Back Workouts

Keep Your Chin Up

Cure your pathetic pull-up and learn to rep like a pro with this progressive training plan.

You’ve probably seen that guy in the gym. Twenty-something, kinda looks like he was a former gymnast, casually steps beneath the pull-up bar, reaches up and bounces up into position, then starts repping. Effortlessly. Ten reps, then 20, like a well-oiled piston, every rep from full elbow extension to chin at bar level. You start to wonder whether he’s human.

Viewing such a feat makes it hard for those of us more flesh than cyborg to follow up — especially if your club’s pull-up station is front and center on the floor in the cable-crossover station, where everyone seems to have a front-row view. Still, if you’ve stolen a couple of moments alone with the bar, you’ve tried a few. Maybe you got five or six, body convulsing the whole way, before your feet drop back to the floor with a disappointing thump. 

For men and women like you, there’s hope. You don’t need to be a former gymnastics prodigy or an elite Navy SEAL to get better at the chin. This progressive six-week pulling plan is meant to replace your regular back workout. Crafted around various pulls (plus one rowing motion for maintenance reasons), it will help build your confidence as you increase strength and endurance in your lats, midback and biceps.

In each of the workouts, you’ll spend some time on the assisted pull-up machine, on which you either stand on a peg or put your knees on a pad that’s counterbalanced against a weight stack — the more weight you select, the more “help” you get when pulling yourself up. The goal? As the reps decrease, decrease the weight along with it so each set gets a little tougher. 

Another component that runs throughout the six weeks is the isometric pull-up hold. It’s simple: You assume the “up” position of a pull-up, holding yourself there for as many seconds as you can. Keep track of your tally so you can make sure you’re getting stronger from workout to workout. (To keep yourself honest, a partner with a stopwatch or a wall clock with a second hand are best.)

Starting in Week 3, you’ll add pull-ups. Make sure you’re doing them right, which is much more important than how many total reps you can complete, especially at the beginning, as you teach your body the mechanics. To start, hang freely from the bar, arms fully extended and feet crossed behind you, holding the handles just outside shoulder width. Contract your lats to raise your chin just over the bar — your elbows should begin pointed out to each side, and as you pull yourself up, they should come down to your flanks. Hold the peak-contracted position for a beat, then lower yourself to an elbows-straight (i.e., “dead hang”) position.

Each workout wraps with a rowing movement, which you’ll want to take as seriously as the rest of the session. Because, while pull-ups are valuable, it’s the row that keeps your back thick and powerful from every angle.

Weeks 1-2