Chin-Up Progressions for Women (The One Rep Hump) – Part I

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I’ve noted in the past that, outside of maybe a handful (who are working their tails off to get there), every female client that trains at Cressey Performance (above the age of 16) can do a real, dead start, arms fully extended, sternum to the bar, non-spastic looking, legit chin-up.  Usually for multiple reps.

In recent months it’s been almost epidemic. Seemingly every female client is on a mission to conquer the chin-up, and the fruits of their labor are blossoming like never before with teenage girls as well as 50+ year old women – some of which who have been training for more than half their life – achieving something that they never thought possible.

You see, they had always been told by friends, family, the bulk of women’s magazines (or more than likely, told themselves) that they could never, not in a million years, do an actual chin-up.

Oh no you didn’t!!!!!!!!

As you can imagine, I think that’s a bunch of silly talk, and nothing is more satisfying than proving each and every one of them that they’re flat out wrong.

Truth be told, it’s amazing what can happen when you cut through the BS, stop making excuses, hold people accountable, and place them in a training environment that doesn’t cater to their fears.

That latter point is something that really bugs me sometimes.  How often have you heard a woman say she’d really love to perform a chin-up, and then her trainer points her in the direction of one of those counterbalanced chin-up apparatuses, or worse, the seated lat pulldown machine.

Full disclosure:  I’m not entirely opposed to those machines.  There’s a time and place for them, just as there’s a time and place for a leg press (hahahahahahaaha.  Just kidding).

But in all seriousness, if I’m starting with someone who’s woefully weak – to the point where gripping a bar and holding their body weight is too challenging – and relatively inexperienced in the weight room, I have no issues whatsoever introducing them to exercises like lat pulldowns or counterbalanced chin-up/pull-up variations to help build strength within that movement pattern and “grease” proper technique:

  • Keep chin tucked
  • Pull through the elbows
  • Keep shoulder blades together and down (retracted and depressed).  Another cue I like here is to keep the shoulder blades in the back pocket.  This helps prevent any shrugging.
  • Finish at the sternum and squeeze!
  • Lower controlled, and come juuuuuuuuuuust short of locking the elbows outs (maintain tension).
  • Repeat and when done, cue Goose and Maverick high five.

Moving forward however, if you want to get more proficient with chin-ups (or pull-ups) it stands to reason that, eventually, you need to gravitate towards the actual chin-up/pull-up bar.  And, if I am to speak frankly, I really feel that utilizing the lat pulldown and counterbalanced machines, exclusively, is just putting a band-aid over an obvious strength issue, if not something more relevant altogether.

To me, serving as the umbrella of all of this – and certainly not to be understated – is the mentality that a vast majority of woman carry heading into such a task.

That they just can’t do a chin-up. Period.

STOP THIS!!!!

It’s counterproductive and all the negative self talk isn’t going to help matters.

[Takes deep breath]

I tried to figure out a way to say what I’m about to say in a more PC fashion, and after fiddling with a few different sentences, talking it over with several other females, and letting my thoughts stew for a few days, I just decided to go with it.  Here it is:

If you have the ability to grow a human being inside your body and push it out, you undoubtedly have the ability to bang out a chin-up.  And might I add:  in MUCH less time than nine months.

Understandably, I recognize how the statement above may rub some the wrong way (but hopefully most of the people reading “get” the context) – but it’s high time we stop making excuses and stop sugar coating things. Quit with the excuses.

That said, what follows are some of the exercises (and progressions) we like to use at Cressey Performance with many of our female clients to help them get over that 1-rep hump……….

TRX Progressions

Giving credit where credit is due, I actually “stole” these from Ottawa based strength coach Elsbeth Vaino, after a distance coaching client of mine directed me in her direction.  I thought these progressions were brilliant and rather than reinvent the wheel, I thought I’d pass them along and share them with you.

A few things to note beforehand:

1.  Before attempting these, it’s assumed that you can perform a regular TRX inverted row flawlessly.  If not, please don’t try these as it’s probably not going to look pretty.

2.  There’s a bit of trial and error involved in setting up the apparatus as you have to wrap the TRX around the bar in order to get the handles at the proper height.

