Getting that first chin-up is an amazingly empowering feeling and I want to share how I help my clients break the chin-up barrier.
The first pull-up you do is the hardest one.
After the first pull-up it’s simply a matter of consistent practice.
I want to add that this whole, “women can’t do pull-ups” thing is BS. While men tend to have more relative upper body strength, women tend to have more relative lower body strength. This might make it more difficult for some women. More difficult doesn’t mean impossible.
That said, it seems the biggest barrier to many women’s first pullup is mental, rather than physical. Society at large doesn’t like strong women; female strength is aggressively discouraged and suppressed.
As corny as it sounds, not believing in yourself will hold you back from pulling yourself over that bar more than anything.
I’ve trained lots of people who are firmly convinced pull-ups aren’t for them. Then, immediately after their FIRST pullup, they crank out a set of 3.
Confidence is powerful shit.
What’s the difference between a pull-up and a chin-up?
I personally don’t care--just get your face higher than the bar.
I use the terms pull-up and chin-up interchangeably. This is because, as one of my clients astutely pointed out, the name “chin-up” is misleading. It implies that you need to stick your head out like a turtle to get your chin “up”. This isn’t an ideal neck position.
Either way, the progressions for learning a chin-up (underhand grip as in the photos) and pull-up (overhand grip) are the same.
Step one: TRX rows
These are great for any level of fitness. I always start here, no matter how advanced or beginner the client is.
Sometimes this is the only progression people need before losing their chin-up virginity. These strengthen your back and arms while teaching you to lift your bodyweight. How you do it:
- Hold an “upside down plank” with your arms long.
- Keeping your body straight, pull your elbows back as you squeeze your shoulder blades together and down. At the top position your upper arm should be in line with your back or just slightly behind.
- Lower yourself to the starting position under control.
You can easily manipulate the difficulty of this exercise by moving your feet back or forward. The more horizontal you are, the harder the exercise becomes.
The cool thing about TRX rows is you can change the “weight” mid set. This is helpful for breaking through plateaus. You can do 5 “heavy” reps, take a step back, and finish your set with a few "lighter" reps. That way you challenge yourself with heavier weight without sacrificing your total reps per set.
Different rep ranges and strategies work here, but I typically use sets of 8 to 12 reps with my online fat loss clients. As long as you find yourself inching your feet forward every so often, you’re killing it.
Once you can crank out 3 solid sets of 10 with your body horizontal, you’re ready for the step 1.5.
Step 1.5: Bar hangs/Scapular pull-ups:
If you can’t hold on to the bar for more than a few seconds you won’t be able to hold on long enough for a set of pull-ups.
Just hanging on the bar increases your grip strength. To up the ante do the scapular pull-up
The scapular pull-up (AKA anti-shrug) builds your shoulder blade strength. And since you’re hanging, you’ll continue to strengthen your grip.
1.Start the move by hanging on the bar with your body relaxed (called a dead hang). Note that my shoulders are practically touching my ears.
- Then, drive your shoulder blades into your back pockets until your shoulders are as far from your ears as possible.
- Lower yourself to the dead hang under control.
As far as reps go, you have a few options. You can do lots of reps, or less reps and hold the top position for time. Both methods work spledidly.
This is step 1.5 because bar hangs/scapular pull-ups ought to be practiced in conjunction with continued TRX row training.
3 sets of 30s for Bar Hangs is a pretty damn good goal here.
Step 2: Negative Pull-Ups
These increase confidence, and make you comfortable supporting our entire body weight. You’re getting closer to the real deal. Isn't that exciting?!
- Start at the top position of a pullup. I like to place a box under the bar so I don’t need to jump. Jumping up is fine, but it tends to promote swinging which makes things unproductively harder.
2.Hold the top position for anywhere for 2 to 5 seconds.
As slowly as you can, lower your body under control, straightening your elbows. Pause for a second or 2 at the bottom.
Then hop back up to the top position and repeat.
- Keep your shoulders in an Ant-Shrug position throughout the duration of the move.
The aim is to go as slow as possible and accumulate reps/time on the bar. Think Sloth-Ninja. As you get stronger, each rep will last longer, which means you’ll tire out with less reps. So don’t worry if you aren’t increasing your reps. Pay attention to how strong you feel as you lower yourself.
Step 3: Half pull-ups
Now it's getting interesting.
- Start this exercise the same as a negative pull-up, at the top.
- Once you've lowered yourself half way down (elbows are at about a 90 degree angle) drive your elbows into your armpits and pull yourself back up!
Reflect on how awesome you are.
- Repeat for reps
If you can’t do a half pullup, do a quarter pull-up. Shorten the range of motion as much as you need to. Simply lower yourself as low as you can while maintaining the ability to pull yourself back up.
Step 4: Full Fucking Pull-Ups!
After mastering half pull-ups, start lowering yourself a little lower before pulling yourself back up. Increase your range of motion bit by bit, eventually getting to the ¾ pull-up mark and then the full Pull-Up!
These are general guidelines. The reps and techniques listed here work well for the people I work with. This isn’t pull-up dogma. Some people skip steps, some people spend lots of time on one step.
The key is to be consistent. Chin-ups, pull-ups, whatever you want to call them, take lots of time and practice.
Be bold enough to have patience and I guarantee you’ll be showing off your skills to your friends sooner than you think ;)