I can’t do chin ups!
In the realm of fitness there is a mythological beast named chin ups. Exercise is the adventure portion of fitness but many of the actual exercises can be monsters. Chin ups, like push ups and the less known dip are basically the dragons of exercise battles.
Metaphors aside wouldn’t it be grand to be able to do a chin up, a couple of dips, even a handful of push ups? If your immediate reaction is no it is likely tied to a defeatist self image or just a lack of interest and beyond the worth of the struggle. Good things come to those who wait but great things manifest for those who don’t. Perhaps an arrogant notion but in our experience goals, even lofty ones, can be the difference between health and the sad slow onset of age related sickness.
You can see in these three standard versions (supinated, pronated and neutral grips) the action is deceptively simple even easy looking…because in a sense it is. This all boils down to unravelling a bit of a mess time and genetics have played.
Why the chin up anyway? As much as we are attached to our pet Nautilus machines here at the clinic bio mechanics are bio mechanics. The human body is designed to move how it is designed to move and exercise actions should reflect both natural human anatomy and personal, individual genetics. Everyone has what it takes to chin…except the strength and confidence – yes confidence. The nervous system inhibits your actions so much more than most realize that such will be a post or posts all of their own, suffice to say teaching your central nervous system that it is ok to try is half the battle.
Actions of lifting your body with a push or pull using arms, legs, torso or any combination thereof is fundamental to healthy function. As with the harping we do about daily walking, you are designed for such things and lifting yourself up is in a very real sense a birth rite. Pulling and pushing through a movement so that not just your arms and possibly shoulders work but your entire torso is something you know in youth and forget as you mature. Like squatting kids do it with little thought but as adults we flop down into seats with little leg flexing and lean and swing up from sitting and lying position relying on momentum and needlessly straining our lower backs. All the while the large, natural robust torso, core and thigh muscles are ignored…such is the modern plight of physically easy living.
Like the chin up this dip exercise is relatively natural and together they cover the better part of all upper body musculature.
Life has become increasingly mentally and emotionally stressful, it worsens matters that the ease we take to rest from stress also causes us to lose natural strength and function. This natural ability to lift body weight would otherwise be a huge help with real stress relief. The lean muscles of these larger body parts can easily absorb, make use of and reduce/eliminate stress hormones which have pooled and overfilled your body – before your lymph system, kidneys, liver need to. The big fad now is to try and cleanse our bodies of the excess metabolic by-products and possible poisons. This is sensible to an extent but using special drinks and fasting it is still very much like using drugs to try and patch a problem ‘after’ it has occurred. Detoxing is a band-aid solution when you consider being reasonably physically fit and strong can break the cycle of drowning in your own natural and man made toxins.
Let’s look at the chin up, clearly it relies on a significant strength to body weight ratio so what is the trick? The key is also the lock – you need more than anything to develop the proper motor pattern/skill to find, feel and engage the muscles…in the right order. The problem is how can you do this if you are not strong enough let alone skilled enough to practice!?
Here the push up is done on the positive from the knees and a full standard push up on the negative. This allows you to learn the push up even if you cannot push ‘up’ all that well as working from your knees lightens the resistance and your greater negative strength allows for practice of the full action on the way back down.
Yes of course we are going to promote our pet tools but yes there are other solutions as well and we are not shy to share them. What we do here at our clinic is reduce the the time it takes to learn while making it very safe however we don’t have the market on chin ups cornered by any means. The issue is people who know what sort of alternatives exist often fear practicing in public and lack the motivation in private. For the sake of transparency an education we will share the techniques and let you enjoy the tips and make your own assumptions and decisions.
You can do chin ups!