3.  In the videos, I realize that Whitney is using more of a neutral grip rather than a standard supinated (underhand) grip while demonstrating the exercises.  It’s okay, I understand the difference between a chin-up and pull-up, so for those who were inevitably going to get their panties all up in a bunch and call me out……..relax.  I called myself out.  So there!

TRX Chin-Up Progression I

The main point to highlight here, is that Whitney is starting from her knees and then pulling herself up while using her feet to kinda “assist” herself up towards her chest. I don’t mind a little bit of “rocking” at the bottom as all I’m really concerned about here is grooving a more vertical pattern which carries over very well to the actual chin-up.

All the same rules apply in terms of proper technique:  shoulder blades in the back pocket, pull through the elbows, keep the chin tucked, control the eccentric (lowering) portion of the lift, increase your general level of awesomeness.

From there, we can progress the exercise into a more seated variation.

TRX Chin-Up Progression II

This does two things:

1.  Increases the range of motion.

2.  Forces Whitney to pull more of her own body weight.

Still, the objective is to grease more of a vertical pulling pattern, which can’t necessarily be down with a conventional inverted row.

TRX Chin-Up Progression III

Kicking it up a notch, we can then elevate Whitney’s feet onto a box (or stepper) and increase the ROM even further.

Simple, albeit very effective.

Among much else, these variations serve as an awesome way to get the ball rolling and to help better prepare the trainee for pulling her own body weight rather than relying on a machine to do so for her.

Of course, there are numerous other progressions (and even regressions) I like to implement, such as  band assisted variations as well as eccentric only variations, but those will have to wait until next week when I dive into part II.

Till then, feel free to share your thoughts below and offer your own insight into the matter.  I’d love to hear them!

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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  • Dan

    Tony, Love the progression! I’ve been using mostly eccentrics/band assisted chins with my female clients, but this looks like an awesome addition.  Thanks for sharing.

    • Anonymous

      Totally – let me know how it goes!

  • Mike A.

    TG, great stuff. Progressions II and III are going to come in really handy with a few of my clients.

  • Lisa V.

    “f you have the ability to grow a human being inside your body and push it out, you undoubtedly have the ability to bang out a chin-up.  And might I add:  in MUCH less time than nine months.”

    CLASSIC!  So glad you included this line, I am sharing that with others.  

    Love the TRX progressions, definitely can use these with my clients.  

    • Anonymous

      HAHA. Well, if there was anyone who I felt would appreciate that line, it was you. I just hope there aren’t too many who take it out of context.

    • Barb

      It took me about 8 months!

      • TonyGentilcore

        NIce Barb! Well done!

  • Barath

    The third progression video seems to me to be an exercise in its own right. She mimics the initial movement of the pull-up finishing with a little hip-thrust. A weighted version of progression III with an exaggerated hip-thrust might be kinda cool for even those that can do pull ups – any thoughts?

    Oh, also regarding leg-presses, have you unfriended Dean Somerset yet? :):)

    • Anonymous

      Jim “Smitty” Smith showed me a similar movement when I visited him while I was home for Christmas. He called them Smitty Rows, which was EXACTLY what you described: a pseudo inverted row with hip extension.

      I knew Dean was writing that article. I actually got a sneak peak at it……;o)

  • Kelly

    I set out to to accomplish ONE chin-up about a year ago.  I first started with the counterweight apparatus and worked my way up to only a counterweight of 30 lbs on 10 reps (I weigh 125).  Then I bought a chin-up bar to do the rest of the work in the privacy of my own home (you see most women – and men too — are embarrassed to “fail” in a public space).  That’s where I really took off.  I could practice each day on my walk from the livingroom to the kitchen in a no-judgement environment and my progress exploded to being able to do 2-3 sets of 5-6 real deadhang chins.  In less than a month, I had the utter confidence to hop onto the squat rack and do them in front of other gymgoers – knowing I wouldn’t fail or get laughed at. I had so many women come up to me at that point and express their own wishes for doing chin-ups.  Of course I told them to buy a $30 chinup bar!

