True story: back in 2010, I was in a playground with my kids and tried to knock out a few chin-ups.
End result? Two embarrassingly bad “nose-ups” that made me sore for days afterwards.
But instead of telling myself “I guess I just suck at chin-ups” and leaving it at that, I decided that I didn’t merely want to get good at chin-ups, I wanted to master them.
So, how did that pan out?
Well, here’s a video from earlier this month where I just about make 2 chin-ups, only this time there’s 135 lbs chained around my waist.
In other words, I’m way stronger at 45 than I was at 39 – now, those are the kind of numbers we like around here!
And while this isn’t about appearance, I hardly recognized my back when I had someone take a shot of me for a training article last year.
It was like, who the hell is that dude?
So, here’s the lowdown on how I added 135 lbs to my chin-ups and, even if you’re struggling to do a single one with your bodyweight, how you can master them, too.
Part 1: Nailing Your First Chin-Up
(Note: If you can already do a bodyweight chin-up, scroll down to Part 2)
The first, and most important, step is to be able to do a single chin-up with your bodyweight.
That means hanging from the bar with straight arms, hands towards you around shoulder-width apart, then pulling yourself up smoothly (no jerking, no kicking) until your chin is over the bar before lowering yourself back down under control into the hanging position.
Can’t yet manage a single chin-up? Then bands are your friend.
Bands are just awesome because they allow you to have a consistent and quantifiable amount of assistance throughout the movement.
For example, Rogue Fitness’s “Pull-up Package 2” contains five bands which provide 2 x 30 lbs, 2 x 50 lbs, and 1 x 65 lbs of resistance (this really means assistance when we’re performing chin-ups with them).
Using a combination of these bands will allow you to perform at least one assisted chin-up since they cover a range of assistance all the way from 30 – 225 lbs.
Now, the first thing you’ll want to do is find a combination that allows you to complete a set of 5 chin-ups.
Use this for 3 sets, making sure you rest long enough between sets to make all 5 repetitions on every set.
Well, the next time you perform chin-ups, go to the next lowest assistance and aim for 3 sets of 5 repetitions.
Here’s how that could look.
First chin-up workout: 95 lbs assistance (green band and one red band) 3 sets of 5 repetitions
Next chin-up workout: 80 lbs assistance (one red band and one blue band) 3 sets of 5 repetitions
Got all 5 repetitions for all 3 sets using 80 lbs of assistance?
Great! Then aim for 3 sets of 5 next time with 65 lbs of assistance (the green band).
Didn’t get all 5 repetitions for all 3 sets using 80 lbs of assistance?
First off, make sure you rested long enough between sets but, if you did, we’ll decrease the assistance only for the sets where you completed all 5 repetitions.
Here’s what that means.
95 lbs assistance: 5 reps, 5 reps, 5 reps
Following workout → 80 lbs assistance: 5 reps, 5 reps, 4 reps
So next time, we’ll reduce the assistance for the first two sets only, and keep the assistance at 80 lbs for the third set.
Which will look like this:
Sets 1 and 2: 65 lbs assistance
Set 3: 80 lbs assistance
In a nutshell, we’re treating each set as its own entity, and getting all 5 reps for that set entitles you to reduce the assistance for that set next time.
OK, here’s how the above workout might go:
Set 1 (65 lbs): 5 reps,
Set 2 (65 lbs): 4 reps,
Set 3 (80 lbs): 5 reps
So, what do we do next time? Yep, you’ve got it!
We reduce set 1’s assistance to 50 lbs, keep set 2’s at 65 lbs, and reduce set 3’s to 65 lbs, aiming for 5 repetitions each set.
And we keep repeating this process until you’re able to get 5 repetitions with the minimum available assistance (in this case, that’s 30 lbs).
Now at that point, the odds are you can perform a chin-up with your bodyweight!
Which could be the first time in years, decades or maybe ever – just by applying some gradual progression to the assistance.
How cool is that?
Part 2: You Can Already Do a Bodyweight Chin-Up
(Note: If you can already do 5 consecutive bodyweight chin-ups, scroll down to Part 3)
Now you can do at least a single chin-up without assistance, you’re really going to start making some serious progress.
Our aim is to do a set of 5 repetitions with your bodyweight.
OK, right now you’re able to do singles, so we’re going to go for 10 sets of 1 repetition each, making sure you rest long enough between sets.
Keep doing that each workout until you become able to perform 2 consecutive chin-ups and, at that point, change over to 5 sets of 2 repetitions.
Before long, you’ll be able to do 3 consecutive chin-ups, so you’ll then switch to 4 sets of 3 repetitions.
And when you’re able to do 4 consecutive chin-ups, you’ll go to 3 sets of 4 repetitions.
Almost before you know it, you’ll be able to perform a set of 5 repetitions with your bodyweight.
