performance goals

Three ways to build up to your first chin up

Despite the fact that I lift weights regularly, I am not what the kids call swole.

And by swole, I think I mean overly muscular or busting out of my t-shirt sleeves. I’m not sure. The further away I get from my twenties the less I understand teenager speak. By the time I understood that “dabbing” wasn’t just getting a stain out of a shirt, the phenomenon had passed.


As I was saying, despite the fact that I lift often, I don’t have much upper body strength. I have more than I did 10 years ago, but doing certain upper body movements like bench pressing and push ups are still a challenge for me.

The reason my instagram feed is filled with deadlifting videos (and Rooney) is that deadlifting came naturally to me. Like anyone else, I gravitate towards what I’m good at and avoid what comes harder. And post pictures of Rooney because Rooney.

My goal for 2019 though, is to nail my first bodyweight chin up. I set out after this same goal in 2016, but a torn labrum in my shoulder derailed my efforts and now, looking for a goal to help keep my training focused (performance goal), I’m back at it.

You are not incredibly weak if you cannot do a chin up or a push up from the floor (not from your knees). Especially as a female. Most of us do not have the natural upper body strength to do either of these exercises in the beginning, and yet we assume that we are weak if we can’t. You’re not weak, you’re human.

In most cases, these two exercises can take a lot of work - very few females (and some males) can do so without training regularly.

If you’d like to train towards doing your first unassisted chin up, here are a few exercises that can help you get there.

  1. TRX Assisted Chin Ups

If you have access to a TRX system or any other suspension training system, this exercise can be a perfect way to strengthen the lats (that area on your back, just below the shoulder blades) and using your feet as much as you need to complete the range of motion.

Coaching Tip: Complete the full range of motion at the bottom of the movement - in other words, make sure your arms are fully extended, elbows not bent, at the bottom of the movement. (*As long as your elbows and shoulders can tolerate the full extension.)

2. Hollow Body Pull Downs with Dowel Rod

I stole this exercise from Tony Gentilcore and have been incorporating it into my own workouts. The hollow body hold begins by lifting your upper back (above your shoulder blades) off of the ground and lifting your legs a few inches off of the ground at the same time. Cross one leg on top of the other, and press down as hard as you can, while resisting with the bottom leg. This will increase the tension in your body, and probably make you hate life for 30 seconds, but in a good way.

This position, as Tony says, “teaches a trainee what it means to attain full-body tension, as well as helping to drive home some context (on the floor) of what needs to happen if or when someone is ready to hang from a bar.”

So you’re not just hanging limp when you jump up on the bar to perform the chin up. You need to create tension. And if you’re wondering what that means, that’s a great question, and I’ll work on doing a post for that.

3. The Band Assisted Chin Up

And possibly the most fun of all of these.

I mean, fun is relative here, obviously.

You can loop the band vertically around the bar and put your knee or feet into the bottom of the band for assistance. But ever since I learned this variation when I completed my Certified Functional Strength Coach course, I’ve been using it often with clients and myself.

Prior to learning this exercise, I was forever putting the band around my knees or my feet and swinging around like a monkey stuck in a banana branch (I don’t think that’s a thing) - but using this version, with the band under my feet, helps me achieve full extension at the bottom - my goal is to do the chin up from a dead hang position (with my arms completely straight) and this variation helps me do that. It also helps me keep tension in my body.

You might have to experience with band height and band resistance at the beginning before figuring out where the best starting point is for you. If the band feels like it’s going to shoot you through the roof, that’s fun, but not exactly what we’re after. Experiment with the band resistance that will allow you to feel like you could barely do another two reps if you had to.

In the video below, I have two bands to create enough resistance for me to perform eight reps. When I took one of the bands off, I could get one solid rep, so I’ll continue training at this resistance until I can get at least six reps with one band.

These exercises are by no means all encompassing strategies to help you do a chin up - but they are a great place to start if doing a chin up is on your bucket list.

Questions, comments, thoughts?

I’d love to hear from you.

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What does your 100% look like?

When my high school softball team advanced to the second round of the Pennsylvania State playoffs my junior year, my coach was quoted in the paper as saying “these girls got as close to 100% out of their abilities as any team I’ve ever had. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”


I was bummed out that we hadn’t gone further in states, but when I look back on that team as an adult, I understand what he meant.

None of us were superstars, but that team was different than others I played on because we all raised the collective abilities of one another. Some excelled at defense, some at offense, some were fast, some were strong - but we all brought our best assets to the table that year.  

As a strength coach, my goal is still the same; to help each client get as close to 100% out of themselves as possible.

Some clients are former athletes; some have never played a sport in their lives; some are regular gym goers and some haven’t set a foot in an exercise setting since gym class. 

Which is a good reminder that you shouldn't compare. No comparing. Are we clear?  (<----- Read me)


I know, it's hard. 

But my question is what does your 100% look like? And how can you evaluate?

1. Are you going through the motions?

I’m guilty of this. Often. One of the ways my depression has affected me so dramatically is that I catch myself going through the motions. I show up, I do the work. But I'm completely checked out. In the gym, that means I'm doing the bare minimum. I'm not pushing myself. I'm not challenging myself. I'm not growing and I'm not changing. 

If you don't have a personal trainer or coach, find a workout buddy, or track your workouts. You should be tracking your workouts anyway. But don't just go through the motions. 

2. Do you have a goal?

I’ve written about this in the past, but I think the key to great training is honing in on not just a goal (losing weight), but a performance goal. Increase your deadlift - try a deadlift. Work towards a push up from the floor or your first dead hang chin up.

