To many women, a chinup (the underhand-grip cousin of the pullup) seems like the Mount Everest of strength training: impossible to even attempt. To make things worse, there's been a slew of media attention over the past year or so (including in The New York Times) listing reasons women can't do—as in, are not physically capable of doing—the classic, but slightly harder, pullup. As a strength and performance coach, I see self-doubt in the gym. Whenever I mention to my female clients that one of my goals is to help each of them do an unassisted chinup (and, I hope, more than one), many look at me as if I'm setting them up to fail.
To be sure, the move isn't a cakewalk. It's true that both the chinup and pullup are typically easier for men than for women, mostly due to differences in upper-body strength (men tend to have more of it) and body-fat distribution (women tend to carry more fat in their lower body, which can throw off the mechanics of the exercise). But it's far from impossible. Plus, by dodging chinups, you're missing out on one of the best, most efficient upper-body moves on the planet. It strengthens and sculpts the muscles in your arms, shoulders, back, and core with every rep, and it builds muscle mass, which helps you boost your metabolism and shed body fat.
This six-week specialized program will help you build the strength and confidence needed to tackle the intimidating chinup—and soon after, help you bang out several in a row. Are you in?
The "Yes, You Can!" Chinup Plan
Ditch the lat-pulldown and assisted-pullup machines. In order to master a real chinup, you need to adjust to the challenging movement pattern. The four exercises detailed on the next page will help you practice and dial in proper technique (what I call "greasing the groove") as well as build upper-body vertical pulling strength that can't be replicated by many other exercises. These moves will also help improve your grip strength and exercise tolerance—meaning it will feel easier to hold on to the bar.
During the two phases of this plan, alternate between the sets of exercises listed at right, doing them a total of three times each week. (So the first week is 1-2-1, and the second week is 2-1-2, and so on.) Add the move to the beginning of your regularly scheduled workout: It's crucial to do it when your body is fresh and at its strongest.
WEEKS 1 TO 3
1. Isometric Chinup
2 or 3 sets, 5 to 20 seconds
2. Suspended Pullup
2 or 3 sets, 8 to 10 reps
WEEKS 4 TO 6
1. Eccentric Chinup
2 to 4 sets, 4 to 6 reps
2. Band-Assisted Chinup
2 to 4 sets, 5 to 8 reps
This one may not seem like much (you don't even move, after all), but it's hardly a waste of time: Holding yourself above the bar keeps your muscles under constant tension, which helps build strength and has significant carry-over to exercise proficiency.
Do It: Stand on a bench or box to get yourself closer to the bar, grasp the bar with an underhand grip, then jump up so that your chest nearly touches it. Hold for as long as you can, starting with five seconds and working up to 15 to 20 seconds.
It's similar to the lat pulldown, with one major advantage: You're working to pull yourself up, rather than pull a bar down, which makes this move more functional and better prepares you for the real thing.
Do It: Fix a TRX suspension trainer around a bar and sit directly under it on the floor, legs extended straight in front of you; grab both handles, arms straight (a). Without leaning back, bend your elbows and pull your upper chest toward the handles (b). Pause, then slowly lower yourself back to the starting position. That's one rep.
People are generally much stronger in the lowering (a.k.a. eccentric) phase of an exercise than in the lifting portion. That's why you'll first work on lowering yourself as slowly as possible. It makes your muscles work in overdrive throughout the entire range of motion, which in turn helps you build the overall strength you'll need to pull yourself up the other way.
Do It: Standing on a box or bench, grab the bar with an underhand grip, then jump up so that your chin touches it (a). Pause, then lower yourself as slowly as possible, aiming for about five to 10 seconds (b). Once your arms are fully extended, let go of the bar and step back onto the box. Repeat.
Don't think of this as a stand-in for the assisted-pullup machine you see at the gym. Unlike that machine, which gives fixed support throughout the entire move (it essentially makes you lighter), the band "assists" you only at your weakest point (in this case, at the bottom with your arms extended). As you pull your body toward the bar, the band's support lessens so you utilize more of your own strength.
Do It: Loop a resistance band around a chinup bar; place your knee in the loop and grab the bar with an underhand grip, arms completely straight (a). Pull your chest toward the bar (b). Pause, then slowly return to start. That's one rep.