How To Get Insanely Good At Chin-ups And Pull-ups

Chin-ups and pull-ups for me are the most intense upper body exercises. Ever since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by them and had always wanted to master them. This wouldn’t happen until my early twenties and here I will share my approach of getting really good at chin-ups and pull-ups with you. But first let me tell you what happened today.

No picture of a dude struggling on the pull up bar? Lets have a totally random gorgeous woman instead! By the way, most guys are totally clueless when it comes to what women like about a man’s physique. Here is the deal: hot girls dig the V-shape of the torso (the waist to shoulders ratio). Gunz or bi’s or however you call ’em serve mainly to intimidate other guys.

I Was Chilling After A Nice Walk In The Saturday Sun

…when I felt like I was in the mood for some mindless fun. So I popped a DVD with some flick called Mindhunters. It starred LL Cool J, Christian Slater, Val Kilmer and two hot girls whose names I couldn’t remember. The movie was pure brainless b-movie/slasher fun, and I enjoyed every second of it, though I’m sure the director wouldn’t like me calling his masterpiece a B-movie. Anyway, you maybe asking yourself what this movie could have to do with getting insanely good at chin-ups and pull-ups. Well…

LL Cool J Was A Ripped Bad Ass In The Movie

In one of the scenes one guy was hanging off some bar (falling was not an option because the floor was flooded and the killer had rigged the water with electricity). LL came to the rescue, swinging, climbing and pulling himself up various ledges, bars and walls. And the first dude was waiting for him and hanging for dear life. Naturally, I thought to myself – if only this guy had gotten his pullups in check BEFORE getting himself in a life and death pullup bar situation. Now LL Cool J, on the other hand, was having a breeze because he always keep in shape.

Here is the tutorial this poor guy probably wished he HAD read lol:

The Perfect Pull-up and Chin-up

  • Watch your grip. Make sure to grip the bar towards your fingers. Basically, it should rest on the soft part just below your fingers. Avoid pinching your skin there. Pull-ups will cause callouses but they will actually make the exercise easier. Pinching the skin, on the other hand, will cause you unnecessary pain.
  • Pack your shoulders. Always start the chin-up from a dead hang position. From there the first thing to do is, with straight arms, to pull your shoulders down toward the body and pack them into your torso.
  • Use your back. The pull-up or chin-up is primarily an exercise for your back muscles. Those are the lats – the muscles of your armpits. You will fail to get good if you can’t feel and use your lats. It’s just that the biceps is too small and too week, no matter how well developed, to allow you chin-up mastery. Here is quick drill to feel those muscles. Extend your arms forward and ask a buddy to exert upward pressure on your arm. Now, try to lower it in spite of his efforts. Feel those muscles working? Good – use them in the pull-ups.
  • Cross your legs. The phenomenon called irradiation allows neighboring muscles to make each othe stronger when contracting harder. So by crossing and flexing your legs against each other, you become stronger.
  • Bend the bar. By attempting to twist the pull-up bar downward (your left hand will twist counter-clockwise and your right hand will twist clockwise) you will achieve a greater contraction in your upper body.
  • Squeeze your butt. Same as crossing your legs and gripping hard, squeezing the glutes will give you an instant strength boost.

[From left to right: a) sternum chinups, b) sternum pullups, c) wide grip pullups.]

Mix Up Your Pull-up and Chin-up Training

  • Regular chin-ups – these are done with an underhand grip. Pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar. They are excellent for biceps development and for overloading the exercise using additional weight.
  • Regular pull-ups – same as chin-ups, except done with your palms in an overhand grip. They are also excellent for overloading with additional weight using a belt, a backpack or a dumbbell between the legs. They target the biceps less and the upper back as well as the brachialis (muscle below the biceps) and brachioradialis (muscle on top of the forearm) more.
  • Wide grip pull-ups – these target the arms less and the upper back more. They are useful for learning to use the back muscles for chin-ups and pull-ups.
  • Sternum chin-ups/pull-ups – these are the same as the regular chin-ups and pull-ups, except that they are done until the bar touches the chest bone (sternum). Sternum chin-ups and pull-ups are harder, but they work the mid-back and rear deltoids more.

How To Get Better At Pull-ups and Chin-ups

The way to get better is to practice often (3 or more times per week), do a relatively high volume of training (25-36 repetitions per workout is a great goal), use progressive overload, and focus on strength training repetition ranges (doing 3 reps with a weight with which you could do a total of 5 repetitions is good rule of thumb).

[Lat activation, or simply put using your back, and NOT your arms, is the key to pull-up greatness. Note how the shoulders go down and are packed into the body. Not using the lats – the armpit muscles properly, is the number one mistake people make on chin-ups.]

