Achieving Your First Chin-Up

Editors Note: This is a contribution from Danny McLarty a certified strength and conditioning coach. This article is written predominately for the female readership, but there are definitely a few things the guys can learn. Especially those of us who struggle with pullups!

In the weight room, there are many personal victories that one can achieve, to make yourself feel proud of these accomplishments.

  • The first time you do a push-up… a “real” push-up, as in ALL THE WAY DOWN to the floor
  • The first time you knocks off 10 full range of motion push-ups
  • The first time you deadlift or squats your bodyweight
  • The first time you deadlift or squat bodyweight for 10 reps

And the list goes on. But out of every performance achievement that I’ve seen from a female, nothing seems to empower her quite like being able to perform her 1st chin-up!  I’ve trained a bunch of ladies that have gone from not even being close to performing a chin-up, to getting rep #1.  The look on their face after getting all the way up to that bar and back down is priceless.  “I thought this was only for women like Linda Hamilton from Terminator 2!  I can’t believe I can now do a chin-up!!!” (actual quote from one of the ladies)  And the respect they then get from other people (respect from other guys as well!) in the gym is definitely noticeable.

From Zero to One

Alright, time to get to the good stuff.  How are you going to go about accomplishing the first chin-up of your career?  Grabbing the bar from the full hang and pulling as hard as you can, with little to no movement day-in-day-out, is not going to cut it.  Like with most good things in the weight room, it’s going to take a series of progressions.  Here is the progression that I like to use in most cases(sometimes people may be close to getting their first full rep, so you can skip a couple of these steps).

  • Step 1: Perform 3 to 4 second negatives (work on controlling your body through space on the way down only).  You should have minimal swinging of your body (nice and “stiff”).
  • Step 2: Start at the top (your chin starts at the bar) and perform a 90 degree chin-up (so, go from the top to the middle and back up).
  • Step 3: Start at the top and go all the way down, and all the way back up.
  • Step 4: The final step!  It’s now time to try from the full hang and go all the way up and back down.

You must “master” one step before performing the next.  In other words, if you try to perform step 1 and you just “plop” down to the bottom, you haven’t “earned the right” to even start  these progressions.  This may mean you need to drop a few pounds, get your core stronger, get your grip stronger, start on the lat pulldown machine, or any combination thereof.

The reason I have you starting from the top (your head up by the bar) in steps 2 and 3, is because as you lower yourself, the stretch-shortening cycle will aid you in pulling yourself back up.  Pulling from the hang is the most difficult of all the steps, which is why it is the last in the line of progressions.  Let’s take a look at what these progressions look like on video…

Another thing you can do, is use a band or assistance from a partner that allows you to get a rep or two.  You can always use a band or partner in your training program to perform reps (5-10 or whatever), but for the purposes of trying to achieve your 1st rep, use a band that is thin enough to only allow you to get 1-2 reps.  And/or have the partner assist you on the way up just enough to allow to get 1-2 reps.  I’d say this option would compare to step 3 from above, depending on how much assistance the band/partner give you.

And Now For Some Motivation

You got to see a strong girl in the above video with Marci as my demonstrator.  So I thought I’d provide you with some more motivation.  Marci’s chin-up record is 7 reps!  And also checkout Rachel Guy.

Rachel told me that her record is 6 chin-ups while performing them at a 40X0 tempo (that is: 4 seconds on the way down, no pause at the bottom, explosive on the way up, and no pause at the top).  Very nice – especially with such a slow, controlled negative!

And then we have the chin-up queen, Jen Grasso…

Not bad… for a girl.  Kidding, kidding! What we just saw would kick the crap out of what 95% of the guys out there are capable of!!!  Jen told me; “My goal is to always beat my previous PR, but a realistic goal for me now is 21 chins.  I see this coming in the near future!”

Wrapping Up

Remember, the above tips are not necessarily designed to help you improve your chin-up total (although some of the advice in this article will have a bit of carryover to adding reps).  These progressions are to help you go from zero to one.  It’s time for females to stop thinking that chin-ups are a “guy exercise.”  With consistency and smart planning, I may ask you to be my next YouTube model in upcoming articles. Use these tips and progressions, and you too can become one bad ass chick!

Danny McLarty has been a Fitness Coach for over 10 years. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach (CSCS) and Planned Periodization Specialist (PPS through Tudor Bompa).  Danny is also a Basketball Skills Coach and earned a place in the Illinois Basketball Hall of Fame for his high school and college career while standing at a height of 5’7″.  


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