Monday, May 11, 2015

Chin-Ups! And How to Do Your First One!

Chin-ups are one of my favorite exercises. In the past, I've vastly improved my fitness levels and dropped serious body fat by adopting a steady diet of Chin-Ups, Push-Ups, Dips, and running. If I wanted to go super-minimalist in my current training, I would probably stick to Chins along with Kettlebell Swings and Turkish Get-Ups.

I need to pause a moment here, because any article on Chin-Ups has to address a bit of nomenclature. So here it goes: Pull-Ups (usually) refer to grabbing the bar with your palms facing away from you. Chins-Ups (usually) refer to grabbing the bar with your palms facing towards you. There are other variations, such as Neutral Grip (palms facing each other, which is requires a certain type of bar). In general, Chin-Ups are easier than Pull-Ups because the biceps are more engaged and take some of the pressure off the back. I like to use a Lifeline USA Jungle Gym, which allows for a sort of rotating grip that I prefer.

Why do I love Chin-Ups in all their forms? Besides being incredibly functional, there is just something emotionally satisfying about them. It feels good to pull yourself up. You feel powerful. It also looks cool, which is no doubt why so many films—Taxi Driver, Aliens, The Bourne Identity, G.I. Jane, The American, I Am Legend, Skyfall, etc.—feature scenes of characters to some sort of Pull-Up. It reinforces their badassery.

Chin-Ups are also very hard to do. Many people (most?) can't do a single one. For a long time, I was one of those people. 

How did I train to do my first Chin-Up? Through the power of negatives! A negative involves stepping or jumping up to the top position of a Chin-Up and then slowly lowering yourself. 

Here's specifically what I did:

1. Jump up into the top part of a Chin-Up.

Top position.

2. Lower myself slowly, about 10 seconds.

Slowly lowering.
3. Rest 90 seconds.

4. Repeat two more times.

If I could do three slow negatives, I would add one more. If I could do four, I'd go back to three but cut the rest period by 15 seconds to 75 seconds. I basically kept repeating this process—do three, add a  fourth, cut the rest period and go back to three, add a fourth, and so on—until my rest periods were 15 seconds. By the time I could do four slow negatives with only 15 seconds of rest, I could do a Chin-Up.

In fairness, I didn't create that routine. To be honest, I don't recall who did, but I'm pretty sure it was Craig Ballantyne. Whoever it was, kudos to them because this method really does work. It certainly worked for me as well as my wife.

Once you've done your first Chin-Up, you can start trying to do more. Take it slow, as Chins are challenging. Keep doing negatives, interspersed with full Chin-Ups. Do lots of single rep Chins. As you get stronger, start using ladders to get more reps in.

Two quick points that need to be addressed...
The first is in regards to Lat Pull-Down machines. I am often asked if these are a good tool for working towards full Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups. In my experience, no. The movement seems similar, but isn't as similar as people think. There is just a lot more going on with a Chin-Up. That is no doubt why I've seen invidicuals who can move quite a bit of weight on the Lat Pull-Downs yet look terrible trying to lift their own bodywieght.

And that leads to my second point. Chin-Ups involve a magical balance of your strength and your bodyweight. You can be light but not strong enough, or strong but not light enough. If you are overweight, Chin-Ups are going to be a real challenge. If you are on the heavy side, I would recommend losing some weight before attempting to adopt any sort of Chin-Up program. It can make a huge difference.

Finally, a bonus: Me showing off by doing a modified version of a Pull-Up called a Polevaulter, with a few upside down Shrugs and a tricky variation of Rows. 

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