Mistakes Sabotage Your Pull-ups and Chin-ups

  • You are not using your back. If you don’t learn to use the back muscles to initiate the movement and do most of the work on chin-ups and pull-ups, you are never going to get good at them. The upper arms are simply a small muscle and cannot compete with the big and powerful muscles of the upper back.
  • You are training to failure. When doing complex movements like this, always stop 1 or 2 repetitions short of failure. This means to do 8 reps when you are capable of doing 9 or 10. Training to failure is a viable tool when it comes to breaking down a muscle so it can recover and grow bigger and stronger. Pull-up and chin-up performance, however, comes down to learning to use your back and getting more efficient at it.
  • You aren’t using full range of motion. If you don’t go all the way down on chin-ups and pull-ups, you won’t be able to powerfully activate the back muscles.

Weaknesses in Your Chin-up Performance

You are as strong as the weakest muscle that takes part in the exercise:

  • Train your grip. You won’t be good at pull-ups if you can’t stay on the bar long enough. You need a strong grip. Train by hanging off the bar for time with two arms (eventually try hanging off one arm). Barbell holds with heavy weights for time also will help.
  • Develop your forearms. Training your forearms with wrist curls, reverse wrist curls, reverse bar curls and pinch gripping (holding two weight plates together and lifting them off with one hand) will also improve your grip, thus your chin-up performance.
  • Strengthen the mid-back muscles. The mid back muscles are responsible for the hardest part of the movement – the finish. Strengthen them with dumbbell, barbell or cable rows.
  • Strengthen your upper arms muscles. Your upper arm muscles – biceps and brachialis, are also responsible for the finishing part of the movement. Improve them with barbell and dumbbell curls and reverse curls (like the regular curls but with your hands on top of the bar).

[Here’s me doing 16 pull-ups. Notice the grip and the full extension at the bottom.]

Use proper form, activate the back, train often, use low reps and progress in weight (either with a weight belt, a backpack with weight plates or a dumbbell between your feet) as soon as it gets easier and you will be on your way to chin-up mastery.

One Arm Pull-ups or Chin-ups and Beyond

This is a pull-up progression that I got from the book Convict Conditioning. After mastering the regular pull-up as described in this article, you can still progress in your training.

The following is a list of incrementally harder pull-up variations. The way to train is to go through each stage for the designated exercise – Beginner, Intermediate and Ready to Progress. Once you fulfill the requirements for the Ready to Progress stage, you go on to the next exercise.

Note: I’m not including the progressions up to a full pull-up from the book in order to keep the article within reasonable length and because we’ve already discussed these strategies above.

  • Full Pull-ups – these are your basic shoulder width grip pull-ups (hands on top).
    1. Beginner – 1 set of 5
    2. Intermediate – 2 sets of 8
    3. Ready to Progress – 2 sets of 10
  • Close Pull-ups – here the hands are on top and the distance between the two wrists is 4 inches maximum.
    1. Beginner – 1 set of 5
    2. Intermediate – 2 sets of 8
    3. Ready to Progress – 2 sets of 10
  • Uneven Pull-ups – here you grab the bar with one hand and then grab your wrist with the other hand. The repetitions below are to be done for both sides.
    1. Beginner – 1 set of 5
    2. Intermediate – 2 sets of 7
    3. Ready to Progress – 2 sets of 9
  • 1/2 One Arm Pull-ups – here you perform a half one arm pull-up by getting yourself in a position where your pull-up arm is at 90 degrees and pulling yourself up. The repetitions below are to be done for both sides.
    1. Beginner – 1 set of 4
    2. Intermediate – 2 sets of 6
    3. Ready to Progress – 2 sets of 8
  • Assisted One Arm Pull-ups – here you perform a one arm pull-up but you also drape a towel over the bar and grab the towel with your other arm as low as possible. The repetitions below are to be done for both sides. Note how with the increasing difficulty of the exercise the reps get lower.
    1. Beginner – 1 set of 3
    2. Intermediate – 2 sets of 5
    3. Ready to Progress – 2 sets of 7
  • One Arm Pull-ups – these are the real deal – no assistance here. The repetitions below are to be done for both sides. Note how with the increasing difficulty of the exercise the reps get lower.
    1. Beginner – 1 set of 1
    2. Intermediate – 2 sets of 3
    3. Ready to Progress – 2 sets of 6

I’ve found another course that is even more detailed. It is called the Pullup Solution and it is by far the most comprehensive manual on pullups. Check it out here.

Babe by Vincent