The pull-up is my all time favorite exercise. It’s simple, effective and can be varied in an endless amount of ways. Pull-ups work the entire upper body, particularly the lats and other back muscles.
The standard pull-up is performed while hanging from an overhead bar with your hands a bit wider than your shoulders and your palms facing away from you. Keeping your whole body tight, begin to pull yourself upward. When your chin passes the bar, you’ve completed one repetition.
The chin-up is the most common pull-up variation; it’s the same as a pull-up except your palms are facing towards you. Changing the grip from overhand to underhand places more emphasis on the biceps.
Wide Grip vs. Close Grip
Feel free to vary the width of your grip with chin-ups and pull-ups. Wider grips will generally be a bit harder as they place more emphasis on the lats; a closer grip puts more emphasis on the arms, chest and shoulders.
You can also do a pull-up with your palms facing towards each other. This is typically done on two bars that are parallel to each other (commonly referred to as a neutral grip). There is also a variation where you do a neutral grip pull-up on one bar with your hands staggered, alternating which side of the bar your head passes on the way up. This is often called a commando pull-up.
Behind the Neck Pull-ups
This is an exercise that you have to be careful with. If you’re new to pull-ups or you’ve had shoulder/rotator cuff issues, it might be best to leave these out for now. However, for those of you who are comfortable with pull-ups and have healthy shoulders, going behind the neck can be a challenging and worthwhile variation.
Dead Hang Pull-ups
When performing pull-ups, you want to use a full range of motion. The dead hang pull-up ensures that you are doing just that. During a dead hang pull-up, your arms are fully extended at the bottom of each rep, bringing your body to a dead hang. Absolutely no momentum is used to pull your body upwards.
Unlike the dead hang pull-up, when you do a kipping pull-up you are intentionally using as much momentum as possible to swing yourself over the bar – be explosive! There are a few different kipping techniques out there. Mine is a bit unorthodox but it works for me.
Once you get comfortable with pull-ups and kipping pull-ups, try some plyometric variations. Any explosive pull-up that involves letting go of the bar is a plyometric pull-up. One of my favorite plyo pull-ups is the clapping pull-up.
An archer pull-up involves using a very wide grip and only bending one elbow as you pull yourself up. The other arm stays straight. The top of the rep looks almost like you are drawing a bow and arrow. The archer pull-up is a great technique to help practice towards the one arm pull-up.
The One Arm Pull-up
The one arm pull-up is the granddaddy of them all! It takes tons of practice and patience to acquire this skill, but if you are willing to work for it, it’s within your grasp!
A Life of Possibilities
This is by no means an all-inclusive list. There are infinite pull-up variations so feel free to get creative! Watch the video below to see demonstrations of these pull-ups as well as several other variations, such as the L-sit pull-up the “X pull-up.”
For more information about pull-up training, make sure to pick up a copy of my book, Raising The Bar: The Definitive Guide to Pull-up Bar Calisthenics.