My Favorite Pull Up Variations

The pull up is one of my desert island exercises. Meaning, that if I’m stranded on a desert island, and after I get my food, water, and shelter situation resolved – I’m building a pull up bar!

These muscles are directly impacted by the pull up (and chin up)…

  • Lats
  • Biceps
  • Infraspinatus
  • Traps
  • Pecs
  • Erector spinae
  • Obliques

The pull up is a tough exercise to perform because you are pulling your ENTIRE bodyweight through space and against gravity. In a home (or basement) workout environment, you aren’t going to be training your pulling movements unless you actually install a pull up bar and do the movement.

At the gym, movements like lat pulldowns and rows do train pulling motions, but they really don’t mimic the benefit of true bodyweight pull ups.

In this article by T-Nation, all of the surveyed trainers agree – DO PULL UPS!

Unless you have an insurmountable physical condition that prohibits the movement, or you’ve been ordered by your primary care physician to literally not do them, then you are doing your training a disservice by not incorporating it.

My personal pull up journey is heading towards the fabled one-armed pull up. It’s a long path, and I just need to be patient, and keep after it. Along the road, here are some of the pull up variations that have aided me in gaining pulling strength.

Inverted Row

This one is a great jumping off point into the world of bodyweight pulling movements. Find a surface (or bar) that is about hip height from the ground, crawl under it, grab on, and pull your chest to the surface (or bar). You want to keep your core and glutes engaged and locked in. You don’t want to sag your hips down. Also, and this is very important – don’t round your shoulders at the bottom of the move. You want to keep your shoulder girdle engaged the entire time (like you are trying to juice an orange by squeezing your shoulders together behind you). Bad row bottom

The above is a BAD bottom position. Note how close my shoulders are to my ears. In this position, my core isn’t engaged, and I’m just in a dead-hang. This is not a good position for inverted row reps.

Good row bottom

This is a GOOD bottom position for the movement. Notice you can see my neck between my shoulder and ears. At this point, my core is engaged and my shoulders are trying to “juice” that orange.

When following the “Convict Conditioning” program, I spent a good 4-5 months working up to 3 sets of 30 inverted row reps. At the time, I could do pull ups, so I had the strength. But, spending time in this beginning progression and going for higher reps paid dividends in terms of strengthening the connective tissues around the primary muscles affected by the movement. This will aid my quest for single limb movements.


Scapular pull up

Before you can do your first pull up, you should be able to hang from a bar for as long as it takes to do one set of pull ups (heck – even just one pull up). That is why I’d recommend dead hang work as part of your progression. It’s simple – just grip a bar, and do a full dead hang. Nothing engaged but your grip. Once you can do that for about a minute, then you should move into scapular pull ups. This is a small move, but a great move for training the shoulder motion required for doing the pull up. The first move when you pull yourself up is for your shoulder girdle to engage. So, this is a move you should train like a little mini micro pull up.

Keep your arms straight throughout the movement. Don’t bend your arms and use your biceps to raise you up. Just focus on pulling your shoulders down. I know that sounds funky – but you’ll get the idea when you try it.


Standard pull up

With an overhand grip (palms facing AWAY from you), grab the bar just outside of shoulder width, and with as little momentum as possible, pull your body UP, and chin above the bar. If you are flailing and kicking your lower body to get up, that is called a “kipping” pull up. That isn’t your ideal pull up. You want to go through this range of motion with little to no lower body movement. You want to engage your core and glutes as you pull yourself up. Your lower body will rock forward a little bit – that is just physics. Once you can do a pull up, congrats – that is quite a strength feat. You can go for high reps, you can go for weighted reps, you really can program a lot of different challenges for your body just with this move.


Standard chin up

Same idea and cues as the pull up, but this is an UNDERHAND grip (palms facing you). Most people find this variety easier than the overhand grip pull up because the bicep engages more.


Wide grip pullup

Like with push ups, you can alter the physics of the exercise to make it more challenging with your hand placement. By going wider, you are putting more emphasis on the shoulders, and you are reducing the range of motion that you will pull through. Be careful – everybody’s shoulders have different range of motion, so don’t do something that hurts. Oh, and do this overhand – don’t do it underhand.


Close grip pull up

This is a tough one, and I recommend spending some time with this one. The range of motion is the largest, and it challenges your wrist strength/flexibility.


Alternate grip pull up

I’ve heard this one called “mixed-grip” also. It’s a nice stepping stone to starting one-armed progressions. One hand has an overhand grip, and the other hand has an underhand grip.


Towel pull up

This one is a great way to improve your grip strength. And, it’s pretty simple – just throw some towels over your bar, and PULL.


W pullup

This is another nice building block to one-armed work. It’s basically three pulls for one rep. Pull your chin to your left hand, return to bottom, pull your chin center, return to bottom, pull your chin to your right hand, return to bottom. Go back and forth as much as you can. By pulling to one side specifically, you are transitioning more work to just that arm. So, its not a 50/50 effort anymore. Maybe it’s 70/30 or 80/20…


Uneven chin up (one-arm assisted)

This is where I spend a lot of my time right now. I’m working on gaining high reps in this movement. I’d say the work is about 90% the hand touching the bar. The further down your wrist you grab, the less work the assisting hand does. Just like I recommend being able to dead hang for as long as it takes to do a single set of pull ups, I recommend mastering a dead hang with a single arm before trying this movement. Right now, I’m up to 25 seconds dead hang on each arm. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, this single arm action really challenges your core. Your body will want to twist when you hang – you need to lock out your core and not let it.


Rock climber switch

This is a fun way to challenge holding the upper portion of the pull up. If you want a simple challenge, but a good workout – try to hold the upper portion of a chin up for 1 minute. Pausing at the top, and doing a very slow and controlled descent for many seconds is called a negative chin up (or if you have the overhand grip, a negative pull up). That is a great pull up progression if you aren’t getting yourself above the bar with a standard pull up yet. Just grip the bar, jump to the top of the movement and HOLD ON FOR DEAR LIFE. Once you reach your limit, slow the descent for a good 4-5 seconds.

The rock climber switch is a variant of that idea. You get to the top, and rather than just a static hold or a controlled descent, you change your grip between overhand and underhand one hand at a time, and as many times as you can. It’s a tough move and you might fumble around the first few times, but it’s worth getting proficient at.


Do you have any favorite pull up variations? If so, please let us know about them in the comments. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” and share. Thanks!


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