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Improving Chin-Up Performance

For coaches the chin-up is to the upper body what the squat is for the lower body. It is regarded as a primary indicator for athletic performance. Furthermore, a pull-up is a variation of a chin-up, the difference being grip, where a chin-up grip uses a supinated grip (palm of the hand facing you), a semi supinated grip (palm of the hands facing each other), and a pull-up uses a pronated grip (palms of the hands facing away from you).

Illustration showing muscles at work during a chin up

When comparing a chin-up or pull-up to a lat pull-down, the neurological complexity and demands are much greater than that of a pull-down. This is not to say that the lat pull-down is not beneficial, as with any exercise there is a time and a place to use it based on a range of factors, such as but not limited to training age, goal, and phase of training.

The chin-up is a compound exercise utilising multiple muscles and joints, in this way as with all compound exercises if there is a weakness in the chain it will compromise your performance. Therefore, using the principle of structural balance and associated indicators can highlight weaknesses, enabling you to focus your training on these weak points.

If you want to improve your progress, strengthening your weak link(s) will not only aid with performance but also minimise the likelihood of injury. I first learn't about the principle of structural balance through the teachings of Canadian Strength Coach Charles Poliquin in 2012 Charles had collected a plethora of data on his athletes over decades of coaching, and through this data Charles formulated a strength ratio chart, and it are these numbers that I utilise and that are shown here;

Chin-Up Indicators

  • Flat Bi-acromial Press: 100%

  • Supinated Chin Up: 87%

  • Scott Bench EZ Bar Curl (Supinated, Mid Grip): 46%

  • Standing EZ Bar Curl (Pronated, Mid Grip): 35%

  • Flat Powell Raise: 10.6% x 8 reps

  • Uni-lateral External Rotation, Elbow on Knee: 9.8% x 8 reps

Indicators taking body-weight into account

Using an 85kg male as an example and input his numbers into the ratios:

  • Flat Bi-acromial Press: 110kg

  • Supinated Chin Up: 95.7kg

  • Scott Bench EZ Bar Curl (Supinated, Mid Grip): 50.6kg

  • Standing EZ Bar Curl (Pronated, Mid Grip): 38.5kg

  • Flat Powell Raise: 11.66kg x 8 reps

  • Uni-lateral External Rotation, Elbow on Knee: 10.78kg x 8 reps

Knowing these numbers/targets, the 85kg male can test himself to compare where he is in relation to where he should be.

Whichever of the indicator lifts you are furthest away from highlights your biggest weakness. Remember a chain is only as strong as its weakest link so focus on that weakness.

Irrespective of whether you can perform a chin-up or not if you are looking to improve your chin-up performance using these ratios will give you a goal, and target weights to work towards.

Breaking Down the Chin-Up

You can breakdown the chin-up into three parts, the stretched position (bottom, arms extended straight), the mid-point position (middle, arms at 90 degrees), and contracted position (top, chin over the bar). At each position of the chin-up you can associate specific muscle groups to each of these three positions that contribute to the success of that point of the chin-up;

  • Bottom: Elbow flexors i.e. biceps

  • Middle: Lats

  • Top: Scapula retractors

For example, if you are unable to perform a chin up from the dead hang position you are weak at the bottom of the chin-up, indicating a weakness elbow flexors/biceps. As the bottom position is the stretch position of the chin-up it would not only be beneficial to train the biceps but training the biceps in a fully stretched position, for example an incline dumbbell curl using an angle of between 45-60 degree.

By focusing on your specific weaknesses using a progressive periodised 12 to 16 week programme you are guaranteed to see results. Over the course of 12 to 16 weeks not factoring or withstanding body fat I would expect a female or male trainee who could perform 0 reps in week one, to perform between 10 to 12 reps by the end of the programme.

If you are interested in understanding how to programme your training to improve your chin-up performance or any main compound lift, reach out to me and see how I can help you achieve your goal.


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