A lot of people want to do pull-ups, but for some reason, they can only do chin-ups. This is one of these strange facts of life that has baffled a great many people who are into working out.
Recently a friend of mine asked me the same thing.
I can do chin-ups, but no pull-ups, is this normal? Pull-ups are significantly harder than Chin-ups. The main reason why chin-ups are easier is because of the biceps. Chin-ups allow you to use your biceps in a more significant way, while pull-ups isolate the back and hands play a much smaller role.
For more in-depth information, continue reading below. I share with you everything you need to know to make the switch from chin-ups to pull-ups.
Is It Normal to Not Be Able to Do Pull-Ups?
You might be able to do five, even ten chin-ups, but still not be able to do even a single pull-up with a good form.
The problem is that many people would rather be able to do pull-ups. So they feel kind of embarrassed.
Let’s get this out of the way first.
- Don’t feel down if you cannot do any pull-ups as of yet;
- Even chin-ups are tough for a lot of people; and
- You don’t need much—just the right approach, and this is what I will help you with here.
So here’s what you need to do.
First, forget about being worried or embarrassed. There’s nothing wrong with you. A lot of people start with chin-ups just because they are easier.
However, after a while, they find out they are kind of stuck with them. This is what I call a beginners trap.
And this is why I never advise people to start with chin-ups (especially if they want to learn how to do pull-ups). It is like learning Spanish, but first, you decide to learn French instead, as it may help you with your Spanish.
So is it normal to do chin-ups but no pull-ups?
Yes, it absolutely is!
Now let’s move on to the next question you might be asking yourself.
What Is the Reason for That?
So why is this happening? The right approach will be to find out what the reason is and then work on fixing it.
Several reasons may be at play here and although not all may apply to you, some combination of them will:
- Your forearms are not strong enough yet;
- Your grip is too weak;
- You are still trying to pull with your arms instead of with your back.
- You are pulling with one hand more;
- You were stuck with doing chin-ups for way too long (never moving on to pull-ups) and you have to relearn the movement;
- Your chest might be too weak (or tired if recently trained);
- You were doing chin-ups with bad form;
- Your back is too weak;
- You are doing the pull-ups with bad form;
- You don’t rest enough;
- A poor diet may be leading to a lack of energy and strength; and
- You have hit a mental plateau. You feel intimidated by the pull-ups (You can be surprised how often this happens to people).
It all boils down to the right approach.
For me, it was patience and taking enough time so that both my forearms and grip get stronger. For a couple of months, I was doing pull-ups, and I just wasn’t able to hold on to the bar for long enough. I was training on a soccer goal gate—the ones with the very thick (4 to 5-inch) posts—so I was making the whole thing even harder for me.
Do Chin-Ups Help with Pull-Ups?
Since regular pull-ups are harder, people are often recommended to start with chin-ups.
Here’s why I don’t like that approach.
I feel like if you want to get better at pull-ups—then you should do pull-ups.
Chin-ups do have some carry over to the pull-ups, but more often than not, in my experience with other people, I see only downsides.
Chin-ups may limit your ability to pull with your back muscles. Especially at the very top when you are near the bar.
When you are doing chin-ups, you are training for chin-ups.
And to learn how to do pull-ups, you need to do pull-ups as that way, your brain will develop the right neural pathways, and your muscles will develop the necessary muscle memory.
Chin-ups are performed in a slightly different way—and the biomechanics of the body are different. The balance of your body is slightly different compared to the pull-ups, which shifts the overall position of your body ever so slightly.
Chin-ups will make you stronger. However, the longer you stick with them, the more problems they will create for you.
When making the switch to pull-ups, you will still struggle because—even though it may look very similar—you have to learn a whole new movement.
Because of this deceptive similarity, many people will have the wrong expectation. Yes, they are similar yet different.
How Many Chin-Ups Do I Need to Do Before Moving on to Pull-Ups?
You do not need to be able to do any number of chin-ups.
Let me explain.
I mentioned earlier that if you want to do pull-ups, it is better to start with actual pull-ups. If you cannot do a whole pull-up, then there are other alternatives. There are pull-up variations that are perfectly suitable for beginners.
“But isn’t a chin-up the easier variation of a pull-up?” you might ask.
No, it isn’t. It is a different exercise that targets the muscles differently.
So do you really want to master one tough exercise only to begin learning another equally if not even tougher exercise almost from scratch?
It depends on your goals—but when I wanted to master the pull-ups, I focused on pull-ups.
How Long Is It Going to Take to Do Your First Pull-Up?
Although it may seem like a daunting task at first, do not worry about that too much. I have seen a lot of people give up just because they wanted a specific—and ideally shorter—time frame.
With that being said, your first pull-up might actually be closer than you think.
