I believe chin ups are a fantastic exercise for upper body and back strength. But I also feel they are vastly underrated. When most guys in the gym train their back they are thinking of endless lat pull downs or some kind of cable machine. When they do do chin ups its usually a measly few half reps throw randomly in the middle of their workout. This is a shame. Chin ups and pull ups are fantastic for size and strength and even have benefits for other lifts such as the deadlift.
It would seem a lot of very strong dead lifters agree with this. Andy Bolton pushes his pull ups and busts out sets of 6 with 50kg of added weight while weighing around 160kg of bodyweight. And check out this video of Konstantin Konstantinov.
I know he's kipping the shit out of them and all the cross fitters will jiz in their pants but since he weighs 122kg its quite some feat.
The problem with chin ups is most guys suck at them and simply busting about some half assed half reps in your workout is not the way forward.
So how do you go about improving your chin up numbers?
The first thing you need to do is to get yourself a doorway pull up bar. You can get either the telescopic type or a hanging type which relies on leverage. I used to have a telescopic one although I found it did damage to the doorway so got rid of it. I now have a leverage one but it feels less secure than my old one.
Either should work fine but if you weigh more than about 100kg I would advise against a doorway bar as will struggle to find one strong and study enough for your weight. If that's the case you are going to have to rig up a more sturdy setup.
Should you perform pull ups or chin ups? I prefer chins. They are a more compound exercise using more overall musculature which let's you do more reps or more weight than pull ups. I think it is best to stick with chins to begin with before changing to pull ups when things get stale. I kind of see these two like back and front squats. Back squats let you lift more weight and will always be a main lift. Front squats are a great variation but can't beat the back squats for overall strength and muscle.
I believe the best way to increase your chin up numbers at a basic level is by using a method known as grease the groove. This will work to take you anywhere from 2 reps to 20. It is not a method on how to achieve a chin up if you can't do a single rep. If that's the case just do a bunch of lat pull downs and rows and lose some weight.
Grease the groove is probably the most retardedly named strength training method ever. It consists of performing multiply sets of sub maximal sets throughout the day. You stay well away from failure and treat strength as though it were a skill. If you had to perform a task which involves a lot of skill then it would be best to practise it when you are fresh as fatigue would interfere with performing that skill correctly. If you've just run a marathon how easy is it to then play the piano? Grease the groove works by improving the efficiency of your nervous system. It works by grooving the motor neutrons responsible for the pull up movement and coordinated muscular contractions involved. When a motor pathway is continually used the myelin sheath which covers the motor neutrons becomes thicker. This means that the speed and efficiency of those motor neutrons improves. This process occurs when learning any skill whether that be doing a chin up or learning to juggle.
So how do we go about getting some serious myelin mass gains on our chin up pathway? Perform multiply sub maximal sets of chin ups though out the day. Each set should be around 50-70% of your Max ability. So if you do 10 chin ups then doing sets of 5-7 reps of chin throughout the day will work well. I would suggest aiming for about 5-8 sets a day with at least 30mins between each set. You want to avoid failure at all costs (as this doesn't improve efficiency of the motor pathways) and avoid fatigue. A good way of doing them is to just do a set every hour on the hour until you have finished your days sets. Obviously you will have to work these in around your job, school, gym etc. One set before work, one set when you come home, two sets at the gym, one set before dinner. One set before bed you get the idea just get the sets in and keep to the principles of grease the groove.
You can do these sets everyday it doesn't matter if you are sore and don't worry about over training on these.
If you are only strong enough to perform a single rep then just do sets of singles until your strength improves.
An alternative to the multiply set approach is to just do one set of Max reps everyday and stop one rep before failure. I did this and went from 5 reps to 15 in a short period of time. I would avoid failure but found my daily Max reps increasing rep by rep. Some days it would be more or less reps than before but if you keep going your numbers will improve.
If you want to learn about grease the groove in more detail check out Pavel Tsatsouline's not bad but overpriced book The Naked Warrior. Also for some interesting info about the
the importance of myelin, and how skills and champions are developed check out the Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.
Once you have reached 12-15 chin ups I believe it is time to start adding weight to them. Weighted chins seem to be used even less than bodyweight chin ups from gum goers and even serious lifters. Think about it when was the last time you saw someone in the gym busting out full range of motion chin ups with a pile of weight hanging from them? Weighted chins are even better for back size and strength than the bodyweight only version. I don't know why it is chins are always seen as some assistance bullshit for serious lifters rather than as a serious strength exercise. This may be due to the fact that a lot of big fat guys with huge benches suck at chin ups and that back training is always secondary to arms and chest despite how much your shoulders might complain about it.
So when you are ready to start adding weight to your chins you should treat them like any other serious strength exercise. A great rep scheme to start is the classic 5x5 with progressive overload. Start with just a 2.5kg plate attached to you and then treat them exactly like you would squats or benches and start adding weight progressively every workout. No need to continue with the grease the groove stuff at this point you want to treat the chins like a regular strength exercise and cut out the extra volume. You will want to make small jumps with weighted chins 2.5kg or even 1.25kg every work will well. Train them once or twice a week in your regular strength sessions and give them just as much effort and emphasise you do to squats and benches. If you start to stall out on weighted chins with 5x5 then simple reduce the volume such as to 3x5 or change the rep scheme to something different such as 3x3
What if you are a really big guy who is just too big and muscular to be able to chin ups? If you can't do a chin up you are either fat or weak. It doesn't matter how much you bench if you can't do a chin up you are weak. I can do 4 reps in the chin up with 50kg at 82kg bodyweight. So a 132kg guy should be able to do at least 4 reps with their bodyweight. And did see the video of KK? Or read what I wrote about Andy Bolton. Being big is no excuse strong is strong and weak is weak.
And by the way the world record in the weighted pull up (couldn't find chin up) is 206lbs. Held by Steven Proto. Lest you think this guy probably weighs 110lbs he actually weigh in at 200lbs of bodyweight. That means he's doing a pull up with a combined weight of over 400lbs!
Here's his video of his old record:
Also check out a short interview by him here.
Weighted chin ups really are a fantastic and underrated exercise, train them hard. Now go get some lats and get out there defying gravity!