Reach up. Grab the bar. Pull yourself up. Repeat. It doesn’t get much simpler than that if you’re looking for an exercise that offers tremendous payoff. Still, the pullup and its many variations remain among the most underused tactics for building a back rife with detail and deep-channeled muscularity.
Pullups are not easy—the mechanical advantage is poor even in when you are in good position. Cheating them, while a fair thing to do on the last rep or two of each set, will not improve your long-term strength or size. Since the lats are a large muscle group that needs to be hit from different angles, you need to use a full range of motion across a variety of exercises. Pullups also require the contribution of dozens of smaller, contributing muscles, which is good news—it means that consistent training will lead to rapid strength gains in the short term and more total muscle gains down the road.
The following six exercises, when performed with regularly (and correctly), will attack your entire group of pull muscles (including your biceps). Whether you can only do one or a few, if you continue to execute these movements with precision, you will find that a dozen pullups (or more) are well within your reach.
1. Wide-grip pull-up
The emphasis: Upper lats, teres major
The breakdown: The king of the pulls, this exercise targets the lats from top to bottom but really emphasizes the top third, which makes it ideal as a width-builder. Due to the wide grip, the range of motion is often shorter than most pulls. However, you owe it to yourself to get as many reps as you can pulling as high as you can on each rep. Your goal should be to get your upper chest as close to the bar as possible before squeezing your shoulder blades together. Because your arm angle stays pretty open during this move, the contribution from the biceps is minimized.
The plan: This was one of Arnold’s favorite exercises for building wide-flared lats. Because he was pulling around 230 pounds to the bar, he would simply pick a number—say, 50—and complete as many sets to failure as was necessary to reach that number. The fewer the sets it takes to reach that number, the better. In the 50-rep scenario, once you can reach your goal in five sets or less, it’s time to add weight.
2. Pullup (shoulder-width)
The emphasis: Upper-middle lats, rhomboids, rear delts
The breakdown: Perhaps the toughest of all the pulls, this variation calls into play your rhomboids, rear delts, and even the brachialis and brachioradialis to complete each rep. Because your hands are spaced more narrowly—shoulder-width is ideal—this move allows for a longer range of motion, meaning that the vertical emphasis of the pull starts to shift south to your lower lats, even if the upper lats remain the primary movers. Make sure you go all the way down, fully extending your arms and maximize this exercise for its tremendous strength challenge.
The plan: Using this move will require more involvement from your biceps so grip may become a factor. If your forearms are prone to fatigue, consider using straps to make it through your working sets. Shoot for multiple (3-4) sets of 10-12 reps, adding weight once you can do so with ease. It should be noted that you can perform kipping pull-ups to “cheat” through a few reps if you fail before your target number of reps.
3. Kipping pullup
The emphasis: Upper lats, teres major, biceps brachii
The breakdown: As a weight-room traditionalist, I am not a fan of these for building muscle thickness or even pure strength. Originally, this move was designed to help teach the body how to use momentum in climbing or gymnastics but due to the surge in CrossFit, it has become a mainstay of many conditioning programs. While the lats and upper back do get a workout as they initiate the movement, performing these early on will only enforce bad form and reduce your ability for good solid strength exercises later in your workout as the ballistic nature will both create a pump and instigate fatigue.
The plan: If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool CrossFitter, this is part of the required curriculum and so should be part of your regular training routine. If you’re new to the movement, be sure to train it only under the supervision of a knowledgeable and vigilant coach to limit your risk of injury. Because it places such a stretch on the fragile musculature of the shoulder joint, the small muscles of the rotator cuff may decide to revolt. In the context of a more traditional, size-and-strength focused routine, kipping pullups are an excellent way to finish a set of normal pullups. Once you hit initial failure on your controlled reps, add a handful (3-5) of kips to really finish off your lats.
The emphasis: Lower lats, rhomboids, biceps brachii
The breakdown: By supinating your palms (i.e. going with an underhand grip), you will activate your biceps muscles more than in any of the other pullup variations because your elbows remain close to your body and the range of motion is significantly longer than with other pulls. The lats fire from top to bottom on this move as you pull with the upper portion of lats at the beginning of the movement when arms are fully extended and then down through the lower lats as you reach the top position. The movement also targets the mid-back, traps and rhomboids, making this exercise one of the very best for overall back development. Additionally, it may be one of the easier moves of the bunch because it involves so many muscles at that optimize mechanic positioning for pulling. A well-rounded back routine includes both overhand and underhand pullups. Try performing reps without your thumb wrapped around the bar to keep as much focus as possible on the lats instead of the biceps.
The plan: If your lower lats have been lagging behind, then you should try making this challenging move your focus. Try to maintain a vertical body positioning as you pull through to the top and squeeze your shoulder blades together before lowering yourself under control to a full stretch. For variety and increased difficulty, as well as a slight shift in the muscular focus, try using a wider (outside shoulder-width) underhand grip.
5. Neutral-grip pullup
The emphasis: Lower lats, rhomboids, traps, brachialis
The breakdown: This off-the-beaten-path incarnation of the pullup is one of my personal favorites, especially if you use a wide grip. Like the underhand grip, this move provides a longer range of motion which helps you work the lats thoroughly as well as the traps and upper back muscles such as the rhomboids. You also get strong biceps activation with emphasis on the brachioradialis muscle. This again, due to mechanics, makes this exercise one of the easier pulls. However, using a wide-grip will make this one of the tougher exercises in your arsenal as your mechanical advantage is seriously decreased. Additionally, the wide grip will reduce the contribution by the biceps, increase rear deltoid activation, and give more flare to your wings. Do both when you perform this move.
The plan: To perform the narrow-grip neutral pullup, simply position a parallel-grip cable attachment over a pull-up bar. The wider-grip version will usually require more creativity, but certain pull-up towers in gyms have parallel bars that extend out a bit. They may be thicker than the provided pullup bar, which means the use of additional grip strength. An outdoor alternative may await you at your local playground where a set of monkey bars will offer a variety of hand spacings – narrow, wide and other! Incorporate a variety of neutral-grip pulls into your routine for thorough development.
6. Towel pullup
The emphasis: Lower lats, rhomboids, traps, brachialis, brachioradialis, wrist flexors
The breakdown: Taking a towel attachment and throwing it over and around a high bar to use for your grip ups the ante on pullup day. You can arrange multiple towels for wide grip moves or a single towel for close-grip pulls. The thicker the towel, the harder it is to grip, and thus you get the added benefit of providing a serious challenge for your forearm gripping muscles. But to that end, it will cause an intense forearm burn that will reduce your grip strength if you work these too soon in your training day. I’d advise doing these first off in a routine to allow for maximal strength. The exception is if you incorporate these into a day dedicated exclusively to forearm training.
The plan: A pure strength move, the towel pullup first focuses on your forearms. If your forearms aren’t strong enough to solidify your grip, then your lats won’t be able to do the work that they need to in order to complete the pull. Like the one-arm push-up on chest day, this is a move for more advanced trainees who have mastered the basics. This simple move, however, can translate to greater grip strength on your traditional pulls, so don’t wait until you feel you have “graduated” into the realm of the advanced. Finish your next back day off with 2-3 sets of this move to failure and strive for a greater number each time you hit the gym.
THE STRAP TRAP: This question lingers on, but the solution is easy. If you want big forearms, don’t use straps. If your forearms fatigue too soon and limit your back development, then by all means use them. Studies show that the use of straps on pull days can help lifters get an additional 1-2 reps. But remember: When using straps, you are simply mitigating the strain of the problem to a crutch not a cure, so my advice is to do as many sets as you can without straps and reserve their use for only your most difficult sets.