Your First Chin-Up

The Chin-Up is a staple movement in CrossFit, used for building upper-body strength (specifically in the back and arms). The chin-up also prepares athletes for our beloved Kipping Pullup, which allows us to deliver great results via intense workouts. Most coaches recommend at least one or two strict chins before the kip, to build up protective muscle and prevent injuries due to the percussive nature of the kipping swing. In short, the chin-up should be a major goal of any new CrossFit athlete and this article is going to discuss how to get one!
 

Step One - Body Recomposition

In Greg Glassman's classic 'What is Fitness' article, he proposed a hierarchy of needs for developing athletes. The base layer of this pyramid is Nutrition, following by Metabolic Conditioning, Gymnastics, Weightlifting and finally Sport. No where is the effect of poor nutrition more acutely observed than in the practice of gymnastics and body-control movements. These athletes often consume far too much refined carbohydrate and sugar, and are saddled with extra unnecessary pounds which make these skills very hard to develop. 

Before embarking on a chin-up program, take a look at your nutrition plan and implement changes that will bring your bodyweight more in line with your frame. To get started with a solid nutrition approach, follows Greg's advice: 

'Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not bodyfat'. 

The 'little starch and no sugar' line should be your starting point. By eliminating sugar and treating starch like a condiment, you'll instantly remove many of the worthless calories in your diet and be on your way to a slimmer and more 'gym-nasty' physique. 

Another body composition trick that seems to work with 99% of our clients is the simple act of writing down everything you eat. The mindfulness required to record all of your food intake lends itself to better choices and more forethought and planning. You don't need a fancy journal. Any plain notebook will do!
 

Step Two - Consistency 

Most successful CrossFit athletes are training in the gym multiple times per week. If they have a weak point, they prioritize it and work on it every class until it's no longer a problem. Chin-ups are no exception!

Plan on doing some kind of chin-up training 3-4 days per week. If you can carve out 10 minutes before or after each class you'll have plenty of time to accumulate the training volume necessary to get your chin-up. Better yet - enlist a buddy to work with you and BS between sets! If you miss a day, no problem - just get 'back on the horse' tomorrow and resume your program. Our daily workouts include a lot of chin-up work, but this may not be enough for those with a specific need. By customizing the program to your needs, you'll see better results!
 

Step Three - Progression

When building up to a first chin-up, it's helpful to understand what different kinds of muscle contractions are and how they're used:

Concentric contractions - when a muscle is shortening. In the chin-up, this is the 'up' or raising portion of the movement.

Eccentric contractions - when a muscle is lengthening. In the chin-up, this is the 'down' or lowering piece. 

Isometric or static contractions - neither shortening or lengthening. A static hold. 

For years, gymnastics skill has been developed using the eccentric first, to learn how to control against gravity and gain strength (did you know that you're stronger eccentrically than you are concentrically?). After the eccentric is mastered, isometrics (static holds) may be inserted to further development and add more time 'under tension'. 

Once these phases are mastered, most trainees can manage one concentric (the actual chin-up) without assistance!

Here's a sample progression for the chin-up: 

1) Grab a box and set it underneath a chinning bar. Set the box so that when you step off, you're in the TOP position of the chin-up. 

2) As gravity does it's thing, fight like hell and lower yourself as slowly as possible. Perform 6-10 repetitions of this cycle with 15-30 seconds rest in between. 

3) On your next training session, try to extend the lowering phase by a second or two, until it takes a looooong time to reach the bottom (a 10-second eccentric is pretty bad-ass). 

4) Once you have a long eccentric (this may take days/weeks/months), start to insert some isometrics into the chain by pausing halfway down. Pause at 1/4, 1/2 and 3/4. 

5) Once you've got a well-developed eccentric, take a rest day and then go for your first rep. Chances are it's there!

6) Once you have one rep, you're off to the races. Try every-minute-on-the-minute or ladder patterns to develop multiple reps. You just need to train the movement and accumulate volume. 
 

Step Four - Auxiliary Work for the Chin-Up

Some other suggestions that I'd offer during this progression: 

- Include some concentric training, performed AFTER the above progression. Things like ring rows, dumbbell rows or banded chinups. 

- I find it helpful to think of the upper body as a system, where the antagonist muscles get some love too. Make sure you're working on your push-ups and presses too. The above eccentric/isometric/concentric progression works, as well as any other implements we have available.

- Don't forget about your core training. I've seen plenty of people miss lifts and gymnastics skills because they have a weak middle. Planks, holds, situps, GHD, etc. It's all good!


Getting your first chin-up is a big rite of passage in CrossFit. Some forethought and extra work is all that's required. If you need help, grab a DelVal coach. Enjoy the ride!