A lot of exercisers view bodyweight exercises like push-ups, lunges, and pull-ups as inferior to free-weight and machine-based exercises. They mistakenly believe that bodyweight, also known as calisthenic, exercises are best left to beginners. After all, how can something so simple and low-tech be beneficial, right?
The reality is that bodyweight exercises can be every bit as effective as other types of training and may even be better in some situations.
Not convinced? Check out the strength and muscular development of athletes like gymnasts and martial artists. While some DO engage in equipment-based strength training, the vast majority perform bodyweight exercises. The same is true of the military and even incarcerated prisoners. Bodyweight training, done with sufficient intensity, can produce really impressive results.
Your body is made of 206 bones, over 600 muscles, and billions of cells. And yet, despite this complexity, it still can’t differentiate between doing pull-ups from a tree branch or using a $10,000 lat pulldown machine. All it knows is work and effort. So, providing you push yourself, pull-ups are every bit as effective as other, more expensive workout equipment.
However, as good as pull-ups are, you’ll soon get bored if that’s the only exercise you do. Your body needs plenty of workout variety, otherwise, your progress will quickly grind to a halt.
That’s why it’s useful to know plenty of different ways to do pull-ups. With these variations in your workout toolbox, your training need never be boring.
In this article, we’re going to reveal the 11 best pull up variations, as well as discuss why pull-ups deserve to be part of your workouts. If you aren’t doing pull-ups or aren’t very enthusiastic about them, we’re going to change your mind!
Best Pull-Up Variations
Why do Pull-Ups?
Pull-ups are a demanding exercise and, because they’re tough, a lot of people avoid them. That’s a shame because, as upper body exercises go, pull-ups are one of the most useful. The benefits of pull-ups include:
No gym required – you can do pull-ups anywhere that you can find somewhere to hang. Do pull-ups from a cheap and portable doorway pull-up bar, using a freestanding “power tower,” from a ceiling joist in your garage, from a tree in your garden, on a climbing frame at a playground, or anywhere else you can hang safely.
Build bigger, stronger biceps and back muscles – as a compound exercise, pull-ups work lots of muscles. But the main movers and shakers during pull-ups are your latissimus dorsi and your biceps. Whether you want bigger arms, a broader back, or get stronger for sport, pull-ups can help.
Increased grip strength – a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. For pull-ups, that weak link is your hands. Hanging from the bar for pull-ups will increase your grip strength. A firmer grip is linked to increased longevity and is also useful for sports.
A good indicator of weight – you’ll quickly notice that, if you lose weight, pull-ups get easier. Similarly, if you gain weight, you’ll find that you can’t do as many. Ditch the scales; use pull-ups to track your weight and, more importantly, how it affects your performance.
Pull-ups are badass! – if you want to turn heads at the gym, pump out a set of ten or more pull-ups. Everyone in the know will recognize this impressive feat. Anyone can do lat pulldowns, but it takes a decent level of strength to do pull-ups. That’s why you don’t see that many people doing them.
11 Best Pull-Up Variations to Try
While pull-ups are undeniably effective, if that’s all you ever do, your progress will soon stall. Keep your workouts fresh and interesting with these 11 best pull-up variations!
Where pull-ups are done with an overhand, wider-than shoulder-width grip, chin-ups are done with a narrower, underhand grip. This hand position puts your arms in a mechanically advantageous position, so you may find this variation somewhat easier. It also works your biceps a little harder. However, some people report that chin-ups are harder on their elbow joints than pull-ups, so experiment with care.
Pull-ups work your abs as well as your back and biceps. Your abs work to stabilize your lower body. However, the abs activation is relatively low. This pull-up variation is much more abs-centric. To do L-sit pull-ups, hang from the bar as usual, but then lift your legs, so they are parallel to the floor. Keep your legs up as you pump out the pull-ups as normal. Needless to say, this is a MUCH more demanding exercise!
