I’m psyched to bring you this guest article and video from Simon Boulter. Pull-Ups are the basis of our Horizontal Pulling Patterns in bodyweight training, and I bet you already incorporate some version into your own fitness routine. But did you know how many creative, challenging and incredibly effective variations there are? So I’m excited about these advanced variations sent to us from Simon, who is one bad-ass bodyweight athlete. He’s a Professional Mixed Martial Artist, Strength Coach, and self-described Nerd & Cat Lover who has been training in martial arts and various forms of strength training for around 16 year. He is the author of ‘Strong Anywhere – The Minimalist Guide to Building Superhuman Strength,’ as well as his own fitness blog,www.boultertraining.com. And, as you’ll learn from his video and guest article below, he knows an awful lot about Pull-Ups. I learned some new tricks here, and hope you will, too.
Heed my warning: pull-ups may turn you into a monster made out of muscle, steel and sex appeal. Sadly however, it seems many gym goers these days lack the fortitude to add a healthy dose of pull-ups into their routines. Either that or they just don’t know of many variations other than the standard chin-up or pull-up. So, the variations you’ll see below can inject a great deal of fun into a workout, while building ferocious strength.
I’d like to start out my making it clear that I use a pull-up bar to get strong, not as an excuse to look like a gangster, or even to just look cool for that matter. I see a lot of videos flooding YouTube these days featuring a lot of flailing around a bar, wiggling legs about as if doing pull-ups and riding a unicycle at the same time (admit it, your visualizing that right now aren’t you?). I’m all about building brutal strength (and actually training legs) using exercises with which I can accurately measure my progress. So, I don’t recommend contorting yourself into weird positions and doing funky unnecessary stuff just for the sake of looking cool.
In this video I show many of the pull-up variations that I include in my own training on a weekly basis, which will hopefully give you some new ideas. Below the video are some instructions for many of the more advanced variations that are incredibly effective at producing upper body pulling strength.
Close and Wide Grip Pull-Ups
“Leverage” is an important concept in bodyweight training, and particularly pull-ups. The close and wide grip pull-up variations are great examples of this, deviating from the standard grip that is just wider than shoulder width, to create leverage in opposing ways. Take your hands any closer or wider however, and the pull up becomes more difficult.
Close grip pulls, rarely seen in gyms today, will take the lats out of the movement, putting your upper back muscles in a position of weakness and forcing you to rely on your biceps and forearm muscles to complete the movement. It’s easy to underestimate this awesome arm strength builder, as underhand close grip chin-ups are by far the easiest pull-up variation. However, the overhand close grip pull-up is sure to be a challenge for any athlete and can be much more challenging than the standard pull-up.
Execution of the close grip pull-up is painfully simple: start with your thumbs touching and pull yourself up as with any regular pull-up. In spite of its simplicity,¬ you’ll be feeling humbled very quickly, especially if you are weighing north of the 200lbs mark.
With the wide grip pull-up, the wider grip largely takes the biceps out of the movement by placing the arms in an outstretched position, focusing on the lats and rest of the upper back to get the job done. While nearly all strength athletes are familiar with this variation, they are still seldom done with proper technique and full range of motion. Truly strict wide grip pull-ups are an impressive feat of strength, as lowering to a dead hang with straight arms every rep, while the arms are stretched out, is very tough and much more demanding than it looks.
Behind the Neck Pull Ups
Behind the neck pull-ups are one of my very favourite exercises for my upper back.
While a lot of fitness instructors may tell you that behind the neck pull-ups are bad for you, advising you that you simply shouldn’t do them, I believe that if you wait until you are ready and respect this exercise, there is no reason you should injure yourself by including these in your programme. Just as you wouldn’t try to deadlift a certain weight before your body is strong enough for it, you shouldn’t attempt the behind the neck pull-up (and many other advanced variations of pull-ups), before you have built a proper foundation and base layer of strength. There is as much risk of injury here as performing a squat, deadlift, riding a bike to work or even crossing the road. Just use common sense and be sensible. Note that this exercise also requires a degree of shoulder flexibility that many people lack, and if you have shoulder/rotator cuff issues you should proceed with caution.
