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.


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!

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