An overlooked fact of human function is how much stronger you are putting something down rather than picking it up. Your strength when contracting and shortening a muscle like bending your arm to lift a bag is much less than your strength in unbending your arm and elongating your arm muscle. It is a built in safety from evolution keeping us from ever lifting more than we could hold and fatigue with then possibly drop. In fact, you are also approximately 20% stronger just holding a muscle contracted than you are in actually lifting. We don’t tend to notice this because it doesn’t always feel that way due to how the weight of something varies depending on how you might be holding it. Holding a bag with your arm half bent feels toughest but only because gravity is against you more than when your arm is further bent near the top and the bag is closer to you or even near the bottom when again the weight of the bag is less against gravity relative to your arm position. And of course when multiple body parts are involved the leverages and physics become increasingly complex and convoluted. Suffice to say we just move around, age and end up moving around less never realizing how incredible our bodies actually are and how good they can actually feel.
The negative only chin up. Watch how the downward pull of gravity is purposefully fought against. You don’t just lower yourself you resist all the way down, learning to find and target the appropriate muscles.
Long story short you can use this what we call ‘negative and static strength’ to your advantage to relearn movements you no longer have the strength to complete (we call the putting down of weights the negative part of the action, the holding the static portion and the lifting the positive portion). When you combine this attribute with some self analysis as to how your body fits the ranges of motion you have powerful tools to make change with. For chin ups (but this applies to any body weight exercise) you can practice negatives then as strength and skill builds add in static holds then finally small range of motion positives.
Negative only with the Dip exercise. Note how there is a balance between getting to the next negative dip without much rest but also taking time settle your form, making sure to focus and resist all the way down.
Let’s break it down for you because everyone is different and you may combine things in orders that suit you best.
You start by seeing if you can lower yourself from the top of the chin up under control. The key is to fight to do it as slow as possible and when you are at the bottom immediately climb back up with no real rest and do it again. As you fatigue you can rest longer between negative reps and try for a few more, keeping in mind the way muscle fibres are recruited you will need to begin with a honest build up of fatigue. Even if you can barely do it just going through the motion helps as long as you play safe. Perhaps you should keep the toes of one leg on the chair seat or whatever you are using to climb back up. Then this leg can spot you.
Additionally, practicing holding at the top helps because you will feel less body weight there. In time you will want to try and stop your lowering and hold statically for a moment to build even more control and confidence.
Here you see a forced stop and an attempt to squeeze back up a little then finishing the negative. A small but powerful addition.
We suggest you use palms towards you just slightly wider than shoulder width to start because it puts your arms in the position of using familiar muscles until you learn to find the torso muscles (here primarily the back musculature). You can try pronated/palms facing away from you grip (held even wider) or neutral rowing style grip if you have access to such. The primary is the supinated grip, adjust width and the angle you hold your body at to make room for your personal dimensions. You may find choking up and leaning into the action works best or even the opposite where you lean back and sort of row your chest up to the bar. As we preach about all exercises the best method is the one which matches your individuality.
You can do dips as well
For practice sake we suggest you start by practicing 3 days a week with at least a day between sessions. Also we would suggest adding in a push practice of dips in the same fashion, not only does this help your overall upper body strength and general fitness but keeps your adrenaline and such running during rest breaks. Thus you could perform some chin ups negative, static etc then a dip then chin again and back and forth. This way your chin-ing muscles do get to recycle a bit for another try but your body stays in a heightened state. Remember start with as many controlled negatives and statics as you can before stopping – build up that initial fatigue. Next start taking breaks to do dips and/or even squats then back to the chin. Once you cannot control your negative you must stop and pushing it further is not only unsafe but it will not help. Once the weakest links are fatigued you are done for the day, the skill of working around weak links is only safe when someone else is coaching you and even then it is tricky. Just do what you can and be patient until next time.
Negative Dip with static stop and squeeze back. You can see the greater confidence and strength in this exercise by how much upward motion is generated relative to the chin up. We encourage you to also attempt dips as they are actually slightly easier to perform.
At the risk of information overload we can add a few more things:
A) Keep in mind the back muscles you need to find are designed to pull your arms/shoulders down and back. You need to learn to allow your shoulder blades to slide up over the back of your rib cage in the start position so they have room to slide down (as well as pinch together) as you chin up. For the negatives this works in reverse so you need to start with the shoulders pulled down and possibly back (depending on arm length and rib cage circumference) then let them slide up and feel for the muscles in your back and down your sides (in gym jargon the ‘lats’). Feel for them as they stretch especially at the bottom when your arms are almost straight (Most people should avoid going down to arms fully straight as this strains the shoulders needlessly, maintaining a slide elbow bend at the bottom is best). Feeling the proper muscles stretching often enhances your minds ability to find them later during the distracting stress of working against heavy weight.
