Overhead Pulling With Adult Groups?

My good friend Sean D and I recently discussed the efficacy of programming loaded chin-ups with our adult MBSC Thrive adult groups. I enjoyed the conversation so I figured this would be a good topic to expand on in a post.

FYI: If you don’t know Sean, he is an awesome guy AND he is the VP of Operations for MBSC Thrive. He’s got some great stuff on his site so I  suggest you give him a follow.


“I’m with you and think that doing more good Chin-ups than they did on day one should be the goal? Loading up Rows and Pulldowns makes sense.

 With that said, if you had to make a call for 200+ coaches who all coach Adults, only in small groups of up to (8) clients, would you say that Loaded Chin Ups should be on the Adult Progression/Regression sheet?”

If so, what do you think is the best way to load it?

 Also, if so, it would fall in as the most progressed version of any overhead pull, correct?”

Although the question is about Loaded Chin-Ups I think it would be wiser for us to zoom out a bit and look at it from a wider standpoint of “Overhead Pulling” and focus in on specific progressions from there.

I always incorporate some sort of overhead pulling into the program unless the client lacks two functional arms to work with.

So clearly I find it a valuable endeavor, one that I think 99.9% of clients can engage in safely. However, I think we can err easily when not choosing our tools wisely.

I love the idea of chin-ups but quality ones can be can few and far between with the average adult population. I have some personal clients and group clients who are great at them but I have just as many if not more who have chin-ups on their “no-go” list.

Of my clients that do chin-ups…

  • Most are women using a small band for assistance.
  • Some are men/women who are doing bodyweight only for reps
  • A very small percentage are doing them loaded.

In a large group setting, I’m always personalizing the programming when it comes to overhead pulling because of all of the potentials limitations.

Including but not limited to…

  • Shoulder Mobility/Pain
    • No Pain = No Pain
    • Must be a 2/2 on the FMS
  • Neck Pain
    • Recent history of neck pain related to Overhead Position
  • Overweight
    • Clients with a poor strength to bodyweight ratios should start with X-Pulldown and focus on improving body composition before progressing.
  • Mental
    • Chin-Ups are hard and not everyone one wants to do them. People won’t get better at them if they are just going through the motions. It’s OK, find an alternative exercise for them.
  • Training Time
    • Optimally, I think to go from zero to multiple chin-ups you should probably train them twice per week with different variations. (More on that in a bit)

Getting back on track to the original question, I think loaded chin-ups/pull-ups are a great option in a group setting if the client earns there way up to them through the overhead pulling progression and expresses interest in pursuing it.

I think the overhead pulling progressions should be as follows.

Overhead Pulling Progression

1). Keiser X-Pulldown

This is a great introductory overhead progression that doesn’t require a client to be directly overhead. This my go-to for new clients, overweight clients and those who don’t have the requisite mobility to train with full shoulder flexion.

2). Keiser Alternating-ISO X-Pulldown

I like this progression to increase the scapular stability demand from the regular X-Pulldown. Besides providing some variety for our gen pop clients it’s a great option for throwing athletes when chin-ups offer more risk than reward.

3). Seated Ring Chin-Up

When I first saw this progression a few years back I brushed it off. Not because I didn’t like it but it just didn’t catch my interest. After working out with my friend Ben Bruno this past summer I came to realize I missed the boat on this exercise.

This has been my go-to overhead pulling progression with the majority of my clients as of late. From a technical standpoint, I like that the client can work the humerus through internal/external rotation during the drill. From a practical standpoint, they tend to look better than chin-ups and my clients really enjoy them so it’s really a win-win all around.

4). Band Chin-Up

Band chin-ups seem to be controversial as of late. I’ve heard many coaches brand them as “ineffective” and I would agree that if they are not well coached then they are probably a complete waste of time. However, I think the key lies in the statement “if they are not well coached.” If you let the athlete bounce off the band at the bottom they become more resemblant of an amusement park ride than an exercise.

Good band chin-ups should have a pause at the top and the bottom like Coach Boyle demonstrates in the video below. Also, from a programming standpoint, I think that it is important to program them at a higher intensity. Sets of 8-10 reps with a band won’t require an athlete to create any tension, leading to the bouncing band chin-up. I would opt for sets of 1-5 reps for multiple sets. This means a smaller band, more tension and a quicker progression to a bodyweight chin-up.

4). Chin-Up

So now that you can do one bodyweight chin-up, what’s next?

The one-rep hump is typically a tough sticking point for most. Here are some techniques that have worked well with my clients.

  • Increase the frequency: I find that getting from one rep to multiple reps almost always requires training chin-ups two times per week. This typically means doing band assisted chin-ups for 2-5 reps on Day 1 followed by a different variation on Day 2. If this client is training in a large group I simply switch out a pulling exercise on the second day for another variation of chin-ups. Below are some of the other chin-up variations I like to use.
  • Multiple Sets Of Singles: I really like placing single reps throughout the workout.
    • A1: Trapbar
    • A2: Chin-Up x 1
    • A3: Wheel Rollout
    • A4: Chin-Up x 1
  • ISO-Hold: If the client struggles to finish at the top I may incorporate an Isometric hold variation on the second day to help them get stronger at the top of the pull.

  • Eccentric Only Chin-Up: Eccentric chin-ups can be a killer but are very effective for getting over the one rep hump. I typically program these towards the end of the training week and for low volume since they can produce a lot of DOMS.

5). Pull-Up

Following success on the chin-up, I’ll often try to challenge the client by progressing them to the pull-up. (For those of you that are confused right now: Chin-Up = Underhand, Pull-Up: Overhand)

The pull-up is tougher for most clients due to the wide abduction/external rotation position of the shoulder. In most instances, I like opting for this drill before adding external load to the chin-up but, pull-ups aren’t for everyone. The shoulder position also places more stress on the elbow, neck and shoulder so sometimes it may be best to just stick to underhand or neutral grip pulling.

6). Loaded Overhead Pulling

Now, finally, we’ve arrived at loaded overhead pulling. I love loaded chin-ups and pull-ups for clients who truly want to pursue strength and don’t have any contraindications in their sport or injury history. However, as you can probably tell by the length of this article that it takes awhile to earn your way to loaded overhead pulling progressions.

As both a coach and a trainee, be patient. Embrace the journey through the appropriate progressions. You can always have your eyes on loaded chin-ups as a terminal progression but X-Pulldowns may get the job done just as well for most trainees.