My favorite back exercise by far is the pull up because it only requires your body weight and hits all the muscles in your back, especially when you start adding in different variations. In this video, I demonstrate 10 Pull Up Variations. Can you do them all?
If you can’t do any pull ups and this video looks “crazy”, don’t worry. I plan on shooting a video soon that will teach you how to improve your pull up strength to go from 0 pull ups to 10+.
You can find more detail below on each pull up variation:
Pull Up Variation #1: Weighted Pull-Up
Once you get to the point where you can do 10+ pull ups, you should consider adding weight to make it more challenging. There are three primary ways to add weight: (1) use a weight belt like I’m using in the photo below, or (2) put a dumbbell in between your ankles when crossed, or use an ankle weight, and (3) use a weighted vest. Weighted Pull Ups are also a great way to increase the total number of pull ups you can complete if you are hitting a plateau.
Pull Up Variation #2: Muscle-Ups
This is a very difficult pull up because you have to lift your entire torso over the bar so that it’s high enough to then extend your arms straight, which is the finishing position. The one little trick I learned is to keep your legs slightly forward as you are coming down (20 degree angle), which helps you build a little momentum as you swing them backwards to help you forcefully pull up again. Even with this little tip, they are still very difficult.
Pull Up Variation #3: Around the Worlds
To emphasize one side of your back versus the other, Around the Worlds require that you pull up diagonally to one side of the pull up bar (see arrow pointing to reflection in the mirror), then you pull your body across the pull up bar, then diagonally lower yourself back to the starting position. I would much rather do cliffhangers (Pull Up #7) to help work one side of my back over the other, but just showing you a variation to consider.
Pull Up Variation #4: Clapping Pull Ups
If you listen to the video, I mutter lightly, “I don’t even know if I can do this.” I never did a clapping pull up before, but saw a couple videos on Youtube of people doing it. Fortunately, I didn’t fall on my face, or crush my legs. Similar to the muscle ups, you really need to build enough momentum to throw yourself upwards, so you have enough time to clap your hands and still catch the bar safely. If you want to try them out, start out doing a pull up with your hands close together, then widen them out as I do in the video. Needless to say, be careful.
Pull Up Variation #5: One Arm Pull Up (assisted)
This technically is not a One Arm Pull Up, because my opposite hand is assisting by holding on to my wrist and lifting maybe 30% of the weight. I still prefer the cliffhangers to this type of pull up, but I need to work on doing a pull up with only one arm, which I’ve seen before. That takes crazy strength!
Pull Up Variation #6: Parallel Bar Pull Up
The standard pull up uses a pronated grip with your palms facing forward. With a Parallel Bar Pull Up, your hands are facing each other in what’s called a neutral grip. There is more emphasis on your biceps, brachialis, and brachioradialis.
Pull Up Variation #7: Cliffhangers
I really like cliffhangers because if you get proficient at pull ups and don’t have access to weight, cliffhangers will be a big challenge. If you have your left shoulder to the bar as in the photo below, you want to have left hand closer to your body, then the right hand further away. The emphasis is on your left arm and back, which is pulling probably 70% of the weight. The first set might feel pretty easy, but when you try with the other side, it’s much harder. I usually go down 25% by number of reps when switching sides, regardless of which side I start out with.
Pull Up Variation #8: Towel Pull Ups
My first recommendation is to make sure you have a thick enough towel to easily support your weight. If you listen closely in the video, you can hear the small hand towel I’m using starting to rip. Close call. Towel pull ups emphasize grip strength more than the other pull ups.
Pull Up Variation #9: Wide Grip Pull Up
Wide grip pull ups emphasize development of the entire latissimus dorsi (lat muscle) and help you develop more of a V shape to your back. The wider your grip, the more it emphasizes the outer portion of the lat muscle. The closer you put your hands together, the easier the exercise becomes.
Pull Up Variation #10: Underhand (aka Chin Up)
The Chin Up uses an underhand, or supinated grip that recruits the biceps more than some of the other pull up variations. It also works the lower part of your lat muscle, which can help create more thickness in your back. The chin up is the easiest pull up relative to all the other variations, although it may be tied with the Parallel Bar Pull Up.