Squat more, move more, push more. But set an intentional, purposeful goal. And make it about gaining, not about losing. Gaining strength, not losing weight. If you focus on the first, the second one is sure to follow.

3. Are you afraid to fail?

The other day, I put my workout gear on and started to get after it. On the program were some heavy deadlifts and I was working out while some clients were there, also working out. 

After struggling through my warm up sets, I failed to move a weight that I should have easily moved.

I didn’t just fail, I fell flat on my face. At least for that day.

It sucked. Every last part of it. And it got me down. So I went back to it a few days later, but I have to be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d be successful. Those failed lifts were hanging heavy on me. But the only way to know whether or not I'd move the weight was to try it. 

And when I first start lifting, I was often afraid to fail. Afraid that I’d do it wrong, with bad form and hurt myself, or just embarrass myself in front of other people who seemed to know what they were doing. 

Challenge yourself. Push yourself. 



Beyond the scale: Five Strategies for Gauging Progress

Quote from a client last week:

"I didn't gain 40 pounds overnight. So I'm not going to lose 40 pounds overnight."

I followed her statement with 17 high fives, a cha cha dance, and a bear hug. (It's okay, she was cool with it.) We were having a conversation about what it takes to stay focused on your fitness routine when you're not seeing the changes, especially on the scale, that you want to see after a few solid weeks or months of training.* 


And I thought her above statement was spot on. We put weight on for a variety of reasons over the years; stress, having children, slower metabolism, maintaining the same diet at 41 as we did at 21, and when we start the journey to take off some of those pounds, the process can feel maddeningly slow. 

So how do you find a way to keep on keeping on when you haven't seen immediate results? 

1. Focus on consistency

Are you getting to the gym three days a week? Have you been doing that for the past month, when you weren't going at all two months ago? That is progress. The saying that has been all over fitness websites recently is that your best rep scheme is 3x52. Show up three times a week, 52 times a year and you WILL see results. I promise. Are you going to see all of those results after only one month? No. 

I know that you want the needle on the scale to move. I know this. And I know you want the waist measurements to go down. And the body fat percentage to go down. But focus on building the routine. The results will follow. 

2. Throw the *^%%$*& measuring stick out the window.

What is your measuring stick? One of the other mom's at the soccer game? The woman next to you on the treadmill? Gwyneth Paltrow? Your scale? What is it? Who is it? 

Throw it out the window. Yes, I just said to throw Gwyneth Paltrow out the window. And I meant it. You've been lifting. You can take her. Comparison is one of our worst enemies. 

3. Focus on performance goals

I'm willing to bet 50 yard line seats to the Pittsburgh Steeler-Baltimore Ravens game that by the time you work your way up to a bodyweight deadlift, you will have seen the results I asked you not to obsess about in number one. 

Change the focus from losing to gaining. Yes you want to lose body fat, but place the focus on your performance - the number of push ups you can do - whether or not you can deadlift your bodyweight - whether or not you can do a chin up - I promise that if you focus on these numbers and not the other numbers, and if you don't eat like a tool** you will see results.

I mean I'm willing to bet Steelers' tickets on that.***

And speaking of results, let's do the math on progress. Say you've been doing 15lb dumbbells for three sets of 10. That's 900lbs your lifting. If you can up that to 20lbs, that means you're lifting 1,200lbs. That's 300lbs more. 

300. Pounds More. 

Don't worry about the scale not moving. Because you can now break it with your bare hands. 

4. Find good people for your corner of the ring

I went to my first cornfield party when I was 16 or 17 years old - we were somewhere in rural Western Pennsylvania, there was a keg, red solo cups, and it was November....Someone had the good sense to burn a tire for heat, and the gathering ended with someone yelling cops and us scattering all over the place.

But what I remember most about the party was people coming up to me and taking my one beer out of my hands (I didn't like the taste anyway). They asked what I was doing there. I remember one guy especially telling me that I was a great softball player, was going to get a scholarship, and that I shouldn't be messing around at parties and lose that opportunity. As he dumped my beer out.

Despite the fact that we were all teenagers with under-developed frontal lobes, most folks knew I wanted to be an athlete and they were encouraging me to stay true to that journey. 

You need to find those kind of people to support you on your journey. You need to find the people who remind you to focus on you and feeling better and that you matter and are important and that good things will happen.

Find these people. Keep these people. 

5. Have a "go to" workout

I'm laid back about most things in my life. I rarely have opinions on plans, restaurants or the organization of my closet. I'm so type B I'm almost a Z. Except with my workouts. I am obsessed with doing whatever routine my coach wrote for me that day. It's taken me a long time to come up with a secondary plan for days when I'm short on time or nursing some minor injuries.

What is plan B? Well, I have a movement day that I keep in my program. And my movement day means that I'm at least going to the gym and foam rolling, warming up, and then doing 3-5 exercises. On days when I'm not feeling up to it, I get to the gym just to do this 20 minute workout. What I've found is that sometimes I feel good enough after the warm up to do the original workout. The key for me is having something in my back pocket that I gives me permission to go easy, but still gets me to the gym.

It keeps me in the routine. 

*By now, most of you know how I feel about using the scale to measure your progress. 

**It's important not to overlook this piece. You can't out-train a really poor diet. But let's focus on building the habit of getting to the gym first. 

***If anyone has tickets to the Steelers-Ravens game....I can be free.