I recommend being able to do 10 solid overhand wide grip pull-ups before attempting the behind the neck variation. To perform the movement, pull yourself up slowly, touching your traps to the bar if you can, holding this top position for a half a second, and then slowly descending back down. I make it a point to use no momentum and take it nice and slow. I’ll often hold the top position for a second or two, which hits the traps more than one would think. Be sure never to shrug your shoulders: as with all basic pull-up variations, you should aim to pull them back and down, while sticking your chest out.
A full behind the neck pull-up involves a larger range of motion than a standard pull or chin-up, which is what makes it more challenging.
With the plyometric pull-up, things get really interesting! There are several plyometric variations of the pull-ups, and with all of them you’ll want to not only pull your chin over the bar, but also as much of your chest as possible. Perform each repetition as explosively as possible.
Clapping pull-ups in particular are sure to stop a few onlookers as they watch in amazement at this feat of explosiveness.
The bog standard plyo pull-up involves simply bringing your hands up away from the bar for a split second before grabbing it quickly again on the way down. You can even clap your hands together in front of your face or above your head as you do so.
Switchblade pull-ups involve switching your grip between overhand and underhand each repetition as you bring your hands away from the bar.
With In-and-Out pull-ups you can try switching from a wide grip to an extremely close grip and then back out wide again as you perform each rep.
Believe it or not, the commando variation was my first introduction to pull-ups. As a young kid I watched Stallone doing them in the Rocky movies, and then ran to my local park to attempt them (and failed miserably).
This variation hits the chest as well as the arms and upper back, and you’ll have to engage your entire upper body and core to keep your body from trying to spin around out of position. Take an underhand grip with one hand and an overhand grip with the other. Pull your head to one side of the bar for one rep, and then to the other side of the bar on the next rep. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions, or until you go to failure. I suggest alternating which hand is over/under each set to avoid any muscle imbalances, being sure to perform an even number of sets. Try commando pull ups on a thick bar to really fry your grip.
As with all of these variations, commando pull-ups are pretty tough and harder than they look. You’ll find they can be a lot more challenging than your standard pull or chin-up.
The L-Sit Pull-Up is a variation I often had to perform in gymnastics as a kid. They are more difficult because the leg position shifts your centre of gravity forward in front of you, forcing you to incorporate more muscles to assist you.
Start from a hanging L-Sit position, with your whole body tight and your legs straight, trying as best you can to maintain the L as you move. A rigid midsection is also a must for L-sit pull ups. With the weight of your legs so far out in front of you, your core, shoulders and upper back will have to work much harder in order to hold the L-sit position throughout the movement. As you begin pulling yourself upwards, you’ll have to keep the movement very slow in order to keep the right position, and maintain control.
This exercise can also be performed with a wide grip, for added difficulty, but chances are the standard variation will be challenging enough for you for quite some time.
1.5 Reps Pull-Ups
1.5 reps are a novel and rarely seen tool for making an exercise more difficult, but are extremely effective. This has certainly been the case with pull-ups in my training routine. They can be utilized with any number of strength movements, but are especially effective with pull-ups and hanging leg raises.
A 1.5 rep pull-up consists of starting from a dead hang, performing a pull-up until your chin is over the bar, slowly descending half way down and holding this position for a split second, and then pulling your chin over the bar once more before lowering yourself to the dead hang position. That completes your first rep.
The archer pull up (also known as a bow and arrow pull up) is an excellent upper back strength builder, especially for those wishing to progress to the one arm pull up. This movement gets its name from the shape your upper body creates once your chin is over the bar, like that of an archer preparing to fire an arrow from a bow.
