Chin-ups are an excellent way to gauge your upper body strength.

It’s a simple, straight forward movement with a ton of variations available.
You can change your grip, widen your grip, attach weights to a weight belt, adjust the amount of reps, adjust the speed…the list of variations is endless.

Chin-ups are hard.  Read that sentence again.

We have seen some ridiculously strong athletes struggle to perform a single Chin-Up with good form. Struggling with Chin-Up’s has a lot to do with strength AND stability. Let’s dive in to a case study from one of our athletes.

Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a local athlete. He’s an 18-year old high school basketball player who wanted to improve his Chin-Up performance. We tested him and found that he lacked scapular control and stability. A big reason people stall on Chin-Up/Pull-Up progress is a weakness in the mid-back and an inability to maintain a proper scapular set. Tyler was no exception.

Retracting and depressing the shoulder blades when pressing or pulling is critical to proper functioning of the scapula and shoulder and efficiency in these movements. Failure to strengthen the scapular stabilizers (trapezius, serratus anterior, and rhomboids) leads to improper shoulder mechanics.

If the shoulder stabilizers can’t properly anchor the shoulder blades when performing an exercise, the brain will begin “shutting down” neural control of the primary muscles as the body attempts to protect itself from injury.

Once Tyler’s Chin-Up performance was evaluated, I decided we would re-test the lift in 12-weeks. Having a concrete goal and a timeline to accomplish it by is critical to program design because the goal and timeline dictate everything from exercise selection to the number of reps per set.

The Progression:

Here is the exercise progression we used to improve Tyler’s Chin-Up Performance.

A2 Bent-Over Single-Arm Low-Pulley Cable Row – Neutral Grip

A2 Bent-Over Single-Arm Dumbbell Row – Neutral Grip

A2 Seated Cable Row – Medium Neutral Grip

A2 Inverted Ring Row – Neutral Grip

Note that for each Accumulation phase I opted to use a cable variation, because of the continuous tension offered by cables. Since the amount and duration of tension placed on a muscle is an important variable for hypertrophy, cable exercises were a great choice for the accumulations phases.

For each Intensification phase I chose exercises that worked the muscles responsible for pulling more in line with their natural strength curve of the muscles involved where gravity applies the greatest force.

I also progressed him from single-arm rowing variations in both the A and B series exercises for the first two phases. Focusing on unilateral rowing exercises allows the scapulae to move through a greater range of motion than if both arms are working at the same time.

Working on unilateral (single-limb) exercises allows more focus to be placed on the working arm than if both arms are working simultaneously. This is important for strength and hypertrophy gains because increasing focus on single-limb exercises also allows for the activation of more muscle fibers, which is important to creating a balance of strength between limbs.

In the last two phases of training the A series exercises also progressed to bilateral variations to better prepare Tyler to perform the Chin-Up. Introducing bilateral rowing exercises provided Tyler the opportunity to begin learning how to better and more efficiently control his scapula.

At the end of this cycle we re-tested Tyler’s Chin-Up. He went from barely being able to perform 3 reps to performing reps of up to 8-10 for multiple sets. When it comes to improving performance in a lift it takes patience, effective programming, and the ability to get your athletes/clients to trust in the process.