PT and performance coach Susy Natal outlines the exercises and factors to consider when training your female client to achieve the ultimate upper-body strength goal.
Chin-ups and pull-ups are common strength goals that many female clients will present to their trainers. Because they involve so much of the body and are not something that can be achieved overnight, they are often viewed as benchmarks of upper-body strength.
Unlike many other movements that are more concerned with how much weight can be added to the movement or how many repetitions can be completed, even being able to perform the first chin-up or pull-up is a challenge in itself. Therefore, the ability to do chin-ups/pull-ups at all may be seen as a great feat of strength requiring persistence and dedication, which can add to the appeal as a goal for your clients.
- Chin-ups and pull-ups are often seen as benchmarks in upper-body training, making them a common goal for female clients who want to get strong
- Several muscle groups are involved in chin-ups and pull-ups, and as such need strengthening before the ultimate goal can be achieved
- The latissimus dorsi are the primary driver, with the assistance of the biceps
- Grip is responsible for not dropping off the bar and the lower trapezius, rear deltoids and rhomboids are responsible for correct scapular positioning throughout the movement
- Strengthening these individually, performing drills to improve awareness of scapular positioning, and regressions such as jumping chin-ups, are central to helping your clients achieve their first chin-up or pull-up
Holds, hangs and walks for grip strength
Some of my favourite grip work exercises include plate or dumbbell holds for time. These can progressively have more weight added to them over time as your client gets stronger. Eventually, once your client is strong enough to hold and hang from a bar, this can be upgraded to bar hangs for time, progressively increasing the minimum required time as your client gets stronger. If you want to incorporate a conditioning component into grip work, farmers’ walks are also an excellent exercise to include into your client’s programming. A client who needs to improve her grip should also be encouraged to implement as much incidental grip work into her sessions as possible – helping to put the weights away, avoiding dropping weights and not rushing a set just to put the weights down sooner.
Curls, pull-downs and rows
The lats and biceps need to be strong, so training them more than once a week using a variety of movements is optimal. Choose different bicep curls, ensuring full range of motion and controlled movement and avoid using momentum. Have your client complete pull-downs and rowing movements using different grip positions to ensure a more balanced strengthening of the back, again being careful that she does not allow swinging of the body for momentum or shrugging, which overuses the upper traps. Also employ single arm, as well as bilateral movements, to work on any left to right imbalances that might be present.
My favourite movement to teach and improve the strength in scapular depression is scapular pull. For this movement, the client hangs from a bar and then squeezes the lower traps to pull down the shoulders, like the reverse of a shrug. As a client increases in strength, they will be able to complete more repetitions in a row. Note that a full scapular pulls also includes scapular retraction and is the initial movement of the scapulae to get into position at the start of a chin-/pull-up.
My favourite movement to teach and improve the strength in scapular retraction is scapular push-ups. For this movement, position your client on their hands and knees on the floor, and coach them to work through the full range of motion, pushing the scapulae forward and back with strong arms, without allowing the hands to leave the ground. As a client improves in strength, the shoulder-blades will be able to squeeze together then pull apart harder, repetitions will increase and, in some cases, the client will be able to go up to their feet to load up the movement further.
Single arm pull-down
My favourite movement that allows a client to practise scapular retraction and depression, unilateral work, and scapular positioning throughout the entire range of motion that the arm (and therefore shoulder joint) would move through when completing chin-/pull-ups, is the single arm pull-down. This can be completed using a cable or a band attached to a high anchoring point. The client kneels and completes a repetition by first simultaneously retracting and depressing the scapula, then holding that position while performing a pull-down through the lat, continuing to hold the scapula in position as the lat allows the arm to return to the top position, and finally letting the shoulder pull forward and up. Repetitions of this with increasing weight will not only teach a client where her shoulders are meant to be throughout the entire movement, but also make her strong throughout the entire range.
Assisted and jumping chin-ups
Pull-down variations are also an early regression of actual chin-ups, and once your client is adept at these you should introduce assisted chin-ups into her programming. Typically, band-assisted is more beneficial than using the assistive machine, as bands offer little assistance at the top of the movement and so force the client to work more for the repetitions. Once your client is adept at these, she is ready to try jumping chin-ups, whereby she jumps – typically from a box – while already holding onto a bar. At the top of the jump she should be hanging in the top position of a chin-up, before completing the eccentric component of the exercise, which is why this movement is also sometimes called the eccentric chin-up. As she improves in strength she will be able to complete more repetitions, but also develop the control necessary to descend more slowly throughout each repetition.
About the author
Susy Natal is a Sydney-based performance coach, widely published wellness writer, convention presenter and personal trainer. With a background in psychology, her integrated approach to training helps clients achieve strength of body and mind. With a major focus on strength training for females and on mindset coaching, Susy works with clients ranging from beginners through to athletes. Visit susynatal.com
This article was produced in conjunction with Australian Fitness Network
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