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A Full Guide To Progressing With Chin-ups

Chin-ups are a great upper-back exercise. You know it, and I’m not going to waffle on with an unnecessary paragraph explaining why. They’re hard, which is why most gym bros avoid doing them, well, at least with anything approaching good form. Most people stay the hell away from them and stick to the lat-pulldown machine instead. Their loss, don’t make it yours. Here’s what this article covers:

  • A guide to adjusting resistance to optimise the training effect.
  • A full progression guide from rank beginner through to advanced trainee.
  • Chin-ups vs pull-ups – which you should do and when.
  • Common technique mistakes and considerations for long-term joint health.

How to Make Chin-ups Easier and Harder

The principles with chin-ups are the same as with any other exercise – you need to have the right difficulty level to get the right training effect. With most exercises this means more or less weight on the barbell, but with chin-ups it means adding weight to your body or taking it away. This is a little more involved but can easily be achieved.

Adding Weight

The easiest way to add weight is by using a belt, attaching a strong chain and then threading weight plates through it. If you have a thick link chain then you don’t even need to have a belt. It will be a little uncomfortable at first (like front squats are) but then you just get used to it.

The shorter you make the chain; the better, as it stops the plates swinging around when you are getting into position. Just be careful not to make it so short that it crushes your balls  – this will happen if you start raising your legs in an attempt to make the exercise easier, and you’ll make this mistake only once.

Weighted Chin-ups - Keep the chain short if possible but watch your nuts.
Weighted Chin-ups – Keep the chain short if possible but watch your nuts.

A weighted vest will work equally well, but few gyms have them and they are impractical to carry around. Clamping a dumbbell between your feet is only a temporary solution as the weight will slip as you get stronger and the amount needed gets heavier. When traveling, a fully waterproof daypack backpack can be filled with water and is a great option for those that want to train when they travel for extended periods.

Taking Weight Away

The best way to take weight away is to use resistance bands. They are not available in many gyms and they are more expensive than they look like they should be, however, for $50-100 you can get a good set that will last you a lifetime and will be useful in other areas – the most immediately applicable way being band-resisted pushups for example.

The drawback with bands-assisted chin-ups is that they give us the least help at the toughest part of the chin-up action – the very top position. We have a workaround for that discussed in the progression example below.

Resistance Bands - A Useful Tool Aid Full Chin-ups and Make Push ups Harder
Resistance Bands – A Useful Tool Aid Full Chin-ups and Make Push ups Harder

Here’s a quick showing how to use resistance bands. Note, the video explanation shows them done by looping around the knee. Equally, you can do two knees (which will make it slightly easier as the band stretches more), one straight leg (even easier) and two straight legs (even easier). In this way you can get differing levels of resistance from one band. (My man Tony Gentilcore has an example video showing this here)

Some gyms will have a machine called a graviton (pictured below) which has a pad that supports your knees and makes the chin-up action easier. This is a good machine and makes it easier to target incremental resistance changes on working your way to bodyweight chin-ups. However, I still prefer the chin-up bar with bands. Why? Because people work a lot harder and progress quicker when faced with a bar – it’s more immediately and obviously rewarding when you can finally get one, plus if you’re in a public gym there is social pressure to perform.

Put people on a graviton and they just tend to stay stuck there using it as a crutch for longer. The same applies to people that use the lat-pulldown machine (with an underhand grip). We’ll take advantage of this psychology in our progression recommendations below.

Gravitron Chins
The Graviton

How To Progress With Chin-ups

There is no single set-rep pattern that is best here, but here’s what I recommend:

  • People that can get more than 8 bodyweight reps in a single set – use the Reverse Pyramid Training (RPT) principles. The total number of reps used per set is higher, which is more joint friendly. This is an important consideration as you start adding more and more weight.
  • People that can’t yet get 8 bodyweight reps in a single set, do 5 sets of 5. The lower number of reps to target per set gives a greater sense of achievement.

First, let’s use an example with RPT as that’s going to be more applicable to most readers. If anything doesn’t make sense, have a quick read of the RPT principles (section: ‘How to Progress‘).

RPT Progression Example

Do this if you can get more than 8 bodyweight reps for a single set.