B) As you build some control and strength…and confidence you want to feel for the points in the range of motion where you may have the ability not only to stop and hold but pull back up even an inch or two. These points are quite valuable and even in the initial sessions the more you can identify these the better. You can and should begin to use them to develop the skill of working the muscles for the pull/positive portion. Your natural make up and variances in leverage will possibly allow you to feel a bit lighter at least in one small point and you should utilize this range.
C) For the actual chin up you need to learn to start the motion moving out of the bottom full stretch with a downward shrug of the back and shoulders NOT by just pulling with the arms. Your arms will fail quick even if you can do a couple of chins. The lock on chins is to let your weight go through the arms to the torso which can truly handle such loads. You can likely…if you had to…pull a very heavy load towards you across the ground because with your feet planted you are better able to tap into your back muscles as we’ll as coordinate them with your legs and arms. With a chin up you are just hanging there and for your nervous system it first appears to be a lose-lose scenario thus your brain looks to say “no, find a better way to do this”. You need to supersede this primal instinct and encourage your body to overcome. You can and should invoke the useful fight or flight stress mechanisms which allows you to tap into all your available ability rather than nervous conserving (which speaks huge to exercise in general…but that is also for another post).
Finally, how do we(fit) do it? We use these exact techniques in the clinic in fact they are very helpful to take people to the next level of chin ups with extra weight hanging around their waist. Furthermore, should one be several back exercises into even our type of brief, condensed workouts your pre-fatigue (previous fatigue from similar exercises for same body parts) can compromise your fresh ability to chin up. Thus, these post fatigue techniques help you get the benefits of the action even when your muscles are already partially worked. Additionally, we use a chin/dip assist mechanism (the weight stack reduces your body weight rather than adding resistance as with most machines) to encourage strength and skill/confidence.
The mechanism up close. Note the gentle arc as the pad raises and lowers facilitated by the double bars which draw together and then apart providing a natural float as opposed to it feeling forced. So subtle until you feel it and dead obvious when it isn’t there.
You can usually find one of these in a commercial gym however there is a reason they aren’t popular. And here of course is the soft sales pitch and Nautilus worship – standard chin/dip machines are designed to only push straight up on the knees towards the ceiling, this is not how the movements actually work during natural function. We all create a subtle and personal arc in the motion from top to bottom and this varies depending on limb and torso dimensions. As well, most machines use a flat hard pad which reduces your ability to gently let the knees roll and gently , ever so slightly slide if need be to stay with your personal arc.
Assisted Chin up. You can see how the motion remains natural with an important yet almost imperceptible arcing – you feel this if it isn’t there – here the motion just feels smooth and natural.
Assisted Dip. The weight stack lifts the knee padded machine arm but does not drive you straight up rather slightly arcing in keeping with helpful ergonomics.
The specific model of Nautilus machine we searched for uses a heavily engineered yet subtle double leaver arm design and a pillow style pad. The leaver arms lift you while creating that natural arc and the soft pad allows the knees to gently adjust on the go. These are small but in our experience ‘make it or break it’ additions and should you doubt the significance but have some healthy curiosity please…you are welcome to come by free of charge to try it. The weight stack can accommodate anyone and we won’t try to sell/pressure-sell you on anything. We originally found and purchased this machine just for ourselves and to entertain (possibly bore) friends when they visited …we are proud of it to say the least. Nautilus creator Arthur Jones himself said years after he made his millions something to the effect of; truth be known if a person could perform serious chin ups, dips and a squats together with little rest between exercises they had most of the fitness they would ever need. As such we also have a truly rare machine in the same room for creating the perfect squat …but enough fitness geeking out for now.
Please think about our recommendations here, there is more there than meets the eye and much translates to getting in shape in general. As always do not hesitate to comment or question, until next time be well and…chin up.