Tackling the Weighted Chin-up

This article is for those who have become proficient with chin-ups and pull-ups and want to progress into heavier weighted pulls.

Back in March 2009, I had knee surgery that forced me to stop hard, lower body training for a little while. I still wanted to train hard, but I was limited in what I could do. This is when I decided to really focus on pull-ups. I had always included pull-ups in my program, but up until that point, they had always been more of an afterthought that I would slap on at the end of my workouts. I contacted Harry Selkow at EliteFTS and got started on his plan. It worked great for awhile until I hurt my shoulder in an ostensibly random event outside the gym. It hurt any time I lifted my arm over my head, so I was forced to stop doing pull-ups for awhile to let it heal. In hindsight, that injury was a blessing in disguise because it forced me to reevaluate my training and get smarter. Up until that point, I had never been good about listening to my body and frequently tried to push through injuries. As anyone who trains hard knows, this works sometimes, but it eventually catches up to you.

I stopped doing pull-ups completely for two months and used that time to get my shoulder healthy and come up with a new plan. In that time, I worked on horizontal rowing, band pull-aparts, and face-pulls and scarecrows with blast straps. When I resumed my pull-ups program, I first switched to chin-ups (underhand grip), which didn’t irritate my shoulder nearly as much. I was surprised to find that I was actually stronger, despite not having done the exercise for awhile. This really surprised me. Within a month of returning, I hit my goal of five reps with 100 pounds added, which I had proclaimed when I first contacted Harry.

At this point, I set a new goal—to do a chin-up with twice my body weight (175 pounds) for reps with three plates added. I knew that to achieve this goal I had to come up with a solid program that focused on progressive resistance and, more importantly, kept me healthy. With most lifts, I have taken a very simple approach. I keep a log book, and every time I repeat an exercise, I try to add weight and/or reps. If I fall within the rep range I’m shooting for, I add weight the next time. If I fall short on the reps, I keep the weight the same and increase the reps. Boring, yes. Simple, yes. Effective, yes.

However, I quickly found that when I got to a certain point on chin-ups, I hit a plateau pretty damn fast. Constantly doing heavy weighted chin-ups was taking a toll on my shoulder as well. I needed a new plan. Harry Selkow taught me an extremely important lesson—you don’t have to go to failure all the time. Before that, I gave myself a predetermined number of chin-ups to do, and I did every single set to failure until I hit that number. This was an extremely important lesson for me to learn. Moreover, from my two-month hiatus from chin-ups, I learned that I didn’t have to focus exclusively on heavy chin-ups in order to improve my chin-ups. These two lessons provided the basis for my plan.

I want to be clear that this plan is just a template. I frequently made small changes based on how I was feeling, availability of equipment (I lifted in a packed school gym), and other things. I encourage you to do the same. There is certainly value in following a plan, but first and foremost, you have to listen to your body and adapt to your surroundings. Anyone who is worried about weighted chin-ups likely has been around the block enough to know this, but it’s worth stating anyway. With that said, here is the basic outline I followed to increase my weighted chin-ups. This program worked for me, and in one year, I was able to go from 100 X 5 to 132 X 5 and achieve a twice my body weight chin-up.

1.      Drop pull-ups entirely in favor of chin-ups, neutral grip chin-ups (palms facing), and blast straps chin-ups. These three exercises became my staples for both weighted and non-weighted pulls. I know some people say that chin-ups are easier so it’s cheating and yada yada yada. For awhile, I used that as a reason to do pull-ups. They constantly hurt my shoulder though, so in the end it wasn’t worth it. My point here isn’t to bash pull-ups at all. If you can do them pain free, great. My point is just to listen to your body and don’t subscribe to dogma that you have to do certain lifts at all costs.

2.      Switch from training the back twice every week to once every 5–6 days. I found that for me hitting the back muscles twice each week was actually slowing my progress down rather than speeding it up. It was causing some pretty substantial elbow pain. When I dropped the frequency slightly, my strength actually went up quickly. I still hit the muscles more frequently than a standard one body part a week split, but this slight change made a big difference in my recovery.

3.      Only focus on chin-ups two out of every three back workouts. This means that every third back workout I dropped chin-ups and focused the workout solely around horizontal rowing variations. This gave my shoulders a break while still strengthening my lats. I guess you could consider the third workout to be a chin-up deload of sorts.

4.      On chin-up focused workouts, alternate between weighted and non-weighted pulls. I personally find that heavy weighted chin-ups tear up my shoulders and elbows if done with a high frequency, and I have spoken with many others who have had similar experiences. To combat this, I rotated in body weight chin-ups to give my joints a break while still working my muscles. On weighted days, I did them first in my workout while I was fresh. On body weight days, I did them near the end of my workout when I was fatigued.

On weighted chin-up days, I followed a very simple progressive plan. I started at a 10RM and simply added 2.5–10 pounds each time I repeated the exercise, depending on how I was feeling. Usually, the jumps were small, but there were times I was feeling frisky and added more. The reps inevitably dropped some as the weights increased but not very quickly. Once I got down to four reps, I reset my numbers back to a 10RM (albeit higher than the previous 10RM) and started the process over again. This system worked very well, and I really didn’t stall. You have to remember though that I was only doing weighted chin-ups once every three back workouts, so I had plenty of time between each workout—usually a little over two weeks. Had I tried to do weighted chin-ups every workout, this plan would have stalled very quickly. It may seem crazy to only do weighted chin-ups once every 15 days or so, but I promise you won’t get weaker.

On non-weighted days, I stuck to my old plan of picking a predetermined number and trying to reach it in as few sets as possible. I actually kept this number at 100 reps for the whole time and just tried to get there in fewer sets. Depending on your current level, I recommend that you adjust the number to something that will take you 7–8 sets to start (this number will come down as you improve). However, the difference was that this time I rarely took the sets to failure.