And, if you rest long enough between sets, you could probably knock out 3 sets of 5.
Now, some coaches might recommend that you keep adding repetitions until you can perform 10-12 per set.
But in my experience, progress is quicker if you start loading your chin-ups as soon as you can nail five with your bodyweight.
So, that’s what we’ll get to next.
Part 3: You Can Perform 5 Consecutive Bodyweight Chin-ups
OK, this is where your progress will really begin to skyrocket.
Using either a dipping belt (I use the Rogue Dip Belt) or a length of chain/carabiner from a hardware store, add a 2½- or 1-lb plate around your waist (don’t worry, you won’t even notice an extra pound or two).
Note: Just make sure that the plate isn’t hanging too low or too high: too low, and it will swing around; too high, and you run the risk of it smacking you in the nuts.
Perform 3 sets of 5 repetitions with this weight around your waist.
The next time you do chin-ups, add another 1-2½ pounds and aim for 3 sets of 5 repetitions.
Keep on repeating that process as long as you can, making sure you rest long enough between sets to make all 5 repetitions for each set.
These small increments of progress will quickly add up and you’ll soon be cranking out sets of 5 with a 25-lb plate around your waist.
Now, eventually you’ll start missing a rep or two on the 3rd set.
Don’t worry, simply keep adding weight to the sets where you made all 5 repetitions, and keep the weight the same for the sets where you didn’t.
Here’s how that might look.
25 lbs: 5 reps, 5 reps, 5 reps
27½ lbs: 5 reps, 5 reps, 4 reps
30 lbs: 5 reps, 5 reps, then 27½ lbs: 5 reps
Remember, we’re treating each set as its own entity, and getting all 5 reps for that set entitles you to increase the weight for that set next time.
Now, a little further down the track, your weights might end up looking something like this:
Set 1: 45 lbs x 5 reps
Set 2: 37½lbs x 5 reps
Set 3: 32½lbs x 5 reps
But one day, you’ll hit only 4 repetitions on your first set.
So, what should you do in your next workout?
You add a little more weight to your first set, and aim to perform 4 repetitions.
Continue to add a little weight to the first set of each subsequent workout until your repetitions creep down to 3, 2, then 1.
OK, here’s how your chin-up numbers might now look over five consecutive workouts.
45 x 5, 37½ x 5, 32½ x 5
47½ x 4, 40 x 5, 35 x 5
50 x 3, 42½ x 5, 37½ x 5
52½ x 2, 45 x 5, 40 x 5
55 x 1, 47½ x 5, 42½ x 5
So, in the last workout, you maxed out on your first set with a single using 55 lbs.
The next time you work out, you use the exact same weights as the workout where you originally missed 5 repetitions on the first set (in this case, that’s the second row – 47½ x 4, 40 x 5, 35 x 5).
But here’s what’s really awesome – you can now easily get 5 repetitions with this weight on the first set!
After all, you’ve already hit 5 repetitions with this exact same weight during the workout where you got 55 lbs for a single.
Just check out the last row: 55 x 1, 47½ x 5, 42½ x 5
So you’re coming at it from a position of total confidence.
What we’re effectively doing is taking four steps forward and three steps back.
Take it from me, that bit of mental and physical respite is better for long-term progress than consistently hammering yourself into the ground.
Now, this approach may seem almost too simple but it’s exactly the one I used to build up to chinning 135 lbs for 2 repetitions.
Sure, it took me a few years to do it, but I wasn’t focused on the outcome during that time – that would’ve driven me nuts!
Instead, I focused on the process, making those small but definite increments of progress that add up to something much bigger.
When I did that, the 135-lb chin-up pretty much took care of itself.
Lighter = Easier
OK, it almost goes without saying, but carrying a lot of body fat is kryptonite for chin-ups.
When I force-fed myself to 240lbs, I could barely make 5 chin-ups with a 25-lb plate chained around my waist.
But at 185 lbs, I’m able to do sets of five with over 90 lbs.
So, losing a bunch of body fat while getting your chin-ups on point will simply turbocharge your performance.
It will almost feel like your body’s filled with helium.
Making small, consistent increments of progress is the key to success in pretty much anything.
So, even if you’re not yet able to do a single chin-up with your bodyweight, bands will allow you to get there.
And once you’re there, you can progressively build up to 5 consecutive chin-ups, and then you can start adding small amounts of weight.
That’s precisely how this closer-to-50-than-40-years-old former weakling became able to do chin-ups with 135 lbs chained around his waist.
No secrets, no shortcuts, just shooting for those tiny, consistent improvements that really stack up over time.
Not obsessing about the outcome, just focusing on enjoying the process itself.
If there’s any magic to mastering chin-ups, that’s where you’ll find it.
P.S. Looking for a surefire program to use with chin-ups?
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