The Pull Up

By:  GJ PUHL Freelance Photojournalist

With Hatcher Tynes, PhD

(Special thanks to Colonel Randy Klingman, United States Army) for his technical advice and recommendations regarding the development of this article.)

    The pull up is a compound exercise that is designed to develop and sustain an athlete’s upper body strength.  The following diagram highlights muscles (back, shoulders, and arms) that are engaged to accomplish this body weight exercise.  

    A Marine and a former athlete from Texas A&M introduced me to the pull up about five years ago.  I will confess that it was not an easy exercise to embrace.  However, over time, the pull up has become a routine “go to” exercise.  

    There are several variations of the pull up and several grip options.  Over the next few paragraphs, I will discuss each option and so that you can determine which will best suit your workout requirements.  

  Chose Your Grip:

The overhand grip (pronated) is more challenging than the underhand grip (supinated).  The major difference between the two grips is the amount of “maximum” force generated to achieve an “explosive” movement and engage the bicep muscles.  The underhand grip may seem easier.  Based upon personal experience, it is “slightly easier, but not by much.

The neutral grip is slightly easier than the overhand grip but more difficult than the underhand grip.  While both the overhand and underhand grips can be used on any pull up bar, to use a neutral grip a bar must have grips that are at right angles to the bar; like the rungs of a ladder.  The neutral grip is also the default used with overhead rings.    

To mix things up — I like to use an alternating grip.  Right about now, you may be asking, “what is an alternating grip?”  Simply put:  An alternating grip is a combination of the overhand and the underhand grip.  When facing the pull up bar, my right hand will be in the overhand grip and the left hand will be in the underhand grip.  This method isolates both the positive and the negatives of each grip.  

Tip and Trick:  When doing multiple sets of the pull up, ensure that you alternate hands for the over/under hand grip.  For example:  Round one, right hand uses overhand grip and left hand uses underhand grip.  In round two, right hand uses the underhand grip and the left hand uses the overhand grip.  This method ensures equal muscle development.

Form is Essential:

Based on personal experience and multiple conversations and interviews, there are differing philosophies on what the best form is.  Personally, I have tried multiple variations:  kipping, non kipping, assisted, unassisted, etc. and have found the “traditional” or “strict” pull up is the best form for increasing upper body strength, numbers and achieving incredible physiological results.

The “traditional” or “strict” pull up simply means there is “no momentum” to help pull the body “up to the bar.”  To get maximum benefit you should try to control both the upwards and downwards movements; do not drop to the fully-extended position (you gain nothing from doing so and you risk injury).  The strict pull up is different from the “kipping” pull up used by many CrossFit athletes and competitors.  When “kipping” the athlete generates momentum to help propel the body upward to the bar.  According to Brittany Smith of Men’s Fitness “. . . once perfected, kipping pull ups are a great way to build strong lats, wide shoulders, and [a] powerful grip.”

Getting Started:

    The most common version of the pull up has the athlete grabbing a sturdy bar with a firm overhand grip with the hands separated roughly shoulder width apart as shown in the diagram below.  Grab the bar, keeping your arms straight — Allowing your body to hang from the bar.  (This is the starting position.)  Next, pull yourself up, touching your chest to the bar.  


    The next step is a challenge, even for the most seasoned athletes — while pulling yourself up FOCUS on keeping the body straight without arching or swinging.  By perfecting the strict pull up, you are guaranteed to engage your core (abdominal) muscles while also engaging your lower back  muscles.  


         As you might imagine, just like the push up, the pull up has multiple variations, in both the grip and the execution, that offer a variety of challenges.  In the next few paragraphs, I will explore some of these option.

Types of pull ups:

  1. Assisted Pull Ups:  There are three types of assisted pull ups.  They are:
  1. Band Assisted Pull Up:  For this method, the athlete uses an elastic band tied to a bar and wrapped under the feet or the knees.  The band offers assistance in accelerating the upward pull toward the bar.  
  1. Assisted Pull Up Machine:  Most gyms have an assisted pull up machine.  The machine allows you to set the appropriate level of resistance.  As you develop strength and stamina the resistance weight is increased.  Eventually, you will be pulling your body weight without assistance.
  1. The use of a spotter is the the third type of an assisted pull up.  (Can receive assistance with even one pull up to help athlete get stronger.)  With this method, the athlete performs as many unassisted pull ups as possible.  At the point of muscle failure, the spotter gives you a slight push, only to the point that you regain momentum to achieve the chest to bar movement.

    Right about now, you may be asking yourself, does the assisted pull up really help achieve results.  In a single word — YES.  Over the past seven years, I have had an opportunity to work with and help train an athlete for the FBI Academy, an athlete to attend a local Fire Department Academy, and help an athlete build upper body strength to play hockey.  Each athlete met or exceeded their personal and professional goals

  1.  The Jumping Pull Up:  As you progress from the assisted pull up to the full pull up, there may be occasions when you require a little assistance.  The jumping pull up is a useful tool to have in your arsenal of tricks.  Here is how it works:  

a  Stand in front of the pull up bar or place a box under the pull-up bar.