Again, I realize most of these pull ups are very difficult, so I’ll follow up in a few weeks (you may have to remind me!) with a video on how to become more proficient with pull ups. The it’s just a matter of progression to work up to doing more challenging variations.
Amazing variety. I am eagerly awaiting the 0 to 10 pull up plan.
Great Video Marc! Pull-ups and chins are usually a very underrated and underused exercise. You are right about using a strong towel, as I had them rip before. I also use (2) towels, 1 in each hand along with a little wider grip. This is super hard to grip because you have to grip both ends of the towel with each hand. It really increases your grip strength & forearms.
@Jeff McCray – Thanks, Jeff. Pull ups are on of the few exercises I do every week no matter what. That’s great advice regarding using two towels versus one. Smart idea!
damn Marc…how is that you never had a hernia!
I am nowhere close to this and yes I agree it’s crazy…but nonetheless i am crazy enough to try and get myself there. Am I fooling myself by using the assisted pull up machines to eventually get myself to the point where I can do it on my own?
@Paula – Happy you liked the video. I think the assisted pull up bar is ok, but I would recommend doing negatives on the pull up bar, which means you use a stool, or something to help you start at the top of the pull up bar, then you resist on the way down. So you are basically doing the pull up without pulling up, only resisting your bodyweight going down. Be careful of course, but this helps your muscles get used to the intensity of lifting your full body weight. It’s difficult to get the same feeling with assisted pull ups. I plan on putting up a video that will go into more depth. Keep on trying!
I am amazed that there are so many variations. I am not able to do one regular pull-up! I must say, I am impressed. Great job!
Hey Marc, great video.
The apartment gym I am at for the next couple of weeks does not have a pull up bar, nor will I be able to install one at my temporary residence…do you have any recommendations for exercises that can serve as a pull-up replacement that work the back nearly as effectively?
@Drop – That’s a great question. I don’t think it’s possible to completely replicate the pull up, but if you have access to a lat pulldown machine, that is the next best thing. You can change up your grips to add variety. I don’t think you will miss a beat if you are only without pull ups for a couple weeks.
I know this is a super old comment but I do have some additional advice for this. Simply look around the environment to find something to do pull ups on. Most apartment complexes have stairs that you can hang from if you go under the staircase. Yesterday I was getting my car aligned at NTB so I went to the parking lot of the Target next door, used the metal rung on the cart corral to do pull ups and did handstand push ups using the side of the building for balance support ;). If you can find a sturdy hand rail, you may be able to do pull ups by hanging underneath it and tucking your legs up, or even doing an L hold (there is a particular rail that I like using at work; it is about the most perfect bar for doing slow bar muscle ups for me!)
I could only do #2 unfortunately but I’ll keep trying. #1 looks seriously intense, although I kind of know what it’s like to have extra weight hanging around my midesction having been pregnant twice so I can appreciate the sheer difficulty of it.
U should try to do this without so much momentum,
Also try the one armed one with only one arm 🙂
There is also the “Negative pull up” this really works your muscles
Search how to do it if u want
Great video, but your one arm pull up is actually an uneven pull up. I cant do it yet but hey one day!
Hi Marc, great variations here, but I think you should include the archer pull up in this list. I’ve tried the archers and cliffhangers, and I find the archer pull ups to be more difficult as they seem to work the targeted side more than the cliffhangers. You should also include one arm negatives in this list, as from my experience it is one of the toughest variations out there and, for obvious reasons, is an excellent exercise to build up to the full rep one arm chin/pull up.
@Robby – Never saw the archer pull up before, looks awesome. Gotta try it. Thanks for sharing!
Close grip overhand and underhand are great for arms and middle back
Marc, Thanks so much for posting these exercise videos. Also, thanks for the advice about
doing Weighted Pull Ups to break through a plateau. I’ve been doing pull ups off and on for years but can’t seem to break through doing more than 12.
