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11 Pull Up Variations Every Athlete Needs to Know

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It’s a good idea to understand the respective benefits of every single one of the following pull up variations. 

If there’s one upper body exercise every strength athlete should include in their training program, it’s pull-ups.

pull-up variationsSource: Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc

I like to think of pull-ups as squats for the upper body; no other exercise gives you as much bang for your buck, so to speak. The pull up is a compound exercise that engages multiple muscle groups while at the same time developing functional strength as well as a powerful grip.

Plus, they’re convenient; all you need to do them is your own body and something to hang from!

Add these pull up variations to your training routine if you want to challenge your body in different ways.

1. Chin Up

To do a chin-up, grab the pull-up bar a shoulder’s width apart with your palms facing inward towards your face. This grip is also known as supinated grip or underhand grip. One easy way to remember this is that your palms are near your chin, hence the name!

From a hanging position, pull yourself upward until your chin clears the bar. Avoid swinging, kicking, swaying your body to get yourself over the bar or other pull-up mistakes. Pause at the top, then lower yourself down slowly to the starting position.

Unlike the pull-up, which we’ll discuss further down in this article, the chin-up focuses the effort on your biceps while also recruiting some of your chest. Because the chest’s pectoral muscles are so large, this means this exercise is often the easiest for beginners.

2. Classic Pull Up

The pull-up takes the same form as the chin-up, but instead of your palms facing inward, your palms face away from your body. This grip is also known as a pronated grip or overhand grip.

If you find the jump from chin-up to pull-up to dramatic, ease into the transition with negative pull-ups. This can help you to build up the strength needed to do a complete pull-up. Simply use a box or step stool to get into the top position of a pull-up. While keeping your core tight, lower yourself down into a hanging position.

Compared to the chin-up, the pull-up hits your lower trapezius and your lats better, making it less of a chest and arms workout and more of a back workout.

3. Chest to Bar Pull Up

Chest to bar pull-ups are the ‘next step’ up from chin-over-bar pull-ups. They are more challenging and frequently programmed in WOD’s. Your collar bone or below needs to contact the bar for the rep to count.

4. Hammer Grip – Pull-Up Variations

Also known as a parallel grip, with this move you do a pull-up while your palms face each other. Many gyms don’t have the right pull-up bar style to accommodate this move, but the Pullup & Dip bar does. On the Pullup & Dip, use the two bars protruding from the front.

A hammer grip pull-up is harder than chin-up but easier than a pull-up. It’s ideal if you have weak shoulders or have injured your shoulders in the past. This neutral grip puts less strain on the shoulders and reduces the pressure on your wrists. Athletes also love the hammer grip because it emphasizes the biceps, making it perfect for arm day.

5. Narrow Grip and Wide Grip

Once you’ve mastered the basics, kick it up a notch. Whether you’re doing chin-ups or true pull-ups, change how far apart your arms are placed on the pull-up bar.

PULL UP VARIATIONS – Close Grip

PULL UP VARIATIONS – Wide Grip

If you want to activate your chest muscles and build your pecs, move your hands closer together. The narrower your grip, the more you use your chest muscles. Fitness enthusiasts who like to do weighted pull-ups (where you attach weights to yourself with a belt) also tend to use narrow-grip hand positions because your chest is stronger and allows you to lift a heavier load.

If you want to work your back more, move your hands further apart. A wider grip moves the focus off of your pecs and burns more of your back muscles. Pros love this move. “Wide-grip pull-ups coax the upper lats to come out,” Arnold Schwarzenegger once said.

6. Mixed Grip Pull Up

With a mixed grip pull-up, one hand faces outward and one hand faces inward. This creative mix allows more of your different muscle groups to kick in, reducing fatigue and allowing you to add even more weight if you’re using a weight belt. If you do this variation, switch your hands every other set to avoid creating a muscle imbalance.

7. Kipping Pull Up

This “cheat” derives from a powerful and athletic reversal of hip direction — like that of the clean and the snatch — and expands the primary movers from just the back and arms down through the torso and hip to include the power zone.

Far from being a cheat, kipping is a gateway skill with functional utility on the rings, parallel bars, high bar, and floor (the quickest way to get to your feet). Where most athletic communities avoid the kip, the CrossFit community go to great lengths to teach and learn it.

8. Butterfly Pull Up Variations

In a conventional kipping Pull Up you would push yourself back and away from the bar in order to then achieve a big and powerful arch in the bottom position.

On the other hand the Butterfly technique requires the athlete to essentially pull themselves directly into the arch position as they come down from the previous rep.

This cuts on the “transition” time but it can be very tricky to learn and to understand the correct timing necessary to string multiple reps together.

9. Around the World – Pull Up Variations

This move is for advanced athletes. Start with a wide grip pull-up. Raise your body to the top of the bar like you typically would, but move your torso at an angle up towards your left hand. Once you’re at the top, stay there but move your body towards your right hand, then lower yourself back to the starting position. Repeat, but more in the opposite direction.

10. Towel Pull Up

At the end of your workout, add some towel ups. The purpose of towel ups is to strengthen your grip-strength. Hang a towel over your pull-up bar and hold onto the towel to complete a pull-up or chin-up.

The instability of the towel works your core while having to hold onto the soft towel, as opposed to the steady bar, works out all the muscles and tendons in your hands and wrist.

11. Muscle-Up

The muscle-up is a challenging variation of the pull-up and adds in a tricep workout. Start in a wide grip pull-up and haul yourself up towards the bar. As you reach the top, pull your chest up over the bar and straighten your arms until your waist is level with the pull-up bar. Pause, then lower yourself back down.

Pull Up Variations

So now you know the difference between all of the Pull Up variations and their uses.

It is now up to you to choose how and when to utilize each one and how to set yourself up for success when learning the more complex variations.

It is key to understand that learning these movements is a lot like learning how to ride a bike.

For most, it will seem almost impossible or simply hard to grasp what exactly you are supposed to do.

But once you understand the movement patterns and metaphorically “unlock” the nervous pathways that allow you to perform them they will become second nature.

That’s why we encourage focusing on your foundation: mobility and strength.

When you develop both and couple them with the right drills, you’ll be avoiding both injury and developing wrong movement patterns that you’ll have to correct further on, and therefore the journey to becoming a gymnastics ninja will be much more straightforward.

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