Progression rules: We’ll do three sets. The rep targets are 6-8 reps, 8-10 reps, and 10-12 reps for the three sets respectively. You progress by increasing the number of reps, or the total weight lifted. Let’s say we have three kinds of resistance bands available (light, medium and strong) and a chain with some weight plates. BW denotes bodyweight.

(This is a progression example helping to show and explain how one might apply these rules.)

  • Session 1: 8 x BW6 x BW, 10 x BW + strong band.

Set 1 you got 8 reps – the top of the rep range target. Increase the load slightly for the next session.
Set 2 you were well under the 8 rep minimum target. – Use a light band next time.
Set 3 you were at the bottom of the rep target range. You’re fine. No need to change.

  • Session 2: 7 x BW+2.5lbs, 9 x BW + light band, 12 x BW + strong band.

Set 1 you are in the middle of the target rep range. No change to the loading next time, see if you can get 8 reps next time.
Set 2 you are fine. No change next time. See if you can get 10 reps next time.
Set 3 three you hit the top of your target rep range. Well done. Progress to the medium band the next time and see if you can get 10 or more reps.

  • Session 3: 9 x BW+2.5lbs, 10 x BW + light band, 10xBW + medium band.

Set 1 you got 9 reps. That’s more than your target. Excellent. Increase the weight next time.
Set 2 you got 10 reps. The top of your rep range target. Try a set with just bodyweight for next time.
Set 3 you got 10 reps. No change next time.

  • Session 4: 6 x BW+5lbs, 8 x BW, 12 x BW + medium band.
  • Session 5: 8 x BW+5lbs, 9 x BW, 10 x BW + light band.
  • Session 6: 5 x BW + 10lbs, 8 x BW, 11 x BW + light band

You got greedy and increased the weight too quickly. This also affected your second set. Drop down to 7.5lbs next session.

  • Session 7: 6 x BW + 7.5lbs, 10 x BW, 10 x BW + light band
  • Session 8: 7 x BW + 7.5lbs, 8 x BW + 2.5lbs, 12 x BW + light band
  • Session 9: 5 x BW + 7.5lbs, 4 x BW + 2.5lbs, 6x BW

You spend the weekend partying, slept like shit, ate crap and your vision was blurry going into the gym. Ignore this bad session and carry on as normal next time.

  • Session 10: 8 x BW + 7.5lbs, 9 x BW + 2.5lbs, 10 x BW

Congratulations, you can now do at least 27 bodyweight chin-ups, when previously you could only do 14 before needing assistance. Excellent work.

But what if I don’t have a belt and chain to add weight?

Buy one. Go to a hardware store and get a thick chain and climbing carabiner. A thicker chain is more expensive but digs into your skin less. Or get a belt too and that solves the problem.

But what if I’m not strong enough to get a single, perfect chin-up?

…yet, but you will be able to though in time. We’re going to do eccentric only chin-ups. Firstly, train using the bands. After you finish that, rest for two minutes and go over to the chin-up bar. Jump up grab hold in the top position and fight gravity for as long as you can on your way down. Do this for a maximum of 30 seconds or 5 reps, whichever is less. These are called eccentric chin-ups. As you get stronger you’ll do less and less reps in those 30 seconds. Keep repeating this and it won’t be long before you become able to do a full chin-up. We’ve got this covered in the 5×5 Progression Example box below.

5×5 Progression Example

Do this if you can’t get more than 8 bodyweight reps for a single set.

Progression rules: We will do 5 sets of 5 reps. The first set will start with as many bodyweight reps as we can, we’ll then use a band to assist to finish the set. We will finish with one set of eccentric chin-ups to train the top of the action.

We do no more than the number of reps required for the set, even if we can do more. Three kinds of resistance bands available (light, medium and strong). BW denotes bodyweight.

(This is a progression example helping to show and explain how one might apply these rules.)

In this example you can currently perform no full range chin-ups, but you can get half a rep. That is about to change.

