Planning Your Training For Chin-Up Proficiency

Improving Chin-Up performance can be quite challenging for a lot of trainees.

The main issues in terms of progressing the Chin-Up is a lack of frequency and volume. Many use a split routine with more of a bodybuilding structure, for example:

Monday: Chest & Back

Tuesday: Lower Body

Wednesday: Off

Thursday: Arms & Shoulders

Friday: Posterior Chain

Saturday: Off

Sunday: Off

With this weekly set-up, the Chin-Up is performed on Monday as part of the Back workout. 

Let’s say for example that the Chest & Back session calls for 5 sets of 4-6 reps on the A series:

A1 Incline Press 5 x 4-6 4-0-1-0 120

A2 Chin-Up 5 x 4-6 4-0-1-0 120

Assuming the lifter can only perform 2 to 3 repetitions on Chin-Ups at a body weight of 200 lbs, the numbers might look like this:

Chest & Back

A1 Incline Press

Set 1: 6 reps @ 185

Set 2: 6 reps @ 187.5

Set 3: 6 reps @ 190

Set 4: 6 reps @ 192.5

Set 5: 5 reps @ 195

Total reps: 29

Total tonnage: 5505

A2 Chin-Up

Set 1: 3 reps @ 200

Set 2: 3 reps @ 200

Set 3: 2 reps @ 200

Set 4: 2 reps @ 200

Set 5: 1 rep @ 200

Total reps: 11

Total tonnage: 2200

Notice that the total weekly volume and tonnage is quite low on the Chin-Up considering that this will be the only session for the entire Microcycle. This kind of total weekly volume makes it very difficult to create enough stimulus for consistent progression on this exercise.

A better option would be to use an Upper/Lower split to increase the Chin-Up frequency of training. Here is an example:

Monday: Upper Body 1

Tuesday: Lower Body 1

Wednesday: Off

Thursday: Upper Body 2

Friday: lower Body 2

Saturday: Off

Sunday: Off

For the same 200 lbs trainee, the A series for both Upper Body sessions could look like this:

Upper Body 1

A1 Incline Press

Set 1: 6 reps @ 185

Set 2: 6 reps @ 187.5

Set 3: 6 reps @ 190

Set 4: 6 reps @ 192.5

Set 5: 5 reps @ 195

Total reps: 29

Total tonnage: 5505

A2 Chin-Up

Set 1: 3 reps @ 200

Set 2: 3 reps @ 200

Set 3: 2 reps @ 200

Set 4: 2 reps @ 200

Set 5: 1 rep @ 200

Total reps: 11

Total tonnage: 2200

Upper Body 2

A1 Dip

Set 1: 6 reps @ 220

Set 2: 6 reps @ 222.5

Set 3: 6 reps @ 225

Set 4: 5 reps @ 227.5

Set 5: 4 reps @ 227.5

Total reps: 27

Total tonnage: 6053

A2 Chin-Up

Set 1: 3 reps @ 200

Set 2: 3 reps @ 200

Set 3: 2 reps @ 200

Set 4: 2 reps @ 200

Set 5: 2 reps @ 200

Total reps: 12

Total tonnage: 2400

With this training schedule, the total Chin-Up weekly volume is now at 23 repetitions (11 + 12) with a tonnage of 4600 (2200 + 2400). These numbers are more in line with the Microcycle totals of the Incline Press and Dip, which will create enough stress to promote a positive training response.

The added benefit of performing the Chin-Up twice weekly is the increased rehearsal of technique. More frequent exposure to a weaker lift will improve muscular coordination and central nervous system activation for heightened training performance.


Q: What about doing the chest & back workout every 5 days in a 3 days split?? It would be the same volume and frequency as the upper/lower split no?

SC: The Upper/Lower split means you're training the Chin-Up twice over a 7-day cycle, while Chest & Back trained every 5 days over a 3 day split means the Chin-Up is trained twice over 10 days. The 3 days over 5 is still a better option than once a week but it's still not the same volume as twice a week over the entire length of the Mesocycle.

Q: My question would be, structurally since the latisimus is an internal rotator and dips and incline presses both train internal rotators would this potentially pose a problem with structural balance or create postural issues with the average person who works 9-5. Also, could excessive training of the internal rotation muscles ultimately hold someone’s chin ups back if they are weak in scapular retraction

SC: Great question. You are right, doing high volumes of internal rotation (Chins and Presses) could lead to structural balance issues if the training program doesn’t account for this. Make sure to always implement scapular retractor work (ie. strict rows and specific isolated scap work like Trap 3 Raise and Powell Raise) and external rotation exercises to your training plan to make sure you maintain shoulder integrity as you are focusing on increasing your Chin-Up strength.

Q: Is there a volume of scapular retraction work you believe is optimal to balance out a 2x week chinning program. In the past I have always had an overly simplistic 1:1 approach e.g. for every row I have a press for every pat pull I have a shoulder press much like what Ian King advocates. My question is more in terms of volume I guess. I can press more than I can row so while the movement is 1:1 the volume can be heavily skewed. Is there a number you like with regards to volume and tonnage

SC: In my experience, execution on all forms of scapular retraction and external rotation work has the most impact on balancing structural issues. The 1:1 ratio you described from Ian King works just fine if form is in check. I will also add that when structural balance is really out of kilter, I always stay away from Chin-Ups for the first 12 weeks and replace it with a rowing variation to allow the scapular retractor and external rotators a chance to bridge the gap between the internal rotators.

Q: What does the number after tempo signify?? You have 120 after the tempo in A1 & A2...

SC: It is the rest period between sets in seconds.

Q: Whats a good way for someone who cannot even do a single pull up or chin up.

SC: Check out Alexandra explain a great Chin-Up progression over this 3-part video series

Q: How do you determine whether a client is ready to move through these progressions?

SC: If they can’t perform any Chin-Up, but still has the ability to do eccentric only reps only. If not, you’ll need to start with pulldowns to build somewhat of a base in strength.

Q: Do you correct the difference in volume between pull / push in the c serie? Or accept 6053 to 4600 in tonnage?

SC: I accept the difference in tonnage between the push and pull exercises. The use of the tonnage numbers in this post was simply to demonstrate that for this specific lifters Chin-Up score, doubling the Microcycle frequency enables to increase weekly volume to a point where the tonnage was more in line to the other primary exercises of the training phase. Although a certain threshold of tonnage volume needs to be attained for a positive training effect on more advanced athletes, by no means does the tonnage need to be matched on all primary lifts. The exercise volume is controlled by the sets and reps selection of the Mesocycle (ie. 5 x 4-6), but in a case where the total rep volume can’t be achieved (like in the post above) steps to normalize the results should be taken. Finally, it’s important to understand strength ratios and their effect on tonnage. Taking the example of 5 x 4-6 as the A series rep scheme of the training phase while assuming the weight selection on all primary exercise will be adequate and all 30 reps will be performed, then it’s understandable that the tonnage on Dips will be higher than the tonnage on Bench Press, which will be higher than the tonnage on Incline Press, which will be higher than the tonnage on Chin-Ups, which will be higher than the tonnage on Overhead Press. You wouldn’t necessarily prescribe more sets on your Overhead Press within a phase to match the tonnage accomplished on your Dips, the same concept applies here with the Chin-Up.

Thank you to everyone who asked questions on Stephane's post earlier this week!

Stephane CazeaultComment