Remember those dreaded days in gym class when you had to hang with your chin above the bar for as long as you could in front of all your peers?
There’s a reason this exercise was always the scariest: the chin-up is notorious for being one of the most challenging displays of physical strength and control.
“Chin-ups are the number-one exercise that I gravitate towards to gauge upper body strength and then to assess progress of upper body strength,” says Tony Gentilcore, a Boston-based certified strength and conditioning specialist. “So many of my clients assume they will never be able to do one, let alone multiple repetitions, but they can—it just takes work.”
The trick? Improve your strength from the ground up (literally) with floor-based exercises, says Gentilcore. Then, as you get more comfortable managing your body weight and movement on the ground, you can transition to the bar.
Here are his top five exercises to help you become a chin-up master in no time.
Lie on your back, arms extended over your head, one hand on top of the other. Straighten your legs out on the floor, ankles crossed. Lift your arms and legs several inches off the ground so you create a slight ‘V’ shape. Make sure your core is engaged and your lower back stays glued to the floor. (Watch this video to see how to do hollow position.) Hold for as long as you can without letting your form waver. Aim to hold this position for a total of one minute per workout session. (You can do six 10-second holds, three 20-second holds, two 30-second holds– whatever works for your skill level.).
“Hollow position is a very simple looking exercise, but it really builds context on the floor for the exact position you need to be in on the bar,” Gentilcore says. “Your feet should never be behind you, and you should never be loosey-goosey with your limbs. It’s all about keeping your body tense and engaged from toes to fingers.”
Stability ball roll-out.
Kneel in front of a stability ball and place your forearms and hands on top of it. Then, with control, roll the ball forward so that your body and arms extend long in front of you. Only roll out as far as you can go without allowing your back to hyper-extend (if you’re new to this move, that may only be a couple of inches). Using your core, roll back to your starting position.
“If you’re squeezing your glutes and bracing your abs, you should feel your whole body fire up with tension and control, especially when you pull yourself back to your kneeling position,” he explains. “This move emulates that chin-up movement, too.”
Add two to four sets of five to 10 repetitions to your workouts. “The lower rep ranges help keep the focus on the quality of the movement, rather than just building up fatigue, when form gets sloppy,” Gentilcore says. “I want every repetition to be spot on and perfect. Imperfect form won’t do anything to help you at the chin-up bar.”.
Push-ups are another tricky body weight move, Gentilcore says. And because you need a strong core to execute them correctly, they can help you prepare for a chin-up. “To me, the real money of the push-up is learning to control the lumbopelvic area and the core,” he explains. “Whenever I improve somebody’s push-up, I almost always see improvement in chin-ups, squats, deadlifts, everything.”.
But don’t do them on your knees, he warns, unless you have an injury that makes it uncomfortable to do push-ups with your legs extended. “I hate that. It sets a bad precedent, and then you’re not as close to a chin-up position either,” he says. “There are so many push-up variations that don’t require going to the knees. You just have to find a range of motion where you are successful.”
Some options: Elevate your hands using two yoga blocks, an aerobic step or a bench to lessen the intensity of the movement. Or attach a band to two pins on a power rack (like this) and get into position above the band with the band aligned with your hips. This helps lighten the load on the way up in the push-up.
Do at least 10 push-ups each day. Scatter them throughout the day if you can’t do 10 with good form in a single go. To make the move more challenging, try lowering yourself to the bottom of the push-up and then taking three to five seconds to slowly push back up (or vice versa).
Now that you’ve mastered the basic moves, “we have to translate that hollow position from the floor and actually hang from the bar– just hang,” Gentilcore says.
While you’re hanging, make sure you pull your shoulders down and together, your legs are straight, and feet and ankles are slightly angled in front of your body. Also check that you have an underhand grip, meaning the palms of your hands are facing you. (Overhand grip, where the palms are facing away from you, is a different move– a pull-up. These moves can also help you master a pull-up, but it’s typically a bit more challenging than the underhand grip.).
To start, just hang for as long as you can. It may be more challenging than you expect to get a good grip on the bar. “It’s fine if you can only hang for a few seconds and then need to break and try again,” he adds.
As you become more comfortable and can hang with proper form for longer, try bending your knees forward into a 90-degree angle, like you’re sitting in a chair. If you’re more advanced, you can hang with your legs extended straight in front of you, parallel to the floor.
Add two to five straight-arm hangs to your routine as often as you can.
Next up? “Now you do have to get comfortable with the top position of a chin-up,” Gentilcore says.
You may need to step up on a box or have a friendly trainer help lift you up above the bar. Once you are there, hang with your chin above the bar, arms bent, with a strong underhand grip. Hold the position as long as you can with good form, repeating two to five times during your workout. “This will likely be much more tiring than the straight-arm hang, but it’s key to get used to the sensation,” he says.
As the flexed-arm hang gets easier, practice lowering yourself out of it with control instead of collapsing to the ground.
Tip: Take three to five seconds to go from the flexed-arm hang to the straight-arm hang position.
When you feel ready to try the full chin-up movement, use a band to assist you in the movement, as opposed to an assisted chin-up machine, which can be found in most gyms. “The band requires you to keep yourself more stable and in control, whereas the machine allows you to slack on form,” Gentilcore explains.