Here’s what I would do in that case:
- Stop doing chin-ups as they cannot help you anymore at this point. They might have helped you get stronger in the beginning, but now there’s no need for them anymore. Chin-ups do not exist anymore—switch to pull-ups;
- Start training for pull-ups three times per week. Often I get asked, “Should I train every day?” No, you shouldn’t. Your body and muscles need time to recover after each training session. Motivation is a good sign, which I admire, but, nonetheless, do not train every day;
- Do no more than five sets each day. Let me repeat this is again more than enough to achieve your goals right now; And
- Start with negative pull-ups (this is the most important part!).
What Are Negative Pull-Ups?
Every movement or repetition in fitness training consists of two parts.
- Concentric part: During this part of the movement, the muscle contracts.
- Eccentric part: During the eccentric part, the muscle lengthens. The eccentric part, thus, is easier to do than the concentric.
Here’s why this is important to know.
The concentric part is harder because this is where you are fighting against gravity and trying to overcome the weight. This requires you to actively exert force.
When it comes to the eccentric part, you are moving with the weight, or the gravity if you will. You only need to control the speed at which it lengthens.
The eccentric part is also known as the negative part.
The negative (or eccentric) part of the pull up is the movement down. And the concentric part is the movement up.
So how do you do negative pull-ups?
Find a bar that is not too high. If the bar is too high, you can try jumping on it.
Get (or jump) in the top position where your chin is near or above the bar. Try to hold yourself in that position for as long as possible and start slowly, in a controlled manner, lowering yourself
Five negative pull-ups separated by a short rest of 30 to 90 seconds can be more than enough for your first one or two weeks of training. After the first two weeks, start gradually replacing them with regular pull-ups.
This is it!
Should You Train on a Machine?
I personally have never seen any improvement in my pull-ups from training on a machine. It kind of mimics the movement, but it is not the same movement.
Conversely, doing assisted pull-ups or lat pull-downs on a machine might help if you feel too weak, and you are having difficulty even holding on to the bar.
However, even in that case, there’s a much better alternative—which is the inverted row.
If you really want to supplement your back training, a better option will be to add some:
- Bent over rows with dumbbells or a barbel;
- Inverted rows; and
- Neutral chin-ups (where the palms of the hands are facing each other).
How to Train for Pull-Ups?
When I first started, I could barely pump out one pull-up.
I never did any chin-ups in the beginning; I wanted to focus my effort on mastering the pull-up.
I started with negative pull-ups, and in my third week, I was already doing regular full range of motion pull-ups for reps!
Of course, your mileage may vary depending on a lot of things like:
- Level of commitment to the training routine;
- Proper nutrition;
- Proper rest and time off;
- Personal strength level;
- Resting time;
- Bodyweight; and
- Supplementary exercises.
I often see people focusing on just one aspect of the whole process – the training.
This is good. Don’t get me wrong.
Naturally, regular training will improve your strength, and you will see some gains in terms of muscle mass too.
But nutrition and rest are the other two points in this triangle. Neglecting them will result in poor results (even none sometimes).
Why Is Nutrition Important?
A balanced, nutrient-rich diet will give your body the much-needed building blocks so your muscles can recover and grow after training.
You will also be healthier and full of energy.
Neglecting this part is like building a house and forgetting to buy the bricks in the first place.
Why Is Rest so Important?
Rest (and good sleep) is essential because your body needs time to recover. And so do your muscles.
If you train every day and push yourself to the limit, your body will burn out.
This can lead to overtraining, low energy, low mood, lack of strength, and even injuries.
Another thing that can be easily neglected is your bodyweight. Pull-ups are harder if you weigh more.
I remember during one summer—my weight usually doesn’t fluctuate too much—I lost like 2 pounds, and I immediately felt improvement in the rep numbers of my pull-ups.
This is the perfect time to lose some weight if you really want to.
Losing even a little weight will make pull-ups easier.
What Is Considered a Good Pull-Up?
One of the most common problems I see in people is that they do the pull-ups with bad form. Many even do the chin-ups with bad form as well.
A jerky pull-up accompanied by lots of swings will get your head above the bar, but is it really worth it? It isn’t.
Focus on quality over quantity—you will thank yourself later, trust me.
People often struggle with balance, too. This is completely normal and expected for a beginner as your body and core muscles adapt to the new demand.
Balance is achieved with time. You need patience; there are no shortcuts here. There are a few things that you can do to speed up your results.
- Train your abs and the rest of your body. This will improve the synergy and balance of your body during the pull-up movement;
- Work on keeping the swinging and kipping to a minimum. Ideally, what you want is to have 100% control over your body at all times;
- Start with your palms at shoulder width (There’s no need to go super wide yet). Hands to shoulder and collar bone to the bar;
- Don’t try to stick your neck out. Extending your neck so you can reach the bar is not training your back muscles; and
- Use your back. Don’t pull with your arms. Imagine pulling with your forearms instead and trying to get them in the back pocket of your pants.