The Chinup Plan

Exercise 1: Band-assisted chinup
This exercise not only allows you to do full chinups, but it more accurately mimics the classic movement than the assisted-chinup machines found in many commercial gyms. (If your gym has the machine but not the bands, go ahead and use the machine.)

Directions: Loop one end of the band around a chinup bar and then pull it through the other end of the band, cinching it tightly to the bar. Grab the bar with a shoulder-width, underhand grip, place your knees in the loop of the band, and hang at arm's length. That's the starting position. Now perform a chinup. Do 2 sets of 6 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets, and then move on to Exercise 2.

Exercise 2: Negative chinup
For this movement, you'll perform only the lowering portion of the chinup. That's because studies show that focusing on this portion of the exercise can lead to the greatest strength gains.

Directions: Place a bench under a pullup bar and use it to boost your body so that the top of your chest is at bar level. Then take as long as you can to lower your body (you should time yourself with a wristwatch) until your arms are straight. A key requirement: Try to lower yourself at the same rate from start to finish.

Do 2 sets, resting 60 seconds between them. When you're able to take 30 seconds to lower your body, or your combined lowering time for both sets is 45 seconds, add a third set. This is also a gauge of your progress: If you can complete a 30-second negative chinup, you can probably perform one full chinup. Complete all your sets, and then move on to Exercise 3.

Exercise 3: Explosive lat pulldown
To do this exercise, you'll perform each repetition quickly in order to train your fast-twitch muscles. These are the ones that are most important for building strength.

Directions: Grab a lat pulldown bar with a shoulder-width, underhand grip. Then, instead of sitting in the machine, position yourself on your knees in front of it, your body forming a straight line from shoulders to knees. Your arms should be completely straight. Without moving your torso, pull the bar down to your chest as fast as possible, and then allow the bar to quickly raise back to the starting position in a controlled manner. That's 1 rep.
Choose the heaviest weight that allows you to complete 4 (but not 5) repetitions.
Do 10 sets of 2 repetitions each, resting 60 seconds between each set.
Each week, shorten your rest periods between sets by 15 seconds.
In week 5, do a single set of as many repetitions as you can. (My clients can usually complete 8 to 10 reps by this point.)
In week 6, start the process over again.

When you can do at least two chinups...
It's time to upgrade your routine. Your best option is a method called diminished-rest interval training. Instead of trying to do more repetitions, you'll focus on reducing your rest periods between sets. Eventually, you'll eliminate the rest altogether--and as a result you'll be able to do more reps continuously.

Directions: Simply take the number of chinups you can complete with perfect form and divide that number in half. That's the number of reps you'll do each set. So if you can do 2 chinups, you'll do 1-rep sets. If you can do 5 chinups, you'll do 3-rep sets. (Round up any fractions.) Once you've determined your rep range, complete 3 sets with 60 seconds of rest between each. Do this workout twice a week, spacing the sessions at least 3 days apart. Each week, reduce your rest period by 15 seconds. Once your rest period is zero, start the process over and add an additional set to each workout.

Once you can do 10 chinups...
You'll probably be tempted to stick with the status quo--say, 3 sets of 10 repetitions each workout. Trouble is, you won't improve very quickly that way. Instead, I recommend that you build pure strength by adding more weight and doing fewer repetitions. As a result, you'll automatically increase the number of reps you can complete with just your body weight.

Directions: To perform this workout, you'll need a dip belt ($21, This strap goes around your waist, and you'll attach a weight plate to it. Now do the workout below. For each set, use the heaviest weight that allows you to complete the prescribed number of repetitions. So as the number of reps you perform decreases, the amount of weight you use increases. Do each workout 3 times a week; rest 60 seconds between each set.

Set                           1 2 3 4 5 6
Week 1                    8 6 4 8 6 4
Week 2                    7 5 3 7 5 3
Week 3                    6 4 2 6 4 2
Week 4                    5 3 1 5 3 1

Once you reach week 5, start the process over, using the same number of sets and reps that you did in week 1. However, adjust the weight so that it corresponds to your current strength level. You should expect to use more weight for each set in weeks 5 through 8 than you did in the corresponding sets of weeks 1 through 4.

Bonus tip: Build your biceps with chinups
There's an old saying among fitness pros: "If you can't complete at least 10 chinups, you have no business doing arm curls." That's because chinups work your biceps as hard as arm curls do, but they also help build upper-body strength. So if you're too weak to do several reps of the chinup, you should expend more energy training your entire upper body and less on one specific muscle group. Once you can do 10 chinups, though, you can strategically use the chinup to boost the size of your biceps.

Directions: Grab a chinup bar with an underhand grip, your hands about 6 inches apart. Now pull your chest to the bar as if you were doing a regular chinup. However, as you lower your body after your sixth repetition, pause for 3 seconds at three different positions: once when your elbows are bent at less than 90 degrees; once when they're bent at exactly 90 degrees; and once when they're bent at more than 90 degrees. Do this for as many additional repetitions as you can. Rest for 60 seconds, and do one more set.