I have a friend who owns a successful exercise studio that features intense boot camp style workouts.
Her gym model is based around large group classes that feature every type of bodyweight training imaginable - plyometrics, calisthenics, yoga, etc.
The gym has no equipment per say other than some light dumbbells, bands, and some plyo boxes.
One day she asked me, “if I were to incorporate one piece of equipment into my gym for classes, what should it be?”
My response, without hesitation, “pull up bars!”
Pull Up Bars: The Best Piece of Workout Equipment
Whether you work out in your basement or the local gym, a pull up bar is the one piece of equipment that you absolutely cannot go without. My reasoning? The “pulling” muscles, namely the lats and biceps, are very difficult to effectively work without having something to pull against.
Most traditional weightlifting movements can be replicated with bodyweight movements that require no equipment. Sets of pushups can be substituted for the bench press. Squats, lunges, and calve raises are just a few of the lower body exercises that are effective with no weight.
Bodyweight skull crushers and hand stand pushups are two movements that can build massive triceps and deltoids. There are countless ab and core exercises that can be done on the floor.
But what about your back muscles? Your lats and rhomboids are next to impossible to work without mimicking a pull down or row.
And unless you have a pull up bar, you will be out of luck.
So now that I’ve conveyed to you the importance of pull ups, I have to disclose something. Not only do I think that pull ups are one of the most crucial exercises known to man, but they may be my hands down favorite.
One of the reasons I love pull ups is their versatility. There are numerous ways to change the focus and degree of difficulty just by changing your hand placement or the angle at which you are pulling.
Today, I’m going to teach you my 10 favorite pull up variations, ranging from simple to extreme.
1. Wide Grip Pull Ups
Wide grip pull ups are the grandaddy of them all. Grab the bar with a wide overhand grip and tilt your head back as you pull your chest towards the bar. This variation really widens the lats and will give you that classic V taper. Avoid doing the “head nod” at the top. By throwing your head further back you are just tricking yourself into thinking that you went all the way up.
2. Narrow Grip Pull Ups
Place your hands about thumb length apart and lean back slightly as you pull. I really feel the narrow grip pull up variation in the lower lats. The squeeze at the top really seems to hit the forearms similar to a reverse barbell curl.
3. Underhand Pull Ups
Aka chin-ups, this is the most common, and probably easiest version of a pull up. By placing the hands in an underhand position, the biceps become more heavily involved, taking some of the strain off of your lats. Be sure to squeeze at the top and get your chin over the bar.
4. Side-to-Side Pull Ups
Instead of facing the bar, stand underneath it, facing the rack or one of the support poles. Reach up and grab the bar with an “over-under” grip, and pull up bringing your head to one side and touching the opposite shoulder to the bar. Lower and repeat on the opposite side.
5. Humphrey Pull Ups
I named this variation after one of my athletes, 3 x Team USA wrestler Reece Humphrey. I’m not sure if he invented this variation, but he was the first person I ever saw doing them.
Start with a wide overhand grip, pull up until your mouth is at bar level, then pause. Keeping your face in front of the bar pull over to one side until your face is in front of your hand then pull all the way over to the other hand without dropping down. Count each back and forth as one rep, with 10 full reps as the goal.
This variation really works the lats through a different range of motion than most pull ups.
6. Clockwork Pull Ups
The best way I can describe this circular pull up motion is to imagine that you are going around a clock as you pull. At the starting position your head is at “6 o clock” and the center of the bar between your hands is 12. Pull up and around, then lowering yourself in a circle. Alternate each rep between clockwise and counter clock wise.
7. Finger Tip Pull Ups
This type of pull up is great for building hand, finger, and forearm strength. I started doing these after going rock climbing for the first time a few years ago. I realized that my grip was very strong in a closed fist (similar to when grabbing a bar or dumbbell), but I lacked the strength that was needed to hold onto small rock ledges with my finger tips.
As you could probably envision from the name of this one, start by just using the tips of your fingers (no thumbs) to hang on to the bar. You can adjust your hand placement at any width and can even switch between underhand and overhand positions.
8. Clap Pull Ups
Everyone has done clap push ups before, right? Well this is the same concept, except much harder. Start with a shoulder width grip, pull explosively as you let go of the bar to clap and then (hopefully) bring your hands back out to the starting position. This one takes as much rhythm and timing as it does strength, and is a great plyometric pulling movement.
9. Pause Rep Pull Ups
This variation can be done with any number of grips or hand placements, simply pause at the top with your head above the bar for any where between 1 to 3 seconds. A tough challenge is to try a set of 5 pause reps, pausing at the top of the first one for 5 seconds, the second rep for 4 seconds, and so on until the fifth rep is only a 1 second pause.
Follow the last pause rep up with an additional 5-10 regular pull ups before letting go of the bar.
10. Negative Pull Ups
Many lifters utilize negative reps of the bench press or even on rows, but I love adding them to pull ups to stress the eccentric portion of the movement. Simply pull up at your normal speed but then lower back to starting position during a super controlled 6 seconds. My favorite way to do these are partner assisted.
Have a spotter grab your hips during the 6 second negative and slowly pull you down as you provide resistance. If you are the spotter, remember to gauge your effort in line with your partners strength, don’t pull so hard that they come crashing down.
Pull Up 101
Everyone seems to have a different opinion about technique, but here are my four golden rules of the pull up game:
Do Not Swing: Kipping is fine if you are doing a muscle up (and maybe even on a plyo based pull up like flying pull ups or the Clap pull ups described in number 8 above). But if you are trying to build strong lats you should not be swinging what so ever. What is the best way to prevent this?
Keep your legs perfectly straight, keeping your glutes flexed and your toes pointed towards the floor. It’s a common default position for people to bend their feet up behind them during a set of pull ups, but that will make it easier to start kipping as the reps get tough. Keep your legs locked in place and you will have to rely on strength, not momentum, to finish your set.
Go LOW, but not quite all the way down: The other most common mistake besides kipping is not going low enough. With that being said, you want to go low but not completely to what is called an “un-packed” position.
If you go all the way down to a dead hang your entire body weight is now being supported by the tiny muscles of the rotator cuff, which is not a good situation for anyone. Keep your lats tight at the bottom, literally an inch or so from a dead hang, and never fully relax. Your shoulders will thank you.
Pull at the proper angle: On overhand variations, concentrate on engaging your lats and pulling your elbows back as your collar bone cruises towards the bar. The further your elbows are in front of you, the more you are relying on your biceps rather than your lats. A wide grip pull up should have the same mechanics as a wide grip pull down.
Get your chin above the bar, but not by throwing your head back at the top: can we all just agree to stop with the “head nod” thing at the top of our pull ups. By throwing your head back at the top, you are not getting any higher and are simply tricking yourself into thinking you went all the way up. Just stop. Please.
Keep your eyes focused on something straight ahead and get your chin above the bar the old fashioned way - by doing a full rep.