Behind-the-neck pull-ups are a controversial variation. On the one hand, they work your back muscles from a different angle, leading to increased muscle growth. On the other hand, behind the neck pull-ups put more strain on your shoulder joints and could lead to injury. There is no denying that this variation is more demanding than regular pull-ups, but for some exercisers, the risks outweigh the benefits.
Make any pull-up variation harder by increasing your bodyweight. That doesn’t mean you can start eating vast amounts of junk food! Instead, strap on a weighted vest, use a chin/dip belt, put on a rucksack, or clamp a dumbbell between your ankles or knees. Don’t go too heavy too soon. Instead, start off with about 10% of your body weight and increase gradually from there.
You are stronger eccentrically than you are concentrically. That means you can lower more weight than you can lift, and negative pull-ups take advantage of this phenomenon. To do negative pull-ups, use your legs and climb up to the top of your pull-up. Then, using your arms only, lower yourself down slowly. Climb back up and repeat. This is an excellent way to build up to doing full pull-ups. Alternatively, you can do a few negative reps after doing regular pull-ups to failure.
Towel Grip Pull-Ups
This fiendish variation is a great grip builder. It’s an excellent option for climbers, wrestlers, rugby players, and anyone else who values a firm grip. To do it, drape two towels over your pull-up bar. Grip the ends tightly together, one towel per hand. Hold on tight and start repping. Don’t be surprised if you can’t do as many reps as usual. Your rep count will increase as your hands get stronger.
60-second pull-ups are less of an exercise variation and more of a training method. For this one, you do one pull-up, taking 30 seconds to pull yourself up and another 30 seconds to lower yourself back down. Moving so slowly eliminates all momentum and keeps your muscles under constant tension. This all adds up to a VERY demanding exercise. Pair with a 60-second dip for a complete upper body workout in just two minutes.
Two Finger Pull-Ups
What’s more challenging than doing pull-ups with all your fingers wrapped around the bar? Using just two fingers, of course! Simply grip the bar with your first and second finger and thumb and keep your other fingers out the way. Needless to say, this puts a lot more stress on your grip.
Typewriter pull-ups get their name because that’s what you look like when you do them. Using a wide grip, bend your arms and pull yourself up and over to one side, extending your other arm as you do. Transfer your weight laterally along the bar to the other side, and then lower yourself back down. Move-in the opposite direction for your next set.
This is another pull-up variation that gets its name from how you look doing it. Using rings instead of a bar, pull yourself up and over to one side. Push out and down with your other arm, keeping it straight the entire time. Lower yourself back down and then swap sides. This is a good steppingstone to one-armed pull-ups.
As the name suggests, for this exercise, you just use one arm. It goes without saying that this is a tough exercise. In fact, even with training, not all that many people can pull this one-off, so don’t feel bad if you can’t do it. Grab your bar with a neutral grip and, using just one hand, pull your shoulder up to your hand. Descend under control. Loop a strong resistance band over your bar and then kneel or stand in it for assistance and to make this exercise more manageable.
Before you try any of these variations, make sure you’ve mastered regular pull-ups. Work on perfecting your technique and building your strength before trying these variations, most of which are a whole lot harder than the basic version.
One of the best ways to get better at pull-ups is to do them more often. Pull-ups are a skill, and like any skill, practice makes perfect. Strength training experts call this greasing the groove.
Instead of doing pull-ups just once or twice a week, do them several times per day. However, you must avoid training anywhere near failure. Instead, stop each set a long way short. That way, you can do more sets per day. Do a set every time you walk past your pull-up bar. This could add up to ten or more sets per day.
For example, if your current maximum is ten reps, do lots of sets of 3-5 reps throughout your day. This will add up to plenty of reps, but without tiring you out. After a few weeks of greasing the groove, you should cruise past ten reps and easily set a new personal record.
Whether you want bigger arms, a broader back, or a firmer grip, pull-ups can help. Best of all, you can do them almost anywhere. Combined with dips or push-ups, pull-ups are the ideal at-home bodyweight upper body workout.