  • Session 1: 0xBW, 5 x medium band, 5 x medium, 5 x medium, 5 x strong, 5 x strong. Eccentric chin-up set.
  • Session 2: 0xBW, 5 x light, 5 x medium, 5 x medium, 5 x medium, 5 x strong. Eccentric chin-up set.
  • Session 3: 1xBW 4 x light, 5 x medium, 5 x medium, 5 x medium, 5 x medium. Eccentric chin-up set.
  • Session 4: 2xBW 3 x light, 5 x light, 5 x light, 5 x medium, 5 x medium. Eccentric chin-up set.
  • Session 5: 3xBW 2 x light, 5 x light, 5 x light, 5 x light, 5 x medium. Eccentric chin-up set.
  • Session 6: 5xBW, 5 x light, 5 x light, 5 x light, 5 x medium.

^ Once you can get 5 bodyweight chins the eccentric chin-up set is probably no longer necessary and can be dropped.

  • Session 9: 5xBW, 3xBW 2 x light, 5 x light, 5 x light, 5 x light.
  • Session 10: 5xBW, 5xBW, 5 x light, 5 x light, 5 x light.
  • ….
  • Session 13: 5xBW, 5xBW, 2xBW 3x light, 5 x light, 5 x light.

You’re now capable of doing 12 bodyweight reps and are probably able to perform 8 consecutive reps in a single set. Test yourself at the next session. Get 12? Congratulations. This is something that most of the population can’t do.

Time to move onto the RPT progression method and start adding weight. Woo!

Notes on Training Chin-ups

1. Don’t forget to account for the changes in your body weight. Weigh yourself before doing chins if possible. This saves you from worrying about a lost rep or two because of a bodyweight fluctuation.

2. Chin-ups are harder to recover from between sets than other movements. This means your performance on subsequent sets goes down a lot more than on other exercises. (e.g. 1st set: 10 reps, 2nd set: 6 reps, 3rd set: 3 reps) So, if you’ve been doing RPT for your chin-ups and wondering why this happened and whether you are normal – now you know. Always adjust sets independently of each other.

3. Push-pull strength balance is good when your Bench 1RM and Chin-up 1RM are around the same level. This is something I’ve seen coaches Martin Berkhan and Naoki Kawamori conclude independently of each other. Certainly makes sense as a general rule of thumb to me.

I can’t say I’ve ever heard of people having shoulder issues because of an exceptionally strong back, but if your chest is a lot stronger then you need to work to correct it. One look around most gyms and you’ll see that for many people, every day is chest and arm day. That’s a mistake. Get on a balanced training routine (recommendations) and start taking the back work seriously (deadlifts, chin-ups, rows, etc., when included in your routine). This means putting as much focus and effort into those sets as you do your chest work, if not more. Put your phone down, Facebook can come later.

But what if I don’t have any resistance bands and don’t want to buy them?

Option 1: Lat pulldown use. After that first bodyweight attempt, move to the lat-pull down machine and do 3 sets of 8-10 with your plams facing you like with a chin-up. (Or use the Graviton if you have one).

Option 2: Use Bodyweight only. See the grey box.

Bodyweight Only Progression Example

My Idea

Target a rep total for a session, then do as many sets as it takes to do that. If your target total is 15 reps then that might be 5,4,2,2,1,1 for example the first session, then 5,5,3,2 the next session, then 7,5,3 the following. When you can get your target number of reps all within… let’s say 3 sets, you can look to increase the total reps targeted (to say 17) and then work until you can get all the reps within three sets. From there you increase the total targeted number of reps again (to 19 perhaps).

Naoki’s Variation

  1. Check how many reps you can do in your 1st set. Let’s say you get 7.
  2. Start with 2 reps less in your 1st set. (This takes into consideration point 2 in the notes and stops people’s technique from going to complete shit on subsequent sets.)

If you’re doing 5 sets the progression will look like this:

  • Week 1 – 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
  • Week 2 – 5, 4, 3, 2, 2
  • Week 3 – 5, 4, 3, 3, 2
  • Week 4 – 5, 4, 4, 3, 2
  • Week 5 – 5, 5, 4, 3, 2
  • Week 6 – 6, 5, 4, 3, 2
  • Week 7 – 6, 5, 4, 3, 3
  • Week 8 – 6, 5, 4, 4, 3
  • Week 9 – 6, 5, 5, 4, 3
  • Week 10 – 6, 6, 5, 4, 3
  • Week 11 – 7, 6, 5, 4, 3
  • Week 12 – 7, 6, 5, 4, 4

The only issue with bodyweight only progressions is that we don’t take into account fluctuations / changes in bodyweight. Might be worth jumping on the scale before you do them if possible.