On occasion, I overestimated myself and failed to complete a rep, but for the most part, I always left a rep or two in the tank. In the past, taking every set to failure, my numbers would drop off dramatically after the first set and it would take more sets to reach 100. Leaving reps in the tank actually allowed me to get to 100 faster. It may seem counterintuitive, but it works. Also, I spaced these sets throughout my workout, so I had very long rest periods. If you try for sets of max reps with short rest, the reps will fall off very fast.

On days when I wasn’t feeling up to par, I used the body weight days to give my body a break and do 10 sets of five reps in between other exercises. These workouts were very easy, so it gave me a break while still getting some lat work in. I should also note that I did each rep, both weighted and unweighted, with a full range of motion to full extension getting my chin over the bar. I’m not going to get into an argument about the efficacy of kipping pull-ups; I’m just stating what I did.

So here’s what it would look like:

Workout 1: Weighted chin-ups (changing grips frequently) (5–6 days later)

Workout 2: Body weight chin-ups (5–6 days later)

Workout 3: Rows (5–6 days later)

Weighted chin-ups again (and so on and so forth)

Push the rows hard. But isn’t this supposed to be about chin-ups? Yes, but I found that as my rowing improved, so did my chin-ups. I kept a log book and constantly tried to increase my numbers. Like with chin-ups, I found several rowing variations that worked well for me. For me, this meant rows with a neutral grip, as these caused no pain in my shoulder. I spent time experimenting with many variations and settled on four in particular.

1.      Inverted rows with blast straps: This was a great exercise with minimal lower back stress. Using blast straps was nice because I rotated my hands and allowed my shoulder to move through a natural range of motion. I also started doing these with one arm to increase the difficulty. This has actually become one of my favorite exercises.

2.      Trap bar Pendlay rows: This is basically a barbell row (only using the trap bar) where you reset the weight for each rep.

3.      Old school T-bar rows: This is where you put the bar in a corner and use a V-grip handle to row between your legs.

4.      “Kroc” dumbbell rows: Anyone reading this undoubtedly knows what these are. I didn’t do them often because the dumbbells in my gym didn’t go up high enough, but I used them whenever I visited a different gym.

On “rowing” days, I picked two of these variations and did about four sets of each, unless I chose Kroc rows, in which case I did 1–2 work sets. I started with a weight I could get about 12–15 reps with and added weight each set going up to a top set of 6–8 reps. Each set was pushed hard, though not to complete failure. I usually stuck with each row variation for 3–4 workouts in a row before switching to another variation. However, this was just a template. I was lifting in a very busy gym, and if the equipment was being used, I did a different row—no big deal. The important thing was that every single time I did an exercise, I referred back to the last time I did that exercise in my log book and tried to beat the previous performance. It’s all about progression.

Include weighted hangs at the end of each back workout. I actually got this idea from Dante Trudel, the creator of Doggcrapp training. His protocol is aimed at fascial stretching where the trainee uses straps and hangs from the bar with heavy weight hanging from a dip belt. I employed a similar strategy but with different goals. My goal with these hangs was to let my body adjust to the feeling of hanging with heavy weight added and improve my grip strength. Thus, I didn’t use lifting straps for these hangs. I simply hung for 30 seconds with as heavy a weight as I could and increased the weight as time went on. When it came time to test a double body weight chin-up, my body was used to hanging with heavy weight, so it didn’t come as a huge shock to the system.

As a side benefit, these weighted hangs feel great for spinal decompression after a hard workout. Start light on these and let your body adapt before adding a ton of weight. The goal isn’t to rip your arms off. You can use any grip you’d like, though I personally think a neutral grip is best.

General points

1.      Stay lean. If you aren’t lean already, get lean. Extra fat will only hurt you in the quest to get better at weighted chin-ups. You can’t count those love handles and beer gut as added weight.

2.      Be consistent. Inconsistency is the number one thing that I see holding most people back who aren’t where they want to be.

3.      Know when to deload or take a week off. We all love to train, so it can be hard to lay off the throttle. I struggle with this myself. But time and time again, I come back stronger when I do it. The template I’ve outlined is meant to be worked into your current training program (of course it will take the place of the current lat and back work). Take your regularly scheduled deloads and off weeks as normal. Resume this program when you resume your other training. I recommend a week off every 6–8 weeks. Listen to your body though and do what you need to do.

4.      Buy some blast straps, TRX, or rings. I prefer blast straps because they’re a little more heavy duty and will hold substantial loads, but anything will work fine.

Getting blast straps has been one of the best investments I’ve made, and they are a great tool for improving chin-ups. They are great for accessory exercises like face pulls, scarecrows, and inverted rows, but they are great for chin-ups as well. At first, your numbers might go down a little bit as you adjust to the instability. But once you get used to them, it’s great. They allow your shoulder to move through a natural range of motion. In fact, when I first tested the double body weight chin-up, I used the blast straps to do it.

Also, invest in a comfortable dip belt like the one from Spud. You will thank me for this. Those old leather belts will just tear your hips up if you do heavy chin-ups frequently. Plus, the bright yellow color will draw attention as you show off your newfound chin-up strength.

I hope this provides you with some direction for progressing on weighted chin-ups. This is what has worked for me, and I think it can work for you. Try it out and see for yourself. Best of luck and have fun!

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About the Author

Ben Bruno is a strength enthusiast and aspiring strength coach. At 25 years old, he is a recent graduate of Columbia University and is currently involved in a strength and conditioning internship in Massachusetts. You can find his blog at www.benbruno.blogspot.com.