How to do a Chin Up
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graphic based on a photo by B-M

There are 2 exercises that women say they can’t do.

The first exercise is pushups. When I ask a new client to do a push up, she often looks at me with disbelief, stating that she doesn’t have the strength to do a push up. I’ve dispelled this notion on numerous occasions with a simple progression plan to prove that she (and you) indeed can do a pushup.

The second exercise is a chin up.

I still have memories of grade school humiliation as I tried to just hang from the pull up bar for the Presidential Fitness test, dropping instead like a stone. My female classmates, tiny and delicate, could hang with ease. My chubby body was way too heavy for my weak arms.

The first time I did a chin up was only about 2 years ago. I still can’t do a lot of them, but I practice at least once a week. That is the secret to chin ups – practice. In fact, I often get my clients practicing without even realizing it. Before we even look at a chin up bar, we start with learning to activate the correct muscles.

Most people try to do chin ups with their biceps. The biceps are certainly involved in the process but the prime movers in the chin up are the latissimus dorsi muscles or, in gym speak, the lats. These big, wing like muscles of the back are much stronger than the relatively small biceps. For a big move like a chin up you need big muscles. Use these exercise to help you check the chin up off your fitness bucket list.

  1. Supine Grip Barbell Rows: As with any row, you want to focus on the squeeze of the shoulder blades. The shoulders should be pinching together, like you are trying to squeeze an orange between them. Pair this with…
  2. Prone Military Presses: Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height while prone over a stability ball. Press the dumbbells into the air in front of you, keeping your arms in line with the rest of your body. Return to start slowly and with control.
  3. Body Rows: Body rows are best done on a Smith Machine. Adjust the Smith Machine bar so that, when laying under it and holding on with fully extended arms, you are a couple of inches off the ground. You can start with a fully extended body or with your feet flat under your ankles (think table position). Pull your chest toward the bar, once again focusing on using your back for power and not your arms. As you get stronger you can move the bar farther from the ground.
  4. Assisted Chin ups: If you can’t quite get to the chin up with the Smith Machine progression, grab a large resistance band. Loop it around your bent knees and chin up bar (think a sling around your lower body attached to the bar) to provide assistance while still using mostly your own muscle power.
  5. Chins Ups – Negative Repetions: This is the exercise that finally put me “over the top”. Grip the chin up bar with palms facing you. Jump up so that your chin is over the bar. Hang there as long as possible, then sloooowly lower yourself down. Control your body through the entire movement.

After a lot of practice with negatives, I was finally able to do a chin up. It wasn’t pretty but I was prouder than I was after my first 5K. Another grade school fitness demon conquered.

Can you do a chin up? Do you still have an exercise your still trying to conquer? Tell me, I bet I have a plan!

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