Good Chin-up Technique

Good chin-up technique is going to look like this:

Key Points On Good Technique:

  1. Perform smooth reps. (No kipping. Kipping = cheating. – Did you get stronger or just better at swinging yourself up and looking like a plonker in the process? Bonus: Add weight to your kipping chin-ups to fast track your way to needing shoulder surgery.)
  2. The arms should be straight at the start of each rep but not a dead hang. Keep your shoulders in their sockets. To illustrate what I mean, put your arms straight above your head right now. Ok, shrug up as high as you can.  Now shrug down. We don’t want our shoulders loose in that shrugged up position, especially when you have a lot of weight swinging from your crotch later on. It’s the ‘down’ position with the shoulders ‘packed’ that we want to keep throughout the set. When people say “dead hang”, what they actually mean is arms straight, not an actual dead hang.
  3. Use a shoulder-width grip or slightly narrower.
  4. The finish position is where your chin goes over the bar, elbows brought down to touch your side but not past it. Your chest may touch the bar depending on limb proportions, but that is not a defining factor of a full rep. More on this in Eric Cressey’s video below.
  5. Keep your glutes and abs tight. Tuck your neck, and do not cheat by craning your neck upwards as the reps get harder. You’re probably going to do it without realising it, don’t.
  6. No half reps. When you can no longer get a full rep, the set is over.

Tips for Shoulder Health:

  • Vary your grip style to keep the joints healthy Consider rotating between grip variations every couple of months. Narrow-grip chin-ups  > shoulder-width chin-ups > neutral grip shoulder width > shoulder width pull-ups > wide grip pull-ups > ring chin-ups.  (Order of increasing difficulty.) Needless to say, if one particular grip style feels uncomfortable, don’t do it.
  • Avoid extreme grips positions (super-narrow or super-wide) – you’ll only knacker your joints. (And yes, you might not feel any pain at the time, that will come down the road.) – One hand space inside of a shoulder width grip for each hand is what I’d consider narrow (suitable only for chin-ups), one hand space outside of shoulder width grip for each hand is what I’d consider wide (suitable only for pull-ups). Greater than this and you don’t really get extra benefit, but you do put your joints at risk. The reason you see very wide-grip pull-ups in magazines is because it displays the lat spread better and looks cooler.

Chin-up Progression FAQ

Chin-ups or Pull-ups – which are better?

Chin-ups are where the palms are facing you. Pull-ups are where the palms face away from you.

Chin-ups work the biceps slightly harder, pull-ups work the lats slightly harder. But people get themselves into a pickle when they start worrying about the difference and miss the bigger picture.

Total muscle activation is similar for both chin-ups and pull-ups, when performed properly. That means a full range of motion as discussed above. However, most people can’t perform pull-ups for reps with anything approaching a proper range of motion – they’re harder and this leads to half reps.

Full-range, smooth rep chin-ups will develop your lats far better than partial-rep, shitty pull-ups. Cheat on your form and you only cheat yourself.

Beginners should stick with chin-ups. Intermediates are free to choose, however, you’re probably best to rotate your grip style over 2-3 month blocks for elbow health. This means periods where you’ll do chin-up variations and periods where you’ll do pull-up variations.

Where can I buy those resistance bands?

I bought mine here (medium) because that’s where Eric Cressey recommended I get them when asked, and I trust him. There may be slightly cheaper places but beware of anything way cheaper – rubber isn’t cheap and that probably signals an inferior product.

*******

Thanks for reading.
Questions welcomed in the comments as always. – Andy.


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Rachel
Rachel

Hello,
For the folks using the 5×5 BW/band assist program, how much rest are you factoring between sessions? Is this daily or 24hrs rest between, etc.
Thank you in advance.

