There are some patterns in the fitness industry that never die, no matter what. Carbs will always be feared. Heavy lifting turns women into men. You have to do cardio to lose fat. You can’t train everyday……….
Those are the stupid, mass media beaten to death mantras that readers of this blog know to dismiss as comedic whimsy and go about their business, equipped with real knowledge.
Then there’s the more personal ones. The ones representing our desires and our self image. Men are never muscular enough. Girls don’t like their belly fat or thigh fat. No man is ever happy with his numbers on the ‘big three’ and every girl wants to be able to do a chin up.
I’ve worked one on one with people for more than 5 years and I can count on one hand the women who’ve not expressed utter joy at the possibility of one day being able to do a chin up! It’s almost like one of nature’s laws…………the sun rises in the east, you can’t get rid of winter, everyone gets old and every woman would love to be able to chin up.
(DISCLAIMER: The terminology here is CHIN UP. Reason being, the chin up is an easier move than a PULL UP. The biceps have a far better line of pull in a chin up than a pull up, and why make things harder than they need to be? So a chin up is always my go to first.)
Having recently just helped a friend of mine get her first chin up, I’d like to take a look at the general process of achieving this highly coveted goal. I’ll break this down step by step, touching on the factors from start to finish with a rough idea how to navigate through the various ‘checkpoints’.
Step 1 – Bodyweight, or more importantly, body composition & power-weight ratio
The secret to bodyweight strength lies in the presence of a beastly power to weight ratio. Basically, how strong you are for your weight. This is simple physics. You weigh less? Then you’ve got less weight to move and therefore you need less overall strength to move your weight.
So, this is where being relatively lean and athletic to begin with helps a ton. If you’re overweight AND untrained (quite weak in the upper body), this will be a much longer journey.
A great starting point here is to simultaneously work on cleaning up your diet (sensible calorie deficit) and building basic upper body strength – particularly in the fundamental bodyweight moves and their derivatives.
They are: Push ups, body/inverted rows at the basic level along with other general work for the upper body with bicep and tricep work, overhead press work, face pulling and any other weak areas that need attention.
Again, this will be largely dependent on your experience as to how long you spend building here before hitting the next step.
Step 2 – eccentric loading & exposure to the movement pattern
A classic but for good reason. Eccentrics aren’t easy or sexy but they work! And they work well. Top down chin ups work wonderfully well for exposing the woman to the tension demands of one day doing the full chin up.
Obviously these will be sloppy at first and you may be falling rather than lowering but like anything, consistency is king (or queen).
You’ll need to watch the frequency as well as eccentrics are very stressful to the central nervous system (CNS). Once, maybe twice per week is enough. What to supplement this with is where things get a bit controversial as contrary to popular belief, I’ve found banded chin ups to actually work well as a volume accumulator.
The banded work also helps on the days where the eccentrics feel like they’re trying to claim your soul and sell it to the devil himself. Basically those times where you lowered over a nice 10 second count last session, yet today you can’t even put the brakes on for 3 seconds! You will have these days and they will come out of nowhere, often unexplained. These are the joys of the winding road to a big increase in strength.
I have 2 rules here: one is to keep the reps of the utmost quality; every rep is from a complete (PASSIVE) hang and the chin clears the bar easily without excessive ‘goose-necking’. If any of those variables aren’t met, the rep doesn’t count. It also helps to stay away from failure – a slow rep is ok but not a rep that stops moving or takes 5 seconds or more to complete.
The second rule is to not use too heavy a band. One that could slingshot a small child to the moon is too heavy and indicative of you not being strong enough yet to graduate past inverted rows. The band should give you that oh-so-needed boost but not remove gravity altogether.
Step 3 – Spot checking the range
A trained eye should be able to tell where the weakness in the strength curve is. But paying close attention to the eccentrics will tell you all you need to know. It’s a case of watching for where the acceleration point is, basically.
Adding targeted pauses into the range will do two things: 1. It will show you where you’re weak and 2. It will strengthen all points in the range – especially your weak point.
