3 Ways to Get Your First Chin-Up

Chin-ups are one of the most difficult and effective exercises that you can do. Here are three strategies you can use to get your first one.

In addition to standing taller and feeling more confident, a well-developed back can make your waist look smaller. It takes a pretty strong back to be able to perform multiple sets of chin-ups. If you can perform more than just a handful, you're likely either strong or do not weigh very much.
Because they're one of my favorite exercises, I'm going to teach you how to do one.

Why Chin-Ups are Important for You

It takes a lot of work to be able to accomplish one chin-up - work that will leave you with a pretty strong and better-looking back. Chin-ups work several muscle groups all at once; your back, biceps and forearms. If you're just getting started, a great beginning goal is to get strong enough to be able to perform one unassisted chin-up.

In a balanced program, you want to have plenty of pushing and pulling exercises. Pushing exercises are things like the push up or bench press and you'll see plenty of gym-goers performing those. However, pulling exercises are just as important, yet you don't see as many people lining up to perform sets of those.

The more you weigh, the more difficult it is to perform. As you continue your strength training journey, you may find these get easier if your goal is accompanied by weight loss goals.

What kind of exercise is the Chin-Up

A chin-up is a back exercise, specifically a vertical pull. Your lats, or latissimus dorsi, are a very large wide muscle group. They are worked with both horizontal and vertical pulls, so it's important to include both in a program. A well-developed set of lats can give the appearance of a "V" shape and make your waist look smaller.

Vertical pulling exercises are pretty limited in variety. There is the pull-up, chin-up, and lat pull down, which is the most common for those who cannot perform many pull-ups or chin-ups. Really, that's about it.

The difference between the Chin-Up and Pull-Up

Both exercises are vertical pulls, the biggest difference is that you get one extra muscle group, the biceps, to help you perform the pull. The attachment of the bicep tendon does not allow it to contribute as much help.

Note that this is not to say that one exercise is superior to another. Just different for that particular reason.

Why not start with pull -ups?

Basically, if you can't perform a single chin-up, it will seem nearly impossible to perform a pull-up. There is some transfer of training benefits from the chin-up to the pull-up but because it's not the same movement there's not as much as we both wish.
You may be able to perform 15 strict chin-ups but only 5 pull ups. That extra help you get from your biceps can really make a huge difference.

How to Perform a Chin-up

You'll want to concentrate on pulling with your back and not your arms. When you get done, you'll know if you've done that based on where you feel it more.

To start: Make sure your grip is right. Perform a bicep curl "on air"-which means with no weight - and then reach straight up and grab the bar.

Next: Pull your shoulders down and back and bring your chest up. Now, tighten your stomach-like someone is going to punch you - and squeeze your butt.

Finally: Squeeze your elbows together behind your back as you pull yourself up towards the bar and try to touch your chest to the bar. You should at least have your chin above the bar.

When to Perform Chin-Ups

At the beginning of your workout! You want to perform these when you have the most energy so they'll likely come earlier in your workout. This should be how you handle all of the exercises that you prioritize.

The Three Ways to Build Up to Your First Chin-Up

Finally, the information you came to find out: three ways to work up to your first chin-up. There are a few different variations to accomplishing your goal to your first chin-up. My favorite being “negative chin-ups.”

There are other ways to progress to performing a chin-up but, these are my favorite because they are more specific to the lift. Some will advise performing lat pull downs or will tell you to train in many different rowing variations to work the same muscles. In my experience, these gains do not transfer very well.

First Method: Band Assisted Chin-Up

This can also be partner assisted. I prefer it over a machine-aided chin-up because you still have to stabilize your core to hold a good body position. You can progressively increase the difficulty of these by using weaker bands that give you less help.

This is a concentric muscle action which means you have to do work to pull yourself up to the bar and resist gravity. The drawback to using band assistance in the chin-up is that it gives you the most help in the area of the lift where you are your strongest-the start - and the least amount of help at the top where you're weak.

Some really good, strong resistance bands that I've used in my client’s training can be found at EliteFTS.com.

To date, I've never had a single band purchased from Elite snap on me.

Second Method: Timed Holds

A timed hold is being able to hold the top, bottom and middle portion of the chin up for periods of time. You can progress this by building up total volume, holding each position for longer lengths of time.

It is an isometric muscle action, which means you can perform it more frequently since there is not as much muscular damage. However, there is likely not as much carry-over as the next method, and my preferred method -  the negative chin up.

Third Method: Negative Chin-Ups

Starting from the top slowly lower yourself until you reach a dead hang. That's a negative chin up. You can helping yourself back up by jumping or by stepping onto a tall box and stepping off.

You're stronger lowering yourself than you are pulling up to the bar so you may find that you are able to perform a negative chin-up already. The one drawback to this exercise is your muscles receive a fair amount of damage resisting gravity so you'll feel more sore and will not be able to perform this as frequently. 

You can build this up over time by progressively performing taking more and more time to lower yourself or by adding more sets.

Final Step: Try Your First Chin-up!

After all of the practice you'll get performing one of these three variations, periodically you'll want to test yourself and see if you can get that first chin up. You might try at the beginning of every session or every 4, 8 or 12 weeks depending on how you structure your program.

There are plenty of ways to work this move into an already existing program. If you do upper body workouts already, you might add this into the mix. If you do full body workouts, add it in at the beginning of your workout on a day. I'd recommend you do this at least twice a week.

After Your First Chin-up

Tell me about it! Email Steven@Simplesolutionsfitness.com

You'll want to build up volume performing these. The chin-up is a body weight exercise but it requires a lot of strength. You might start out being able to do one chin-up for 3-5 sets.

At this point you'd want to progress your sets over time using a progression I've heard from Mike Boyle that looks like this:
• 1,1,1,1,1
• 2,1,1,1,1
• 2,2,1,1,1
• 2,2,2,1,1

You can continue to add volume in this way until you start considering other things like adding weight and more resistance.

Want Help In Learning These Cool Tricks?

Incorporating all of this into your program might not be something you know how to do on your own. You might not even have a program. I'd be glad to help you.  Simply fill out the contact form below.

Steven Mack is founder and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at the private training studio, Simple Solutions Fitness. He consults for Stronger by Science, a leader in fitness research dissemination, and is a former Mizzou football walk-on. Steven dedicates his professional life to helping people through his writing, speaking, and role as a personal trainer.