You’ll pull yourself up to one side of the bar, while straightening the opposite arm out straight, attempting to use the straight supporting arm as little as possible. Think of this almost as a self-supported one arm chin up. You can choose to perform numerous repetitions in a row on one side and switch sides each set, or instead alternate sides each rep. Try to hold the top position for at least a half a second if you can, although this can be extremely challenging.
Around the World Pull-Ups
Also known as a circle pull-up, the around-the-word pull-up is essentially a variation of the archer pull-up made a little more difficult. You’ll perform an archer pull-up to one side, and then as you hold your chin over the bar, slide all the way to the other side of the bar so that the bow and arrow arm position is reversed. Then lower yourself back down to the hanging start position to complete your first repetition.
For this exercise you’ll definitely need a strong upper back, shoulders and a core made of steel.
We’re raising the difficulty of the archer pull-up even more with typewriters, a highly dynamic exercise that will definitely challenge you. Perform an archer pull-up to one side of the bar, and then switch the arm position, moving to the opposite side of the bar just like a circle pull-up. But instead of lowering back down to the start position you’ll keep your chin up above the bar while you slide back and forth from one end of the bar to the other. Even the strongest athletes won’t be able to do many repetitions of this tough one!
Towel pull-ups are as old school as it gets, renowned for developing crushing grip strength and monstrous, powerful forearms. These will be no need to waste your time with endless sets of wrist curls.
As one of the more advanced variations, towel pull-ups challenge the grip big time. By working the muscles of the hands and forearms, you’ll strengthen what is often the weakest link for many athletes and get a great upper back workout at the same time.
There are two ways to perform towel pulls. First, simply hang a towel over the top of a bar and hold it firmly by gripping each end with one hand, as you perform commando pull-ups. Your hands should remain quite close together throughout this movement, but without touching.
Or, you can hang two towels from the bar, spaced shoulder width apart, and grab each towel with one hand. Then perform standard pull ups while gripping them. This is a slightly more advanced grip exercise, as you’ll have to grip the whole towel (both sides) in each hand, as opposed to just one side in each hand when performing commando towel pulls. If you don’t have any towels handy, you can always use some thick rope.
Tennis Ball Pull-Ups
Tennis Ball pull-ups, also known as Grappler pull-ups, are another great way to totally smoke your grip and forearms while training your upper back. You’ll be performing pull-ups while holding a tennis ball in each hand, and resting your wrist on the bar, by using a false grip.
This exercise literally builds crushing grip strength as you’ll need to forcefully crush the tennis balls with your hands to build the tension needed to do the pull ups. Immediately you’ll notice that the tension irradiates out from your hands, all the way to your entire upper back, making for one delightfully evil exercise. If this variation is too difficult, you can also try resting the tennis balls on the bar, but don’t forget to crush the living hell out of them.
Get Started Today
No matter what level of strength and mobility you have, I’m sure you’ve found something useful in this article that you can implement into your training immediately.
If you are already proficient with standard chin-ups, try your luck with some of the other progressions and pick 2 or 3 that work best for your current levels of strength and skills.I recommend practicing any of the above at the beginning of your workout rather than midway through or toward the end – as when learning any new skill, it’s vital to practice while completely fresh. Start slow, take your time with the progressions and don’t be in a rush to progress. Some of the advanced variations are extremely challenging movements, and can have even the strongest of athletes struggling. Don’t expect to be able to jump to clapping or one arm pull ups right off the bat! There’s no rush.
How do I Incorporate Pull-Ups?
So how do you fit them in to your program? Essentially, that’s up to you. I suggest adding some of these variations into your existing routine, to supplement your current pulling exercises, but not replace them. In terms of reps, I usually work between 5 and 10 to build strength. I’ll choose a variation that keeps me within that range, and I very rarely go over 10 repetitions. Try some of these out, take your time, and good things will happen. I think you’ll like the results!
For more info on bodyweight strength training you can check out my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thesimonboulter or check out my blog over at www.boultertraining.com. Speak True, Dream Big, Live Strong.