Cheers:)

Aazib
Aazib

Great article Andy… Looks like I have found my session spot in progression module. Can currently perform 3 full fledged chin ups now. Should I start with session 1 or from where I can match the actual bodyweight reps that I can do independent of any assistance. Also what do you recommend to be ideal resting time between interval sessions and then between session themselves…. Considering that I have to appear in a test around same time next month with minimum qualifying standard of 6 chin ups at least. I am working on reducing the weight reduction aspect of that already. Thanks
Aazib

Aazib
Aazib

Thanks Andy, but is it recommended to do a session daily, or you recommend a recovery time more than a day. Since these are the only exercises I am doing, apart from legs and back.
Sorry for being crude in first part… Got my answer from earlier questions though. Thanks again.
Aazib

Stephen
Stephen

Should we be going for max reps in all sets? Also, I can do 10 bw pull ups in my first set, 7 in 2nd, and 5 in 3rd. Can I start adding weight?

Stephen
Stephen

No bands 🙁

Stephen
Stephen

Are neutral grip pull ups ok?

Kevin Guzda
Kevin Guzda

Hello Andy, I do the GSLP program and workout two to three x per week. It consists of just basic compound lifts. I’m really focusing on getting my first unassisted chin up. I have an assistance band set and I have gotten a lot stronger with eccentric chin ups. I’m doing between 3-6 negatives with a 10-15 second eccentric lowering twice a week. Also within my two to three lifting sssions I’m doing inverted bodyweight rows/chins. I’m confused on how to incorporate it all (bands and negatives) in a weekly cohesive and progressive manner? Sort of have paralysis by analysis right now, please help!

Adnan
Adnan

Hi Andy
Since I saw this article I have progressed to 8,8,8,6 with bw using the body weight only progression. I seem to been stuck here. Have recently bought bands. So now will use the band progession. Aim to get 10 reps for 4 sets with be hopefully.
Thanks.

Jonathan
Jonathan

Hi Andy!

How should I integrate this progression with the Novice Bodybuilding Program?

The Novice Bodybuilding Program has 2 sets of 8 reps for vertical pulls. When starting out on that, should I use a band the whole way through both sets so I can stick to 2×8 (7-8 RPE), or should I start with bodyweight and then use bands to complete the set, or should I do the 5×5 progression example above?

Thanks for the great article!

Apologies if this question has already been asked—comments stopped loading at #49.

Sam
Sam

Thanks for this Andy, it’s a really comprehensive guide.

I just went and gave it a go in the park, and I am following the 5×5 progression example.

It went like this:

Session 1: 1xBW, 5 x medium band, 3 x medium (failure), 1 x medium (failure), 5 x strong, 3 x strong (failure). Eccentric chin-up set.

I set up all the bands at once, so when I couldn’t finish a set I went and finished on a band which offered more assistance.

I’ll be keeping a notebook of my performance, but I was wondering should I always be aiming to complete 5 full pull ups and adjust the set accordingly. For example when I try this again in a couple of days I could set up like this to give myself the best chance of completing it:

Session 2: 1xBW, 5 x medium band, 5 x medium, 5 x strong , 5 x strong, 5 x strong. Eccentric chin-up set.

If you have advice on what to do when a set can’t be completed that would be really helpful.

Thanks again for this guide!

Sam
Sam

Thanks. Hit 5 BW pull ups today, will keep going of course! Really great guide.

Tymtam
Tymtam

Hi Andy, thank you for an awesome guide.

I wonder if you could comment on doing chins throughout the day – I’m sure you’ve heard about the advice/programs where you do a rep (or few) every time you pass by/under your bar.
Does it help or hinder progress (I understand that progress can mean strength, size, or endurance).

Thanks
Tymek

Anubis Lockward
Anubis Lockward

Hmm…I try to hit 60 reps total and I do as many sets as I need to accomplish that, the goal is to try to do the 60 reps in less sets each session, until I can do 3 sets of 20 reps with Body Weight. (someday, hopefully)…is that too much? I do that for the chin-ups and pull-ups. I do that to gain enough strength doing them to start adding weight, I don’t want to start adding weight if I can’t do the exercise properly since I feel that’d be counter productive. I can do say, 1st set 10 reps, 2nd set 9 reps, 3rd 8 or 7 reps and so on, but I still can’t do 15 reps on my first set.

