In high school, my masochistic P.E. teacher liked to put students through a series of fitness tests every few months to determine our grades. One of these was an isometric chin-up hold in the top position for time. On testing day, as soon as my name was called, the knives came out.
“You won’t last 10 seconds, McLean.”
As I stepped up to the bar, I had a little extra incentive to prove my doubters wrong. I willed myself to a 40-second hold and I even won some admiration from the high school meatheads. From that day forward, chin-ups and pull-ups have never been a problem for me.
Chin-ups and pull-ups are some of the best performance indicators of your relative body strength. They build serious upper body strength and muscle. Furthermore, upper back strength plays a major role in your bench press and keeping a neutral spine when squatting and deadlifting. Let’s not forget about the role chin-ups and pull-ups play in the gun show.
[Related: Elite gymnast Jaime Da Silva teaches 4 move pull-up progression]
Four coaches listed their favorite accessory exercises below to raise your performance on the bar. Pay heed and you’ll be breaking personal bests in no time.
Jason Leenaarts, Coach and Owner of Revefit
When I think about exercises that have a great crossover for improving pull-ups and chin-ups, I love the loaded carry. I’ve demonstrated a trap bar variation below because it’s easy to load heavy and put the work in on several laps.
Trap Bar Carry
Often, when I see clients perform pull-ups, they forget about creating tension in the entire body. The reason for doing so is so that the lower body isn’t flailing around aimlessly, but rather helping you thrust up to the bar (sort of like those lovely kipping pull-ups).
Loaded carries can help create tension, achieve core stability, and work your grip strength. All of these things are necessary whether you want to scale up to your first pull-up or your third set of 12.
Tony Gentilcore, Coach and Owner of CORE
The pull-up/chin-up can be a daunting task to conquer for many. Right up there with climbing Mt. Everest or beating Jason Bourne in a bare-knuckled street fight. Okay, maybe not that daunting.
Whenever I start working with a client who’s interested in performing his or her’s first pull-up/chin-up (or improving performance) I try to instill in them that building context is key, and that there are many things we can do other than just hanging from a bar and flailing around.
First, I prefer to program a hefty barrage of hollow-position holds because it gets the client to recognize just how important full-body tension actually is; but more importantly what it actually feels like. The hollow position is the exact position they should be in when they hang from a bar. So, again, it’s just a nice way to build context.
Hollow Position Hold “Pull-Up”
[Related: Podcast — Tony Gentilcore on what’s really important in strength]
Taking it a step further we can progress the hollow hold by adding in a “pull-up” to build even more context. I like to use this exercise on LOWER body days because, why not?
- It’s an exercise that also strengthens the core, which never sucks.
- Pairing it with squats or deadlifts (reps of 5-8 per set) provides yet another opportunity to groove the pattern further. We’re programmed to think you can only train pull-ups/chin-ups on UPPER body days. I’d make the argument that the best way to get better at them is to train them more frequently and this is a splendid way to do so.
Shane McLean, Owner and Coach of Balance Guy Training
As an older lifter, I cannot train chin ups with the same frequency and intensity without developing elbow issues. Finding other methods to improve strength and numbers without injury is the name of the game. The isometric chin-up hold is a good solution.
Isometric Chin-Up Hold
Isometric holds force you to recruit the rhomboids and lower traps to strengthen the entire upper back as well as improve posture and thoracic spine extension. All of this helps shoulder stability and strengthens the shoulders against injury. Some lifters rely too heavily on their arms to do chin-ups and pull-ups. Holding the top of a chin-up can help with the awareness of which muscles need to be doing the work.
In terms of programming, 3 sets of 30-45 seconds should prove sufficient. Here’s a superset I’ve been doing that has increased my chin-ups by 4 reps.
- Isometric chin-up hold — 30-45 seconds.
- Sand bell/medicine ball slams — 6 reps.
- Rest 2 minutes.
Dr. Bo Babenko, PT, DPT
Controlled articular rotations (CARs) is a fancy way of saying “own all the potential range of motion of any joint“. Today we focus on the four main motions of our shoulder blade (the scapula) — simplified as elevation, depression, retraction, and protraction.
Firstly, I love to utilize this drill so that my client/patient gets a better sense of where they have an imbalance left to right side or difficulty in engaging (or feeling) any of the four motions.
If your bicep curl is strong enough to get you a solid pull-up, then you shouldn’t really have to care about what the rest of you is doing — but if you want shoulder health, you should learn how all the major components of the chin-up AND pull-up to work together. Often times the scapula gets ignored.
By “owning” each of these components, we are significantly helping the motion of the pull-up/chin-up. The scapulae working in synchrony with the rest of the body is a beautiful thing and when you get it all working together, you’ll feel the difference. I like to use these moves as an assessment first and then determine how many of these we need to do off of that.
For programming, I like to do 2 sets of 3 reps per side, both forward and backward, while I superset some passive hanging. This is a great way to “wake the shoulders up” at least 2-3 times per week. Aim to do these in a hanging position — a fantastic way to progress this exercise.
To improve at chin-ups and pull-ups, you’ll need to train them often using different rep ranges in order to build strength and muscle. Including accessory exercises to strengthen your grip, core, and shoulders, as well as will improve your technique, strengthen your weaknesses, and improve your numbers.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from Perno Performance’s YouTube channel.