The chin-up is, especially for women, one of the toughest moves to master in the gym. But not because genetics stand in the way, but because you haven’t trained for them…until now. It’s why Women’s Health Fashion Assistant Polly Sayer embarked on an exercise challenge to get her first chin-up in only eight weeks. Keep reading to find out how Nike London trainer Kim Ngo (@kimmayco) got her there and how you can too.
After a holiday heavily centered around food with virtually no fitness I felt pretty sluggish and a bit soft(er) around the edges. But rather than set myself a weight loss target, I decided to challenge myself to train for gains. For me, that was doing a chin-up.
Why a chin-up?
Well, I’ve always looked over in awe when women belie the belief that chin-ups are a man’s exercise.
Executed properly, chin-ups are one of the most efficient bodyweight exercises you can do as they strengthen multiple muscles (read: toned arms and more – win).
Plus, there’s a small part of me that wants to be prepared if I’m ever in a Lara Croft-style face-off that requires me pulling myself up a cliff edge. Extremely unlikely, yes, but not impossible.
Learning to chin-up: it’s harder for women, right?
No, not necessarily. There’s common thinking that women aren’t built for chin-ups but chances are, we [women]just haven’t trained the right muscles for this exercise. Men on the other hand, generally embrace upper body day because of #mirrormuscles.
Chin-up vs pull-up: what’s the difference?
Before I’d even hit the gym, I was baffled by the two terms for lifting your own bodyweight towards a bar. What was the difference? ‘Both involve the motion of pulling yourself up to a bar, but an underhand grip (palms facing your body) is used for a chin-up, while the opposite is adopted for a pull-up,’ explained coach Ngo.
Generally, a pull-up is considered more difficult, but that doesn’t make chinning the bar a walk in the park.
Chin-up muscles: is it all in the arms?
A common misconception is that the chin-up is about having strong arm muscles only. Yes, a sturdy set of biceps is handy for mastering the move, but in reality, this exercise also requires strength in other areas. These are the muscles involved in a chin-up:
- Lats (latissimus dorsi)
- Mid traps (trapezius)
To my surprise, Ngo also informed me I’d need to strengthen my forearms too; if my grip strength wasn’t up to scratch, I wouldn’t even be able to hold myself in a dead-hang position, let alone pull myself up to the bar.
How to train for your first chin-up
You’d be forgiven for thinking a chin-up training plan involves only upper body exercises. It doesn’t. ‘You’ll need to do a variety of full-body moves to increase overall strength too,’ coached Ngo.
So, chin up-specific exercises such as negative chin-ups, chin-up holds, and scapular pull-ups were interspersed with weighted barbell exercises like squats, deadlifts, and hip thrusts.
Week one: The Basics
To assess what needed to be done to help me reach my goal we needed to know my starting point. My first session was essentially gym trials testing my overall strength and skills. The learning? I was strong enough to perform a negative chin-up (stepping up to the bar, then lower myself down slowly to a dead hang position) and narrow press-ups, but after one set I was beaten.
The following day my DOMS was so real I couldn’t lift my arms above shoulder height – not great when your job involves dressing others.
It wasn’t all bad though: after being taught the correct technique I got hooked on strength training exercises that I had previously seen as a no-go zone in the gym.
My gym sessions:
A1 Barbell squat 3x 8-10 reps
A2 Isometric chin-ups (chin-up holds) 4x 3 reps of 10 seconds
B1 Weighted hip thrusters 3x 10 reps
B2 Press-ups on palettes 3x 8 reps
C1 Dip bar leg lifts 3x 10 reps
C1 Palloff press 3 x 10 reps
A1 Deadlift 4x 8 reps
A2 Chest press 3x 8 reps
B1 Bulgarian split squat 3x 8 reps
B2 Australian pull up 3x 8 reps (assisted)
C1 Swiss ball shoulder tap
C1 Max hold knee tuck
As well as two PT sessions a week I was instructed to buy a chin up bar and practice negative chin ups every. single. day.
Daily at-home workout
Negative chin-ups 10 x 2 reps (5 seconds per rep)
Week two to four: Increasing strength
After only a few weeks I found my feet in the gym. Strength training gave me a new respect for my body, and while I still hated isometric and negative chin-ups, I started to notice gradual improvements.
During this time we introduced incline press-ups (press-ups performed with my hands on a surface higher than your feet) and TRX rows to my routine – both are great exercises for increasing strength in the arms and get them used to support your bodyweight.
Week four to five: Seeing changes
It wouldn’t be a fitness journey without a low point, right? Mine came as I decided it was wise to train with the dregs of a hangover (side note: 10/10 would not recommend). Three sets of isometric chin-ups in, I felt unmotivated and on the verge of tears and scanned the room for a bin to puke in. But, I made the best of a bad situation – I’d showed up and was going to make it worthwhile – and surprisingly squatted and hip thrust my heaviest so far.
But while my gym sessions were engaging, back home I was getting bored of the daily grind so I decided that week five was time to test how much I could pull my body up to the bar, if at all.
From a standing position with my arms at an around 90-degree angle, I squeezed and put everything I’d learned into practice. Miraculously, I pulled myself all the way up. I couldn’t believe I could do something that a few weeks ago I would never have managed – it wasn’t a full chin-up yet, but I felt on top of the world.
Week six to seven: Consistency is key
Motivated by finally seeing some noticeable progress, I kept going with my daily ‘homework’ and gave it my all in every training session. I continued with my strength training and tried pulling myself up to the bar from increasingly lower down.
Week eight: The results
After a few days of rest, week eight signaled the time to test how far I’d really come. While I still hadn’t quite removed the jump start, I managed 2-3 unassisted chin-up reps before my muscles gave up. Still, work to be done, but I felt proud of how far I’d come in a relatively short space of time. While I’ve learned that there’s no short cut to reaching your fitness goals, I’m confident that with a bit more patience and hard work, I’ll be smashing out 10 reps in a few more months!