@tom – no problem, Tom. Weighted pull ups should definitely be able to help you break through the plateau. Just remember to foam roll your lats and rear delts when doing a lot of pull ups, because that part of your body can get very tight.
Today I was finally able to reach my goal of the muscle up. This exercise has been one of my major goals since I started advanced calisthenics training in February. I hit a plateau for awhile where it seemed like I was making very little progress, then all of a sudden today I was able to do them. I have both gymnastic rings and a pull up bar, and I actually find them easier on rings. What’s more, I can’t do a muscle up with momentum. It seems I can’t do a pull up explosively enough. However, I have enough raw strength to do slow muscle ups on either the bar or rings! A few weeks ago I decided that, if I was going to need to take extra time to get the explosiveness for fast ones, and I want to do slow ones anyway, I’d might as well just forego the fast ones completely and go straight for the slow ones.
@Robby – Congrats, Robby. Doing a muscle up is not easy!
Thanks, I will work on these. My arms are my weakest section, and pull ups my worst exercise.
me too Hank!!!!!!!!!!!!!
What is the progress on the article how to do 10+ pull ups from 0. This will be a lot of help since I am stuck being able to do 5-6 for a couple of weeks.
@Peter – Not going well. I’ve been spending a large chunk of my time the last several months answering questions and comments like yours! I have since brought on someone to help me with answering the comments/questions, which I hope will free up more of my time. My guess is in the next 6 months I hope.
There are a couple of approaches you can use to increase your pull up numbers. The first thing I would suggest is to focus on getting your reps up on chin ups. Since they are easier, most people can do more. Work your chin ups until you can comfortably do, say, 50% more than you can do now. Then, go back to pull ups. You should not only find them noticeably easier, but the disparity between the two should be less. Generally, you want to do t
There are a couple of approaches you can use to increase your pull up numbers. The first thing I would suggest is to focus on getting your reps up on chin ups. Since they are easier, most people can do more. Work your chin ups until you can comfortably do, say, 50% more than you can do now. Then, go back to pull ups. You should not only find them noticeably easier, but the disparity between the two should be less. Generally, you don’t want to do these every day. Depending on your ability to recover, I suggest trying every other day incorporating them into a workout. I do 4 sets of 6-12 reps, and I find dips to be a great companion exercise for pull ups. If keeping dips in this rep range is too easy for you, you can try adding weight and/or working on your shoulder mobility to the point where you can go to the bottom of a dip (where the front of your shoulders are practically level with your hands). Take caution because again if your shoulders aren’t conditioned well for this then you can hurt yourself. Always listen to your body. But, again, adding weight and simply bringing your upper arms to parallel is still effective.
Also, it may sound counterintuitive at this stage, but if you can knock out just 3 or 4 weighted chin ups with 10% extra weight, they can be worth doing as an ancillary exercise. Of course, you will notice the most gains from weighted reps when you can do at least 5 or 6. However, I generally suggest chin ups for weighted pulls because they have your muscles in more optimal planes of leverage. That is why they are easier to begin with. Instead of weighted pull ups, just do weighted chin ups with more weight to hit all of the muscles harder.
@Robby – Thanks for sharing Robby!
Also, of course, always ensure that you are using proper form. Come down to a dead hang every rep. Keep your body still aside from your arms and shoulders. Move your entire body as a single unit. Do not kick, do not swing. Chin above the bar every rep, focus on driving your elbows back at the top. You will not get as many reps, but you will benefit in the form of greater muscular and joint strength gains in the long run, as well as better total body coordination.
Ah, I almost forgot a method that I used for improving my pull up count: reading the groove! On some of my “off” days I would just do 60 a day split into 5 sets of 12, switching grips every set. Randomly, while hanging out at home, I would just go do a set. On my on days I was doing slow ring muscle ups at the time so getting my numbers up on pull ups seemed reasonable. Anyway, just pick a number, say 30, and just do manageable set sizes to get to your goal that day. Then increase the set sizes until you can comfortably do it in only a few sets. My favorite grips are super close grip chin ups (pinkies touching), baseball grip (cliffhangers), wide grip pull up, and super close grip pull up. Frenchies are good too. Basically do a chin up but hold the top position for a few seconds, hold the 90 degree elbow position for a few seconds, then hold the 135 degree elbow position for a few seconds. That’s one rep.
