Tackling the Weighted Chinup

This article is for those that have become proficient with chinups and pullups and want to progress into heavier weighted pulls.

Back in March of 2009 I had a 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 in on pullups. I had always included pullups 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 of the gym. It hurt any time I lifted my arm over my head, so I was forced to stop doing pullups 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 that trains hard knows, this works sometimes, but it eventually catches up to you.

I stopped doing pullups completely for 2 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 pullups program, I first switched to chinups (underhand grip), which did not irritate my shoulder nearly as much, and 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 5 reps with 100 pounds added, which I had proclaimed when I first contacted Harry.

At this point I set a new goal, which was to do a chinup with twice my bodyweight (175 pounds) and to do reps with 3 plates added. I knew that to achieve this goal, I had to come with a solid program that focused on progressive resistance but more importantly, kept me healthy. With most lifts, I have taken a very simple approach. I keep a logbook, and every time I repeat an exercise I try to add weight and/or reps. If I fall within the rep range I am shooting for, I add weight the next time. If I fall short on the reps, I will keep the weight the same and increase the reps. Boring, yes. Simple, yes. Effective, yes.

I quickly found, however, that when I got to a certain point on chinups, I plateaued pretty damn fast. Worse, constantly doing heavy weighted chinups was taking a toll on my shoulder. I needed a new plan. Harry Selkow taught me an extremely important lesson: that is, you don’t have to go to failure all the time. Before that time, I would give myself a predetermined number of chinups to do, and I would do every single set to failure until I hit that number. This was an extremely important lesson for me to learn. Moreover, from my 2 month hiatus from chinups, I learned that I didn’t have to focus exclusively on heavy chinups in order to improve my chinups. 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 listen to your body and adapt to your surroundings. Anyone that is worried about weighted chinups likely has been around the block to enough to know this, but it is worth stating anyway. With that said, here is the basic outline I followed to increase my weighted chinups. This program worked for me and in one year I was able to go from 100×5 to 132×5 and achieve a double bodyweight chinup.

Here is a video of 132×5

Here are the bullet points of what I did:

1. Drop pullups entirely in favor of chinups, neutral grip chinups (palms facing), and blast straps chinups. These three exercises became my staples for both weighted and non-weighted pulls. I know some people say that chinups are easier so it’s cheating and yada yada yada, and for awhile, I used that as a reason to do pullups. They constantly hurt my shoulder though, so in the end, it wasn’t worth it. My point here is not to bash pullups at all. If you can do them pain free, great. My point is just to listen to your body and not 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, and it was causing some pretty substantial elbow pain. When I dropped the frequency slightly, my strength actually went up fast. I still hit the muscles more frequently than a standard one bodypart a week split, but this slight change made a big difference in my recovery.

3. Only focus on chinups 2 out of every 3 back workouts. This means that every third back workout I would drop chinups and focus the workout solely around horizontal rowing variations. This gave my shoulders a break while still strength my lats. I guess you could consider the third workout to be a chinup deload of sorts.

4. On chinup focused workouts, alternate between weighted and non-weighted pulls. I personally find that heavy weighted chinups tear up my shoulders and elbows if done with a high frequency, and I have spoken with many others that have had similar experiences. To combat this, I rotated in bodyweight chinups 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 bodyweight days, I did them near the end of my workout when I was fatigued.

On weighted chinup days, I followed a very simple progressive plan. I started at a 10 rep max and simply added 2.5-10 pounds each time I repeated the exercise, depending on how I was feeling. Usually it would be small jumps, but there were times I was feeling frisky and added more. The reps inevitably dropped some as the weights increased, but not very fast. Once I got down to 4 reps, I reset my numbers back to a 10 rep max (albeit higher than the previous 10rm) and started the process over again. This system worked very well and I really did not stall. You have to remember though that I was only doing weighted chins 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 chins every workout, this plan would have stalled very quickly. It may seem crazy to only do weighted chins once every 15 days or so, but I promise you will not 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, but I would recommend that you adjust the number depending on your current level to a number that will take your 7-8 sets to start (this number will come down as you improve). The difference, however, was that this time I rarely took the sets to failure. On occasion I would overestimate myself and fail 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 to 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 would use the bodyweight days to give my body a break and do 10 sets of 5 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 and getting my chin over the bar. I am not going to get into an argument about the efficacy of kipping pullups; I am just stating what I did.

So here is what it would look like:
Workout 1- Weighted Chins (changing grips frequently)
(5-6 days later) Workout 2- Bodyweight Chins
(5-6 days later) Workout 3- Rows
(5-6 days later) Weighted Chins again (and so on and so forth)

5. Push the rows hard. But isn’t this supposed to be about chinups? Yes, but I found that as my rowing improved, so too did my chinups. I kept a logbook and constantly tried to increase my numbers. Like with chinups, 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.

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

– Trap Bar Pendlay Rows- This is basically a barbell row (only using the trap bar) where you reset the weight each rep.
– Old school t-bar rows. This is where you put the bar in a corner and using a V-grip handle to row between your legs.
– “Kroc” Dumbell Rows- Any one reading this undoubtedly knows what these are. I did not do them often because the dumbbells in my gym did not 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 4 sets of each, unless I chose Kroc rows, in which case it would 1-2 work sets. I started with a weight I could get about 12-15 reps and would add weight each set going up to top set of 6-8 reps. Each set was pushed hard, though again, not to complete failure. I usually stuck with each row variation for 3-4 workouts in a row before switching to another variation. However, again, this was just a template. I was lifting in a very busy gym, and if the equipment was being used, I would do 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 logbook and tried to beat the previous performance. It is all about progression.

6. 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 did not 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 bodyweight chinup, my body was used to hanging with heavy weight so it did not 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 is not 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 are not lean already, get lean. Extra fat will only hurt you in the quest to get better at weight chinups. You can’t count those love handles and beer gut as weight added.
2. Be consistent. Inconsistency is the number one thing that I see holding most people back that 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, when I do it, I come back stronger. The template I have 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 would personally 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 are 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 have made, and they are a great tool for improving chinups. They are great for accessory exercises like face pulls, scarecrows, and inverted rows, but they are great for chinups 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 is great. They allow your shoulder to move through a natural range of motion. In fact, when I first tested the double bodyweight chinup, I used the blast straps to do it.

Here it is

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 chinups frequently. Plus, the bright yellow color will draw attention as you show off your newfound chinup strength.

I hope this provides you with some direction for progressing on weighted chinups. 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!