  1. Grab the bar, using the overhand grip or stand on the box and grab onto the pull-up bar with both hands.
  2. Hands should be just outside shoulder width apart.
  3. Jump up, pulling yourself up to the bar or jump up off the box and pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar and then lower yourself back down.
  4. As soon as you land start the next rep.
  1.  The Weighted Pull Up:   This is an advanced exercise that requires the upper body strength to do strict pull ups.  Note: kipping is not advised when using a weight belt or holding a belt between your ankles as injury could result. The weighted pull up is a great way to make your pull up routine more challenging while increasing strength and stamina.  There are three primary ways to add weight.  They are:
  1. Use a weighted belt
  2. Place a dumbbell in between your ankles when crossed or use ankle weights
  3. Use a weighted vest


  1.  The Towel Pull Up:  Periodically, I will use the towel pull up to help mix things up.  The towel pull up emphasizes grip strength more than any other pull up.  The key to this exercise is to ensure your towel is thick enough to support your weight without ripping.

  1.  The Wide Grip Pull Up:  This pull up emphasized the development of the latissimus dorsi (lat muscle) and helps develop the “V” shape to the back.  The wider the grip, the more emphasis on the outer portion of the lat muscle.

  1. The L Pull Up:  This is an advanced exercise that requires not only the upper body strength to do a strict pull up, but the core and leg strength to hold your legs out at a right angle to your upper body while doing so.  This is extremely difficult to master but doing so is a great accomplishment.  
  1.  The Underhanded Pull Up:  Also known as the chin-ip activates the biceps more than some of the other pull up variations.  The underhanded pull up works the lower part of the lat muscles which helps create more thickness in the back.  

  1. Ring Pull Ups:  Ring pull ups are simply pull ups done on overhead gymnastic rings.  Any of the variations mentioned above can be done on rings, but the degree of difficulty goes up because the rings can move independently.  As a result, more muscle groups tend to be engaged because you are forced to try to keep yourself from swinging and twisting on the rings as you do each pull up.  Ring pull ups are a more advanced version of bar pull ups.
  1. Negative Pull Ups:  Negative pull ups are a progressive exercise used to help develop strength for the full pull up.  The exercise involves performing the “lowering position” of the standard pull up.  Here is how to perform negative pull ups:
  1. Grip the pull up bar using the overhand grip and pull yourself up to the bar (chest to bar or chin over the bar methods are recommended.)  It is very common to use a partner or bench to get into the “up position” until you’ve developed the strength to do a pull up from the  dead hang position.
  1. Slowly — (this is key) lower yourself down.  Move as slow as possible into the starting hang position.  Remember to keep the movement under control, avoid swinging and move as slow as you can.
  2. Repeat the step identified in paragraph a and b as many times you can.  Here is how we train our athletes:
    1. Week one:  3 days, (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) the athlete starts with five rounds of negative pull ups with 3 to 5 reps per round.
    2. Using week  one as the base, repetitions are increased to five to eight repetitions.  
    3. In week three the athlete begins combining “regular” pull ups with the negative pull ups.

Tip and Trick:  The negative pull up is a slow and controlled movement.  It is designed to engage the upper body and create tension.  The tension helps to build strength and muscle development

  1.  Pyramid Pull ups:  The pyramid is an effective method to assist in developing upper body strength.  The Pyramid is simple in design and very challenging in its execution.  The athlete will progressively increase the number of repetitions every minute on the minute.  
  1. In the first minute, the athlete does one pull up.  At the completion of the pull up, the remainder of the time is used for recovery.  (This is considered round 1)
  2. In round 2, the athlete does 2 pull ups.  At the completion of the second pull up the remainder of the time is used for recovery.
  3. Continue until  you complete as many rounds as you can within the time allowed.  For example:  assume that you are in round five.  In the allotted one minute time frame you complete four pull ups.  Since you did not complete five pull ups in round five, you have probably hit muscle failure and the routine is considered completed.  
  4. Since this is a progressive exercise routine, you will be amazed how many  pull ups are completed using this routine.  If you complete five rounds, you performed 15 pull ups.  

Tip and Trick:  When using this routine, it is best to have a second person to watch the clock.  Our group finds it useful to have a countdown e.g. 5-4-3-2-1 Go.  In addition, the time ensures that the second hand is in the same position, ideally straight up, on 12, for each round.

Benefits of the Pull Up:

  1. Convenience:
    1. Can be done just about anywhere.
    2. Does not require fancy equipment.
    3. All that is required is your body and a bar.
  1. Compound Upper Body Exercise:
    1. Targets very specific muscle groups
    2. Promotes the release of growth hormones
    3. Primary exercise that stimulates upper body growth and strength
    4. Absolute must if you want the “V” shape tapered look
  1.  Easy to Increase Intensity:
    1. Strap weight plate to waist, or
    2. Hang kettlebell or dumbbell from your feet
    3. BOOM!  You have increased both intensity and level of effort
  1. Multiple Variations:
    1. Overhand grip (traditional pull up)
    2. Close grip pull up
    3. Reverse grip pull up (also known as the chin up and Great for big biceps)
    4. Fat Loss
    5. Helps get the heart rate up and boost metabolism (both are key elements to burning fat)
    6. For maximum fat burning benefits — Decrease time between sets or super set the pull ups with another exercise.
    7. Tip and Trick:  Our workout group will normally “super set” exercises that hit opposing muscle groups.  For example the pull up (for the pulling movement) and the push up (for the pushing movement.
  1. Balanced Muscle Structure
    1. Prevents or helps reverse muscular imbalances resulting from upper body push movements e.g. the bench press
    2. The push movement under utilizes the back which may contribute to injuries, poor posture, or weak over stretched back muscles
    3. Pull ups focus on strengthening the back and rear deltoid muscles (which tend to be neglected in workouts resulting in under development.)                                                
      Photograph via
      Photograph via

      written by GJ PUHL Freelance Photojournalist, FTLOS Creative Director Of Photgraphy