Thanks Marc :). As you know, there are many means to an end; these are just the simplest and most straightforward methods I’ve used to this end. I’m presently working on back levers and front levers and they are definitely helping. I am getting surprisingly close to an unassisted one arm chin up o_O!
greasing the groove*, stupid phone. Also to clarify do go to a dead hang after the third geometric hold in the frenchies.
Thank you Robby. I will follow your advice 🙂
do all the variations make the v shape/make your back looks muscular?
@Seb – Pull ups in general, especially wide grip pull ups can help your back create a v-shape. The wider your arms are while doing pull ups, the more it will work the outer portion of your lats.
also do all the variations work the lat muscle?
never mind it was a dumb question of course all the pull ups make your back muscular right? Since you use your back and your weight!
Yes, all of the variations work your lats, which is responsible for the V shape. Doing different variations will ensure that you hit the involved muscles at different angles. For example, super close grip chins enable you to center the focal point of the pull from each arm. This allows you, ultimately, to hang lower in a dead hang, giving a fuller stretch in the lats. ultimately, you want to work up to strict, slow muscle ups with a false grip, then eventually assisted one arm pull ups.
@Robby – Great advice. Thanks for the detail.
Yes, all of the variations work your lats, which is responsible for the V shape. Doing different variations will ensure that you hit the involved muscles at different angles. For example, super close grip chins enable you to center the focal point of the pull from each arm. This allows you, ultimately, to hang lower in a dead hang, giving a fuller stretch in the lats. ultimately, you want to work up to strict, slow muscle ups with a false grip, then eventually unassisted one arm chin and pull ups
Pull Ups are my fitness goal right now. I can’t do any yet but I am close using the bench to passively rest my toes on with a doorway pullup bar. It is crowded and limits me to a narrow neutral (palms facing in) grip. I am at week 6 of the Builtlean program and am using free weights. I was thinking of buying a workout machine with a lat pull down bar, but I think I should skip that and get a pull up stand with grips similar to your video. It would be for dips as well. I do not go to a gym usually but when I did recently I could lat pull 65kg and I weigh 80kg. Will a good pull up bar get me there sooner than a lat pull down machine? What do you think?
John, are you talking about a power tower? Like a free standing pull up bar with a dip station all in one type of device? I have one of those, as well as a machine with a lat pull down bar. I literally never use the lat pull down, or that machine (technically it’s my dad’s). Lat pull downs can help you get to pull ups, but it sounds like you aren’t really too far off at present.
You have a couple of options, actually. First, get to the top of your pull up bar and do isometrics mixed with negatives. Hold the top position for a 5 count, slowly come down to a 90 degree flex hang for a 5 count, then come down to about 135 degrees for a 5 count, then go to a dead hang. Get back up however you safely can, and repeat for reps. Eventually, start trying to pull up a little at each hang. Before too long, you will be repping out chin ups, and sooner or later pull ups!
Another option is a weight assist. What you would do is tie a weight to a piece of rope, then hang the weight over the pull up bar. Secure the other end of the rope to you; a weight belt or a climbing belt would work great. Then, do pull ups. The weight acts as a counterweight, effectively making you “lighter”, however you are still doing the exact same movement pattern of a real pull up. This works the same as adding weight to pull ups, only in reverse. Simply use a lighter weight as you progress, until you need no weight. Then eventually you can add weight!
@Robby – thanks for sharing this advice. Think it’s smart advice for @John.
@JohnW – i would definitely go with the pull up bar vs. the lat pulldown machine. It may take some time for you to do pull ups, but once you can, it’s like the ultimate back exercise that can keep you strong with minimal sets each week. And keep up the good work with the program!
Thanks Marc and Robby, I really appreciate the advice. I will go with the tower. I found one today that has resistance bands as well.
