There’s More to Pull Ups Than You Think!

By on January 13, 2022

The humble pull up may look pretty simple, but there’s much more to it than meets the eye. Far from being a poor-man’s lat pull down, the pull up is a highly compound movement that has real-world functional transfer. Pull ups make you better at climbing, throwing, and fighting. And there are lots of subtle tweaks you can make in order to get more from them. Here’s what you might not know about pull ups.

Muscles Engaged

Pull ups are not just a lat exercise. Of course, pull ups also train the biceps as you curl the bar down toward you. What’s cool, is that this is a particularly functional way to train the biceps – seeing as the biceps are actually biarticular. That means that they straddle two separate joints: in this case the elbows and the shoulders. They actually play a role in shoulder stabilization and flexion. Pull ups require simultaneous movement at both joints, thus using the biceps to their fullest ROM. Of course, you can increase biceps engagement by using a supinated grip.

There's more to pull ups

At the same time, you’ll also be training scapula depression as you bring the shoulder blades down at the top of the movement. Countless muscles like teres major and rhomboids help to stabilize the shoulders, while the abs work to stiffen the core.

See also: Bruce Lee Cobra Lats: How to Build Powerful, Functional Lats

Training using pull ups can thereby have a huge number of impressive benefits. This can add size to your arms and protect your shoulders, but it can also increase overall stabilization. This goes double for the back, as lats play a surprisingly large role in stabilizing the spine. The lats look like they’re stuck in your armpits, but they actually originate from the iliac crest and lower spine, attaching at multiple points up to the humerus.

Different Ways to Perform Pull Ups

There are lots of articles and videos that claim to share the “perfect pull up.” The truth is that there is no one way to do a pull up, and varying your hand position in subtle ways can hugely impact the impact of the movement.

For example, many experts recommend maintaining spinal extension and pulling the chest toward the bar. This is sometimes called an arched pull up and it gives you more space for the full range of motion, resulting in greater strength gains and hypertrophy.

This also allows you to bring the muscles of your back more into play – the traps, the rear delts, and even the erector spinae. You’ll be retracting the scapula and making the movement much more horizontal. Arching this way can even engage the glutes! None of this happens when you round the shoulders and hunch forward.

Arched Pull Ups

Essentially, it turns the movement into a much more horizontal one. And if this is the only exercise you’re doing for your back musculature, it’s a great option.

But there is another way…

The Tactical Pull Up

The tactical pull up looks essentially like the complete opposite. Here, you are actually encouraged to maintain a hollow body. That means you’ll have your core engaged and your scapula protracted.

The tactical pull up also requires the thumb to be placed on top of the bar.  

Not only do these changes engage nearly the entire body in the movement, they also prepare you for real-world situations. If ever you need to climb over a wall, or up onto a ledge, then you aren’t going to have the luxury of being able to place your thumb under the bar. Nor will you be bringing your chest to your hands! This version has much more real-world application, therefore.

Tactical Pull Up

A variation of the tactical pull up involves removing the thumbs entirely, freeing them up to potentially carry a tool such as a flashlight. Perfect for budding ninjas. Performing pull ups while holding onto an item is a cool and interesting way to change things up.

Of course, this type of pull up will also be a great option for building finger and grip strength. And rock climbers might go even further by using half or full crimp grips.

See also: The Parkour Workout: Strength and Agility for Free Running

So, who is right? Nobody! If you’re military, a freerunner, or a rock climber, tactical pull ups may be very useful for you. If you want back development and better posture, you should consider arched pull ups.

If you want both, do both! Or perform tactical push ups and combine them with bodyweight rows.

Bodyweight Row

Finger Position

Another factor to consider when mixing up your pull up grip, is the position of the little finger. As I discussed in a previous video, the little finger actually contributes more strength to the grip than you might expect. This is because the little finger is positioned opposite the thumb and can thus create a closed loop when a fist is formed. If you make a conscious effort to place the fingers on top of the bar to rest the thumb on top of the index finger, you can instantly increase your grip and potentially gain more reps. The video below explains why, but essentially it comes down to creating a closed loop. Using your opposing thumb as it is designed.

If you want to increase the challenge for the grip, you can conversely use a crimp or a half-crimp like a rock climber. To increase lat activation, bring the knuckles up and on top of the bar.

Range of Motion

Finally, there’s range of motion.

Once again, there’s no right or wrong answer here. Shortening your ROM will allow you to blast out more repetitions of the exercise, thereby building strength endurance. This also works to fatigue the muscle fibers, increasing the number of motor units you’ll be engaging throughout the set. And it might cause the build up of blood and metabolites in the muscle, potentially stimulating more hypertrophy and even vascularization (creating more blood vessels to supply the muscles).

See also: The Surprising Benefits of Using Partials (Range of Motion)

You may worry that this partial range of motion will prevent you from developing as much strength as you otherwise could. Firstly: consider that you generally develop strength around 15 degrees above and below the trained joint angle. This means that if you stop short of full extension, you should still gain the necessary strength. Moreover, it’s rare that you ever need to exert strength from a position with your arms fully extended overhead.

Dead Hangs

There are exceptions, however (such as jumping to grab something). And, moreover, we do want the mobility to be able to raise our hands directly up in this way.

And it’s for this reason that you might also want to sometimes use a full range of motion. By lowering yourself to the point that you allow your shoulders to shrug by your ears, you’ll be entering into a “dead hang.”

dead hang

This position will stretch the lats and chest to improve shoulder mobility, it will decompress the spine, and it will offer a significant challenge for the grip (your entire weight is now hanging from your forearms). What’s more, is that according to author Dr. John Kirsch, it could even help to slightly move the acromion to create more space in the shoulder joint.

See also: Building Bulletproof Shoulders: Strength, Mobility, Resilience

Lower yourself slowly into this position to avoid jolting and hurting your shoulder. Likewise, build up to it slowly: if you have poor shoulder health, then you may wish to start by keeping one or both feet on the floor, rather than supporting your full weight.

Either way, this type of training also has the benefit of completely removing the stretch reflex, making for a more challenging series of reps. The constant isometric hold is also ideal for building

And we haven’t even spoken about the crazy moves that people like Barstarzz perform, or the benefits of weighted pull ups… or pull ups maintaining an L-sit position.

Like I said, there’s much more to pull ups than meets the eye!

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. Niko says:

    awesome, I learned something new today

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