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How To Get Your First Chin Up

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

How to Nail that first Chin Up

Are you struggling to get that first perfect chin up? Maybe you have one or two but then gas out and can't seem to chain them together. Chin ups are a great measure of relative strength - the strength in relation to your bodyweight. But many people struggle with these. More times than not their answer is to just "do more", so they plug away week after week and end up getting nowhere. The truth is without a system to build the weak points in a chin up, it's going to be very difficult to get anywhere.

Quick Anatomy Review

Before we get into the progressions, let's make sure we're all on the same page with which muscles should be active during the chin up, and how they work together to get your chest to the bar.

Latissimus Dorsi (Lats) - The lats are a large muscle that make up the majority of your back. They originate in many different areas of your body including the spinous processes of the lower six thoracic vertebrae, the scapula, the hip bone, and even some of the ribs. As this muscle moves up along the body, it forms one insertion in the upper aspect of your humerus (arm bone).

With the amount of area this large muscle covers on our bodies, it would make sense that it is in charge of many different functions. In a closed chain exercise like the chin up where our arms are overhead, the Lats pull the body upward. They also have a role in scapular retraction (pulling the shoulder blades back), shoulder extension (pulling your arms behind you), and shoulder internal rotation (rotating the arms toward the body)

Biceps Brachii (Biceps) - Although the Lats are the primary mover in a chin up or pullup, they are by no means the only muscles at work. The biceps are a key synergist (little helper) in chin ups especially as they are in charge of flexing the elbow.

Core Muscles - All the muscles in your core from the spinal erectors to the rectus abdominis act as stabilizers in a chin up. This essentially means that they are in charge of keeping everything still so you don't have energy leaks throughout the movement.

So How Do We Actually Get To Chin Ups?

Nerdy stuff over - now how do we get there? Here are the exact progressions that we use a Verix Athletics to take a client from zero chin-ups to chaining together multiple rep sets.

Dead Hang - Before we can do a chin up, we need the prerequisite grip strength so we can actually hang onto the bar. Dead Hangs are a great starting point before we progress down stream and add in scapular control drills.

Programming example: 2 sets of 20 seconds adding time each week until you can hold for 30 sec straight

Active Hang - Once we eliminate grip as a limiting factor, we need to look at our scapula (shoulder blade). A chin up should be initiated as the scap goes through both downward rotation and depression. The active hang teaches proper positioning.

Programming example: 2 sets of 15 seconds adding time each week until you can hold for 20 sec straight

Scapula Chin Up - Once we can control an active position, it's time to bridge the gap from a dead hang to an active hold. This drill teaches us how to start that transition from the end range of a chin up back into a position where we have leverage

Programming example: 2 sets of 10 reps, adding a set when able. This is a great warmup exercise as well.

Chin Up Iso Holds - Up until this point we've worked a lot in the bottom range. Now we're going to get strong at the top. Like before, we'll start with isometric holds and then add some movement.

Programming example: 2 sets of 10 seconds, adding time each week until we can hold 20-30 seconds. Chest should be touching the bar.

Slow Eccentric Chin Ups - Eccentric work allows us to increase time under tension in a position where we are generally pretty strong.

Programming example: 2 sets of 5 reps w/ 3-5 second eccentric. Goal is to add reps each week until we can do 8-10 reps. Reset after each rep.

Toe Assisted Pull Ups - So we've built the bottom and top positions, let's get some reps in. Use your feet to offload some of your bodyweight. Only use as much assistance as needed. Chest to bar.

Programming example: 3 sets of 8 reps, adding reps each week until you can get 12 reps. Chest should be touching the bar. Hips stay under the bar.

Feet Elevated Pull Ups - While keeping your hips under the bar, elevated your feet to further limit assistance from your lower body. Control the eccentric and make sure everything rep is a quality rep.

Programming example: 2 sets of 6 reps, adding reps/sets each week until You can get 3 sets of 10-12.

Chin Ups (Cluster Sets) - More is not better, BETTER is better. By now the goal is to start doing actual chin ups. Put 1-2 quality reps together, rest 20-30 seconds, then repeat 2-3 times.

Programming example: 3 sets of 10 total reps, increasing the number of reps per cluster. Every rep should be clean.

Chin Ups - You're here! As you get better, keep form the number one priority. From here you add volume via sets and reps. You could even add weight with a belts or bands.


Mastering the chin up is a big deal for a lot of people, and like most things that are truly worth it- it's going to take time and a lot of hard work. If you're struggling to get those chin ups down pat, use these progressions as a tool.

We didn't discuss assistance work in this article, but make sure you're adding some horizontal pulling exercises like rows and upper back work into your program.

Interested in working with a member of the team? Book your Free Consultation today and see if coaching is a good fit for you.

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