    • Anonymous

      And that’s something I’m going to (hopefully) hit on in part II. Purchasing an Iron Gym is a SOLID way to help groove chin-up technique, not to mention help with proficiency. Thanks for sharing Kelly, and I’m really glad you were able to progress to an actual chin up!

  • Laura

    Tony, thank you for fighting the pervasive belief that chin-ups are something that only a few women have the capacity to do! Thanks to your good coaching, including use of Elsbeth’s TRX progressions, I got over that mindset and am now working on pullups and reps.  Awesome stuff!

    On the 9-month thing, what about bigger gals?  How do you find chin-up progressions go when there is the added challenge of a heavier bodyweight?

    • Anonymous

      You mean when someone is pregnant? Well, you and I did SOME eccentric loaded chin-ups into your EARLY second trimester I believe, so it can be done. When you throw an actual pregnancy into the mix, things get a little murky because there are so many other factors that come into play. It really comes down to one’s comfort level with any given exercise and how she handles them. That said, you and I trained HARD all the way till go-time. We certainly weren’t going crazy in the last month or two, but you were still training harder than most non-pregnant women.

      What’s cool is that I saw a REALLY pregnant woman in a commercial gym the other day getting after in the free weight area, and it’s just nice to see the whole mentality if “pregnant women shouldn’t train” going down the tubes.

  • Katie Dotson

    Ladies all should learn to rock chin-ups!!  Thanks for taking time to teach us how to get there.
    I love days we get to do chin-ups in the gym!! It took me about 16 weeks to bang out a 10lb weighted 3 rep set from not being able to do EVEN ONE!  Now (just over a full year later) I can rock a full 3×4 15lb weighted set of chin ups!  I’m super pumped that it didn’t take as long as I thought to learn how.  I used Mike Robertson’s method to teach myself how to do a chin-up and a lot of help from my husband to lift me up and down from the bar!!  Can’t wait to learn to conquer more and even use this new technique to teach other ladies how to do chin-ups too. =)  Great job Tony

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Katie! Thanks for chiming in and offering the additional support.

  • Mady

    Tony,
    How long do you feel is a reasonable time Frame to go from never doing an inverted row to full BW chin? When u want the chin to go up, do u put other exercises on the backburner or use full body strength training?
    I’ve used lots of band assisted and negatives, and negative iso holds to build my females up. These above r new progressions to utilize. Cheers

  • Shannon_schierling

    Great!  This is one of my short term goals!  I’ve been doing the chin-up progression II at a playground using the kids rope net climbing thingamajig.   I crawl under it and do them and I have door mounted chinup thing at home where I do some negatives.

    I WILL conquer the chin-up!

  • http://www.healthismorethanapples.blogspot.com/ Heidi

    So what if your gym doesn’t have TRX suspension stuff?  What do you suggest?

    • Anonymous

      Weeelll, you’ll just have to wait for part II…..;o)

  • Anonymous

    I caught on to that leg press comment. Well played sir.

  • Paula

    Hi Tony,
    Movie we are watching is a let down and thinking of getting to gym early tomorrow as I will be back at CP next week and haven’t trained hard nor frequently since I took a 6 week winter break;( .. So I went on your blog for the first time in a long time and like your new photo and set up! Congrats to CP on expanding and hiring!
    Can’t wait to come back!!!
    In regards to chin ups, your latest blog, people comment on mine at my local gym, acting as if it is a rare feat to see, perhaps at a commercial gym? Perhaps from a female? who knows!
    Thanks for coaching me to do more than I ever did in my younger days;)!!!
    See you soon!
    Paula

  • http://unblob.blogspot.com/ Cort the Sport

    A big issue for folks new to pull ups is they have the idea that it’s a vertical motion (ala reverse shoulder press). So they try it that way, fail, and give up. Like most lifts, technique is critical. Pull ups are a weekly staple in my routine. As a nearly 45-year-old mom, I love to crank out multiple sets of 6-8 reps and feel strong and capable. A few weeks ago I discovered I could do the “Rocky Style” one-arm pull ups which has been fun, but my real goal would be a true one-arm pullup!  http://unblob.blogspot.com/2012/02/gym-play-with-grant-and-rocky-style-one.html

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=506036404 Elsbeth Vaino

    Thanks for the credit for the TRX chinup progressions, and I’m thrilled that you and your clients are liking them and using them successfully. Love, love, love that first chinup. :) Looking forward to part 2 to see how similar or different it is to what I use. 

