The one upper body exercise most people are familiar with, but have trouble performing is the chin-up. Most of us males may remember trying to perform chin-ups in our PE class in grade school or even high school, while females performed the flexed arm hang for time.
Many fitness enthusiasts still think the chin-up is one of those outdated exercises that only thin people perform. As a matter of fact the chin-up, in my opinion, is one of the best upper body exercises you can do. The challenge is most people are not strong enough to perform them.
What makes the chin-up so invaluable? Because it is an exercise that utilizes multiple, large, upper body muscle groups such as the back, (Latissimus dorsi, rhomboids) arms, (biceps), and forearms. The chin-up also works wonders for your grip strength. You never know when you have to grab something real tight.
A great aspect about the chin-up is that you are pulling. Typically, I see many people in the gym always working on pushing exercises such as the bench press, shoulder press, incline press, etc. As humans we perform tasks all day in front of our bodies and utilize our anterior muscle groups (muscles in the front part of our body, chest, shoulders). What typically happens is that these frontal muscles become tight and more developed than our posterior muscles (back muscles). This creates muscle imbalances from the front (anterior) compared to the back (posterior) aspects of the body. Injury is more likely to occur when muscle imbalances are present. The chin-up is a great way to challenge yourself and create balance throughout the upper body musculature.
Not being able to due a chin-up shouldn’t discourage you from trying. Your starting point is dependent on your current body weight and strength levels. If you are overweight by more than 20 pounds, you should not try and perform chin-ups. Your focus should be pulling exercises on machines and aerobic exercise. For those of you that currently weight train, the chin-up is a must to put into your routine. Let’s go though a chin-up progression for those who wish to get started with the exercise.
First, test yourself and see if you can perform 1 chin-up. Start with your hands facing inward, toward your body. This is known as a supinated grip. When trying to perform a chin-up make sure you keep your shoulder blades retracted back and down. Depress your shoulders and be sure not to shrug your shoulders when you try and pull up. If you are unable to perform a single chin-up do not get discouraged, most people can’t. Your first goal is to find a step or box to position your chin over the bar, come off the step or box and perform a flexed arm hang for as long as you can. Record the amount of time by counting to yourself, how long you can support yourself over the bar. Perform 3-5 reps for the first few workouts.
Next, slowly begin to lower yourself down from the bar, continue to count and record the amount of time it takes you to lower yourself. The longer, the better. This exercise is called a negative chin-up. Perform 5-8 reps for the next few workouts, trying to come down slower and slower each workout.
The next step is to position yourself hanging from the bar, bend your knees and cross your ankles. Have a spotter grab both feet and assist you while you perform a chin-up. The spotter may have to assist a lot in the beginning. After a few workouts the spotter should only grab one ankle, assisting you less for the next few workouts.
This should bring you to about the 12th workout or 6th week of training on the chin-up. At this point, you should be ready to perform your first “unassisted,” chin-up. If it takes you longer than 6 weeks to perform your first chin-up, that is ok. Just stick with it. You will eventually do this exercise on your own, as long as you train on the movements I outlined above consistently.
After you are able to perform a few chin-ups, reverse your grip so your hands are facing away from you (pronated). This will make the exercise a little more difficult because you have less leverage to pull yourself above the bar. By facing your hands outward, you take some of the bicep out of the movement and use mostly the back muscles to pull yourself up.
The chin-up is a great way to challenge yourself and make workouts fun. It is the most important upper body exercise to help increase speed. The arm action in the chin-up is similar to the arm action when sprinting. This action is called shoulder extension. Powerful shoulder extension helps to counter balance the opposite leg when sprinting and keeps us more aligned, which in turn helps to put a more powerful force into the ground. Also, when you start to lose excess fat, your chin-up number really increases. All in all, the chin-up is a great exercise to help you get stronger, increase speed and lose weight. Incorporate this as a part of your normal routine and I promise you will see begin to see gains in all three areas.