I like breaking it into three positions – the top, the middle and the bottom. You’ll aim to hold 5 seconds at all three points with a controlled descent between all three markers. (Note: the bottom is an ACTIVE hang with the shoulders engaged).
You can even work your way up from 5 seconds second by second to where you’re doing 10 seconds at each position. When you’re doing this with control you’re pretty much at the standard where you’re strong enough to do a full chin up from the bottom. Science says so too.
Step 4 – ‘mini reps’/partials
While this isn’t absolutely crucial but can work very well for building confidence before judgement day/staring the full move full in the face.
You can either go from the top down to 90 degrees/halfway down and back up or from the bottom to 90 degrees/halfway/forehead to the bar. You’ll find one half easier than the other but again, that will show you where the key lies in unlocking the full move.
If you know you’re good in one range, once you improve in the other, theoretically, you should be good for the full range. Believe it or not, sometimes it’s simpler than you think!
Step 5 – JUDGEMENT DAY/YOUR FIRST CHIN UP
While this is a huge milestone it’s critical to not place it upon a pedestal. Over-respecting a move is one of the biggest trip hazards in the world of bodyweight training. The universe works backwards sometimes. When you want something too much you can almost push it away and when you relax a bit and accept it will arrive when it arrives, it often ends up on the doorstep.
Life’s a bitch like that but hey……….
Keeping things in perspective is key here. While it’s a massive milestone for you, it’s still only a minor stepping stone to bigger and better things – the pull up, the muscle up, lever work and much much more. As the coach it’s important to downplay the significance of the move until she gets her first rep, then we can go bananas celebrating.
Knowing exactly when to go for it is also an art form. Go too early, under-perform, and your confidence will take a trashing. Get it right and nail it and you’ll feel elation of the utmost extremes. It’s almost like the fine margins of sport; first place is more than money and is a lifetime dream, etching you in history, whereas being the runner up can leave you feeling like you’ll never win and really destroy your passion for the sport. At least for a while.
Of course what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and if you do fail it first time of properly trying, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen, it just makes it harder. And why make it harder than it needs to be? We can ease the process by increasing the odds by factoring in the following when deciding when to go for it……….
- How successful your last session was; did you nail new personal bests?
- How you slept the night before. Sometimes you just know how you feel waking up.
- How the warm up drills feel prior to the big move. Another little marker I like for CNS ‘freshness’ is grip strength. The better your grip feels, the stronger and fresher you generally are. This is time tested.
- The feelings/decision of the coach (if you have one). They’re the boss here and have to make that call. If they’re worth their cloth they’ll make the right call and assess things properly.
Step 6 – ????
All too often a monumental achievement can be followed by an anti-climactic feeling of having peaked with no idea what’s next. This conundrum has blighted many sports people. It can be their life’s ambition to win a trophy and become a winner. Yet when they accomplish the dream, they’re left wondering what’s next.
Although to get there they had to develop discipline, grit, determination, patience in the absence of obvious results, the ability to silence both the doubts of others and their own doubts, too. This is another illustration of where the journey and the anticipation is often more enthralling and exciting than the outcome, the destination and the three letter ‘W’ word.
Fortunately, in the world of physical achievement these breakthroughs are usually mere initiation markers, as they are the step to even bigger and better things. Goals that may take longer and prove harder but restart the journey again. Only this time the journey is longer, more arduous, more treacherous but also substantially more rewarding.
My first port of call after your first chin up would be to work the rep range up to between 3 and 5, consistently, then repeat the process for the pull up. After that you can go even further with maybe even muscle ups or gymnastics rings elements. Who knows your real potential?
Only a fool puts limitations on people, least of all himself. You’ll never know what’s possible for you until you commit to the process and demonstrate all the attributes needed for long term success.
Training is a metaphor for life and victories here prove you can apply yourself to any other walks of life. Your character develops more than your physical strength and as your character grows, so does your confidence. Not surface level confidence – the kind that lets you post that slightly saucy pic you weren’t sure about, real confidence. The kind of confidence that allows you to lose and fail but to not shed any true enthusiasm or belief that you won’t eventually triumph.
It’s not IF, but WHEN.