    • Anonymous

      No no no – thank you for the awesome idea using the TRX!

  • Brett

    These are excellent, Thank’s Tony. I like implementing bands and eccentrics, as well as ring inverted rows, but these exercises look like a great pathway to the pull up, cheers.

  • Gwen

    Aaah, yes the chin up is something I wish I would see more women tackling at my gym.  I am now 34 weeks pregnant and still busting out a FEW chin ups here and there.  Granted, they are much harder with 18lbs strapped onto your midsection but that does not stop me from working on them.  When I just don’t have the fight in me then I transition into the TRX chins.
    Great post Tony!

    • Anonymous

      Oh, congrats Gwen!!!! And, that is completely the coolest thing, like ever, that you’re still getting after it despite the additional “load.” I’m still dumbfounded that there are doctors out there who STILL advocate that women DO NOT train while pregnant despite the ever growing research showing how efficacious it is with not only the health of the mother, but the fetus/infant as well.

      • J Allen

        Absolutley! I wish more gyns/obs would really talk about this with us. It is so much better for us and our babies if we are healthy and strong. AND it makes labor easier if you are stronger!

  • Guest

    Whitney? Yeah, she rocks hard.

  • Javier

    Hey Tony just an FYI…that’s Wonder Woman not Superwoman.

    Nice post too.

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  • trunks_cscs

    Decent, but she’s training in the wrong plane. She should be frontal and not sagittal…

    • TonyGentilcore

      Decent…but you should also read Part II…..;o)

      • trunks_cscs

        You’re missing my point. It has nothing to do with “isolation” which is impossible to achieve. What is is about is that a regression is meant to allow the person to achieve the movement pattern that is being regressed. Expecting to get a client to perform a frontal pullup by doing sagittal rows is a bit absurd. You want to complete a pullup, use the Gravitron…

        • TonyGentilcore

          Annnnnnd, like I said, you can read part II AND III of the freakin article where I discuss both.

          We can agree to disagree on the TRX regression. You’re absolutely correct that it’s more of sagittal plane movement, I can’t argue there. I still feel there’s SOME frontal plane in there, especially if I cue him/her to let the elbows flare a bit more. I find that they’re a nice compliment to what I’m trying to achieve overall, down the road.

          Besides, too, we can’t neglect the psychological component of training people. I find it’s important to elicit “success” with clients. I find that if I can show them something they CAN do, regardless of whether or not it’s biomechanically “perfect,” that’s a win in my book.

          I still feel the pattern is trained – albeit not perfectly – with the TRX regression. Not the end of the world if I have to use that for a 3-4 week block and then revert to the other progressions I talk about in the rest of the article which I assume you haven’t read.

          • trunks_cscs

            I understand and agree, but it is not a regression that will progress one to completing a completely different exercise. That is all that I meant, but you and Harold went the other way with it. All I know is that adding apples to oranges wont give you pears…

          • TonyGentilcore

            Dude, okay, it’s obviously not a good fit for you or YOUR clients. Do what you want with them.

            The first TRX progression does have them pulling in a more vertical fashion….albeit they’re able to push off with their feet. The other two, well, that’s where it gets murkey. It’s more sagittal, yes. You win. But they’re also set more underneath the line of pull and are pulling more of their own bodyweight.

            My rationale for the “regression” was to improve one’s PULLING ability in hopes of eventually working up to them doing an actual chin-up/pull-up (using the Gravitron, bands, eccentrics, etc).

            I’m sure if we were all in the same room we’d agree on 99.93% of the conversation. You seem to be making a big deal of the other .07%, and that’s cool.

            I get what your argument is about. I understand it’s not a perfect apples to apples movement. But again, it’s a tool. If it doesn’t fit your style of philosophy turn the page.