Also, I do pull-ups on mondays, after my deadlifts, and I do chin-ups on fridays after my squats, is that ok? because I see that you suggest alternating exercises every two or three months.

maestro
maestro

so no need fancy periodization schemes? also whata bout grease the groove method?

Christian
Christian

Andy, thanks for the outstanding information on your site. I’ve been progressing with my chin-ups and today, for the first time in my life, I got 5×5, all reps, no assistance….moving on to the RPT chin up progression now. Thanks for the knowledge and motivation! I owe you a beer in Japan.
-Christian

Matthew
Matthew

Hi Andy, congratulations for your articles, little to say they are a great inspiration for me. I’ve been following the Stronglifts 5×5 program for a couple of months and I’d like to add pullups/chinups starting with resistance bands until I’m strong enough to do body weight reps only. Although pull/chin aren’t in the SL5x5 core program they can be added as optional assistance exercise at the end of day B. The SL author says to do 3×10 with bands until I can do 25 reps total and then switch to BW only and then eventually to weighted reps. What do you think of this 3×10 approach compared to say, a 5×5 kind of progression as you described in this great article, considering it’s to be viewed as “assistance exercise”. Thank you very much. Keep up the great work.

Lydia Thompson
Lydia Thompson

Hi,

Thanks for this. I have been looking for a way to progress chin-ups for a beginner…I can currently do 2-3 chi-ups but it is hard to find program that target someone at my level. My question is. How many times per week should you do chin-ups. I have heard everything from do chins every day to only do them every 4-5 days. I should note that I am a 55 yr. old woman so not exactly your core audience! Thanks!

Kai
Kai

Hey it’s Kai,

asked in May for advice on progressing with chin ups from obese to shreds. Started at 238, now I’m at 194. Chin ups are progressing well, but couldn’t obtain full 44 lbs. Just 27,5.

Looking forward to add the remaining 14 lbs in til end of cut. Realistic though? The overall trend is positive: I’m progressing faster now. Whysoever..

Just wanted to share my experience on progression from obese to shreds.

raine
raine

Hi Andy, I haven’t seen you talk about micro loading (did a quick search with google).

Generally speaking, and as an example, is it better to jump from 15kg to 16.25kg and climb from 8 to 10 reps (assuming reps drop 2 when increasing) over a few weeks of time, or increase the load in even smaller increments and try to stick to 10 reps as closely as possible? I’d guess micro loading in this way would also make reaching failure less likely.

Curious to hear your opinion on this. Cheers!

raine
raine

For what purpose in RPT you increase the reps as well, instead of simply lowering the weight and aim for say, 8/8/8?

In some programs I’ve also seen people recommend, they do 8/7/6 but decrease the weight.

George
George

Hi Andy

I suppose I’m at the “advanced” level with regards pullups.

Every month I perform a “Max Rep Set” session of weighted pullups where I attach 40, 30, 20 & 10 kg (my weight is 65kg) with a 10 minute recovery between sets

I seem to have plateaued at 4,7,13 & 18 reps for the respective weights.

Do you think I’ve reached my limit, or have you any suggestions for increasing these reps?

Cheers

EricB
EricB

When you say, in the 5×5 progression example: “You’re now capable of doing 12 bodyweight reps and are probably able to perform 8 consecutive reps in a single set.” Are there any formula or rules of thumb to this? There are one rep max calculators and discussions around aplenty, but nothing about how any basic set x rep scheme equates to a single all-out set.

Only somewhat related to chinups specifically, but its something I’ve been pondering and now found any sources discussing it. Changing up from a RPT to a straight-across sets workout has me struggling to equate the two…

Thanks,
Eric

Kai
Kai

Hello Andy,

this is the response on your last comment answering my questions…
You said “[…] stronger by then.” Stronger than now, would mean to me that I’m able to do more than the mentioned
extra weight, or do you mean that im relatively stronger, relatively to my bodyweight? Nevertheless I rely on your recommendation and will try to get to 8 reps. Maybe I can save some force gained until now..

Thanks in advance, hope you’ll have a great weekend.

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