Finally bought a chin up bar for doorway. No great shock, but this 50 year old geezer who hasn’t done a chin up in 35 years…uhh….can’t do one.(humbled in a devastating way…he hangs his head very low)
How many times a week and for how many minutes should I work on negatives?
And…should I work on them before my regular workouts, while I have the most energy, or after, so I have the most focus while I’m doing the weights?
It is said to work on your weaknesses, well this is it.
Awesome man! What I would suggest at this time is what’s known as the ‘grease the groove’ method. Do it at non-specific times throughout the day, perhaps just whenever you walk by the bar. Try to hold the top position for 2-5 deep breaths, slowly come down to 90 degrees, hold that for a few breaths, then 135 degrees, hold, then dead hang. Work up to about 3-5 clean reps of this, 2 or 3 times a day is fine. Basically you want to do it frequently enough to make a difference, but not so much that it wears you out too much for your main workout. Start out doing it right before bed, that way you have copious time for your body to recover. If you feel good and fresh in the morning, give it another go after you wake up. Soon enough you can toss another set in after work. By this time, assuming you are recovering well from each attempt, you should be pretty darn close to doing full chin ups. Once it starts getting easy, during each isometric pause try to come back up an inch or two.
Thanks Robby, I’ll give it a go. Eleven and a half weeks of working like crazy, I thought I would at least be able to do ONE! LOL!
I can’t hold it at chin level, just 90 degrees, and not for five breaths either. There is a little click noise in both elbows sometimes. There is also, in my left arm, a bit, not unbearable, but a bit of pain in a small part of the bicep, and a small part of the shoulder.
Remember I’m at home.
All I have for equipment is a stationary bike, the chin up bar, a 10 lb. medicine ball, two 30 lb. dumbells, two adjustable 5-25 lb. dumbells, two 10 lb. dumbells, and an Everlast triceps crunch tension band assembly. Any equipment has to be small for home.
The only biceps I’ve been using is the curl & press in Marc’s DB complex routine. I’ve concentrated mostly on legs for wait loss.
Should I just keep it up with trying the chin ups, or is there preparatory exercises for this? I won’t quit either way, I’m just wondering if there is more work that can be done to help.
Uncadonego, do you mean to say that you can’t hold the top position, even if you use some kind of step like a chair to get your body up before hanging? The pain in your biceps…is this on the shoulder end of the muscle or the elbow side of the muscle? It sounds to me like you have a joint/tendon strength problem here. This makes sense, because this type of strength takes longer to develop than muscular strength. Couple that with the fact that you haven’t done these in decades, and I can understand your predicament…what I would suggest is for you to do bodyweight rows, also known as Australian pull ups, to help strengthen your joints and muscles for the pull up with less load. Don’t underestimate this exercise; I was doing pull ups for months and literally never did rows, then when I first tried them I was astonished to discover that I actually found them more difficult than pull ups (in that I could do fewer reps)! They are especially nice if you have shoulder weaknesses, as they really target the upper back/back of the shoulders. In conjunction with push ups, these will help build a solid foundation of muscular and joint strength for pull ups and dips.
As an assistance exercise, you may want to try what is known as the planche lean. I caution you, this exercise can be intense on the joints, but with appropriate precaution you can safely use this move to help build tendon strength in the bicep and joint strength in the elbow, which sounds like a problem for you. It is also a reasonable core exercise. Start out in a normal push up position, but turn your hands backward; your fingers and elbows should be pointing toward your feet, and your thumbs should roughly be pointing out to the sides. Keep your back and legs straight the whole time; as with a normal plank, pull in your abs (think of “pushing” your belly button back to your spine) and squeeze your glutes. If you can, focus on “rolling” your shoulders over your arms (as though your torso is on a conveyor belt that rolls over your arms), and pressing hard through the base of your palms into the floor. Now, keeping your elbows locked, lean forward, creeping your feet up. Obviously, go only as far as you feel comfortable, then hold that position for time. The lean itself puts tension on both the elbow and the bicep, and you can control this amount by how far forward you lean. Ideally you want to get to where your hands are at about hip level. If this is too strenuous, you can try it on your knees instead of feet. You can do push ups in this position, but I would not recommend that to you yet; at this stage it would only be for the joint/tendon strengthening.
