challenging exercises.
They say for muscle size, train for sets of ten reps, and for strength, sets of five or less. The key is, work hard at a technique, but make sure it’s an exercise you can actually do. Make sure you’re getting stronger over time – but it doesn’t have to be every session. When you start putting that pressure on yourself, you start to dread training. You don’t want to feel like you’re failing or regressing, so you put off your sessions. Relax. It’s not always a test. You’re going to have bad days, and if you can’t take it easy and learn to be okay with that, you’ll never train, and never develop, for fear of not developing... Hmm.
It’s easiest at a gym. If you’re doing the pull-down exercise on the pull-down machine, you can set the weight to seventy pounds, and if you do six reps, that’s great. There you are. In three months time, if you’re doing sets of three reps at ninety pounds, or sets of ten reps at sixty pounds, it’s all progress. You could try building up to a body-weight equivalent on the pull-down machine, and then try your hand at chin-ups again, or chin-holds, or whatever.
If you’re not training at a gym it be a bit tricky. If you need to jump or kip to complete the technique, you can try to kip less over time, and you’ll know you’re getting stronger – but conditions change so much day to day, and it’s really hard to track. Am I really pulling more smoothly now, than I was then? How much is my jump contributing, and how much is it the strength of my arms? And how much do I care if I am completing the movement and feeling good about my training?
You don’t need to be too particular – you don’t need to focus on just the one thing, the one technique. People often don’t think of doing chin-ups to help improve their bench press, or doing push-ups to help improve their chin-ups, but it all helps. It really does. You’re getting strong in a general sense, and maybe that’s most helpful? That’s what we want from gym training – strength and movement harmony that you actually can apply to life situations outside of the gym. If you can get stronger at certain movement patterns or a range of movements, rather than simply focusing on the chin-up technique only – if you can improve your strength and your understanding of leverage – both of which develop through the application of practice – by performing many, many repetitions over a period of months – in time you will find you have become stronger. And you’ll understand your own body better, too.
The thing is, I guess – it becomes elitist. I know a bunch of websites you can go to where they don’t take a sophisticated approach to training and they’re all just about hard work – and they’re like “you just gotta do it. Put in the hard yards”. And others, where they talk about the importance of movement harmony and improving joint function, but they neglect the importance of simply becoming strong.
And then there are the websites where they don’t care what you’re doing, they’re just trying to neutralise calories through movement, and fuck all that – they’re not at all worth visiting.
And so – if you want to maximise your opportunity for progression – cover all your bases. Don’t shy away from hard work, but don’t bust your ass for no reason training useless or inappropriate movements. All structured exercise is simply about getting better at moving. Stronger, faster, more supple, or simply more smooth and more harmonious, with less pain. Make sure you invest in technique and movement awareness, and try to keep your joints happy, but don’t be afraid to add resistance or loading to an exercise when you’re ready. That’s what makes you strong, and it’s also what teaches you about efficiency. If the weight isn’t heavy enough, you are not stimulated to become more efficient, just as you are not stimulated to become stronger.
Often people shy away from anything heavier than a weight they can handle for twelve reps. But there’s no reason to – variety is important, and if you can do it with good form, without feeling like your joints are unsafe, or that you’re having to change the technique – add weight. Add as much as you like. Challenge yourself however you like, when you’re ready. And if you do need to change the technique after adding extra loading – ask questions. Is it better now, more efficient? Or is it worse – are you relying too much on momentum, are you losing muscle sensitivity or body awareness, do you have to compensate in some way?
I wouldn’t train sets of three reps forever, just as I wouldn’t train sets of fifteen reps forever – but varying your loading parameters over time is one of the best things you can do to stimulate strength adaptations. And just as a rule of thumb – if you’re doing low rep, heavy weight sets – don’t go as close to failure as you would for lighter weight, higher rep sets. Heavier weights are likely to be more fatiguing, and will probably take longer to recover from, but again here you can trust your body, and if you mess around with different loading parameters, you can expect your recovery and energy levels to vary too.
And remember to eat a lot. If you want to get strong, eat a lot. You have to be having protein, you have to be having carbs, and fats – you can’t restrict if you want to get strong. Trust me, eating more will help you develop faster, and all the training in the world won’t make you any stronger if you can’t recover right. And when it comes to chin-ups – everyone says you should try to lose weight and I can see the logic, but it just doesn’t work out that way. It may over time make it easier, but if you can’t do a chin-up, losing weight will not get you there. You must get strong, and you must get efficient. Losing weight is not training. It is not development, it doesn’t teach you about efficiency or leverage, and it doesn’t make you strong, or increase your fitness.
Maybe this is why the chin-up is such a valued exercise. You can only cheat them so far, and if you can do them well, it represents the dedication of time and effort, and the acquisition of skills and knowledge. So they become symbolic of a process, but chin-ups are not the process itself.
Focus on getting strong and moving well. That’s it. Strength and harmony. The essence of all training.