Sorry, I meant to say weight loss, not “wait” loss, d’uh….
To do rows, you can put a broom stick across a couple of sturdy chairs (just be sure it won’t move around while you’re exercising), or if there’s a hand rail that you can hang under that works too. Heck, if it won’t tip over, you may even be able to do it hanging on to the handles of your stationary bike! Get creative!
Yes, even using a step to be in top chin up position, as hard as I try to hold it, I immediately drop to 90, where I can hold it only for a couple of seconds. The bottom position sort of hurts too. As you say, I think it is a matter of joints and tendons, it feels way too “twisted” for comfort at the bottom position.
So, do I have this right? –
I’m on my back? The bar is above me in front of my face? I pull up keeping my body stiff, only the backs of my heels remain on the ground?
If that is the case, I have a couple extra mounts for the chin up bar meant to be mounted for sit ups, but I can just mount them higher in the door frame.
Yes sir that is the move! If it gets too taxing you can bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor, which will reduce the load. To make it a bit harder you can elevate your feet on a platform. I like having it so my feet are elevated to where. they are level with my shoulders when my arms are at half flexion. This keeps the disparity between ankle and shoulder level equal at the top and the bottom of the move.
Marc, I think it’s worth noting that one can advance from the cliffhanger pull up to the archer pull up by extending the assisting arm over time, eventually having the elbow completely locked out. I personally prefer archer chin ups, because you get more work with the bicep; since you’re pulling so much of your weight, having as much muscle activation as possible makes the exercise more manageable while also giving you a strong workout for both the back and arms (even though you’re taking tension away from the back with the chin up grip, there’s so much tension that it doesn’t matter; if archers are really that easy for you, then start doing archers with slow, controlled one arm negatives. If that gets easy, you’re probably ready for one arm chins!)
@Robby – thanks for sharing!
Ok, thanks Robby.
I’ll use those mounts for sit ups midway up the door frame and use them for this exercise instead.
If you’re curious, I’ll post here again in two weeks and let you know the amount of progress I’ve made.
Great! Best of luck!
Hey Mark, I’d love to do pull-ups, but when I attempt them I get pain around the medial epicondyle of my elbows which persists for days, sometimes weeks. What do you suggest I do to prevent this please?
It sounds like doing pull ups might be causing some inflammation in your elbows. I would recommend chatting with your primary care doctor or a physical therapist to determine what’s going on. A physical therapist in particular will be able to assess and diagnose the problem, and help you develop a stretching and strengthening program to alleviate the issue. A good physical therapist will also be able to identify your muscular strengths and weaknesses, and help you become stronger overall so you can avoid future injuries.
Pull ups are an excellent measure of strength, but you definitely don’t want to do them if they’re causing you pain for days or weeks. This doesn’t mean that you’ll never be able to do pull ups. But I think the best strategy is to determine why they’re causing pain, and to fix the problem.
I hope that gives you some direction! If you have more questions, feel free to ask.
-Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor
Great pull ups variations in there. The description given is crystal clear and easy to understand.
But after doing a few pull ups variations, my arms and forearms becomes very stiff and the repetition decreases gradually. How do i increase the flexibility and mobility of my upper body?
How many sets and reps of pull ups are you doing at a time? Do you include any flexibility exercises or stretching into your current workout program? One great (and undervalued) exercise that you can do to improve the flexibility and mobility of your upper body is hanging from a bar. Hanging from a bar can help improve your shoulder, elbow, and wrist health while improving your overhead range of motion.
I also recommend using a foam roller or rad roller to loosen up the muscles in your chest and back, in particular your pecs, lats, and spinal extensors.
If you want to work on total body flexibility, you could try this workout to fix poor posture, which targets the muscles that most people would benefit from stretching and strengthening.
Gives those strategies a try, and let us know how it goes!
-Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor