The Top 5 Best Pullups for Maximum Strength
Although the majority of my articles have been focused on supplement ingredients and nutrition, now it’s time to focus on the training aspect of physique enhancement. What better place to begin than with the pull-up! This article is meant to give you a true understanding in the difference between a pull-up and a chin up, how different grips effect strength and development, as well as my Top 5 favorite pull-up variations for maximum size and strength.
To begin, I would like to look at literature done by Youdas et al. This study compared a conventional pull-up and chin-up with a rotational exercise using Perfect·Pullup™ twisting handles. Twenty-one men (24.9 ± 2.4 years) and 4 women (23.5 ± 1 years) volunteered to participate. Electromyography (EMG) signals were collected with DE-3.1 double-differential surface electrodes at a sampling frequency of 1,000 Hz. The EMG signals were normalized to peak activity in the maximum voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) trial and expressed as a percentage. Motion analysis data of the elbow were obtained using Vicon Nexus software. One-factor repeated measures analysis of variance examined the muscle activation patterns and kinematic differences between the 3 pull-up exercises. Average EMG muscle activation values (%MVIC) were as follows: latissimus dorsi (117-130%), biceps brachii (78-96%), infraspinatus (71-79%), lower trapezius (45-56%), pectoralis major (44-57%), erector spinae (39-41%), and external oblique (31-35%). The pectoralis major and biceps brachii had significantly higher EMG activation during the chin-up than during the pull-up, whereas the lower trapezius was significantly more active during the pull-up. No differences were detected between the Perfect·Pullup™ with twisting handles and the conventional pull-up and chin-up exercises. The mean absolute elbow joint range of motion was 93.4 ± 14.6°, 100.6 ± 14.5°, and 99.8 ± 11.7° for the pull-up, chin-up, and rotational exercise using the Perfect·Pullup™ twisting handles, respectively. For each exercise condition, the timing of peak muscle activation was expressed as a percentage of the complete pull-up cycle. A general pattern of sequential activation occurred suggesting that pull-ups and chin-ups were initiated by the lower trapezius and pectoralis major and completed with biceps brachii and latissimus dorsi recruitment. The Perfect·Pullup™ rotational device does not appear to enhance muscular recruitment when compared to the conventional pull-up or chin-up (1.)
Now that we understand the pull-up variations themselves, we need to look at how you’re actually positioning your grip. Andersen et al conducted research on this topic (2.) The aim of the study was to compare 6 repetition maximum (6RM) load and electromyography (EMG) activity in the lat pull-down using 3 different pronated grip widths. Fifteen men performed 6RM in the lat pull-down with narrow, medium, and wide grips (1, 1.5, and 2 times the biacromial distance) in a randomized and counterbalanced order. The 6RM strengths with narrow (80.3 ± 7.2 kg) and medium grip (80 ± 7.1 kg) were higher than wide grip (77.3 ± 6.3 kg; p = 0.02). There was similar EMG activation between grip widths for latissimus, trapezius, or infraspinatus, but a tendency for biceps brachii activation to be greater for medium vs. narrow (p = 0.09), when the entire movement was analyzed. Analyzing the concentric phase separately revealed greater biceps brachii activation using the medium vs. narrow grip (p = 0.03). In the eccentric phase, there was greater activation using wide vs. narrow grip for latissimus and infraspinatus (p ≤ 0.04), and tendencies for medium greater than narrow for latissimus, and medium greater than wide for biceps (both p = 0.08), was observed. Collectively, a medium grip may have some minor advantages over small and wide grips; however, athletes and others engaged in resistance training can generally expect similar muscle activation which in turn should result in similar hypertrophy gains with a grip width that is 1-2 times the biacromial distance.
With the differences between the exercise and grip itself now a little clearer, we can end this article with my person top 5 best pull-ups for maximum strength and hypertrophy. These are highly adaptable gym routines that can range drastically from person to person. Depending on how you implement them into your programming, they can either be more along the lines of a callisthenic routine or a high intensity training routine. That is completely dependent upon your goals and if your working out without weights or with weights.
Gironda pull-ups: your goal is to lean as far back as possible and change the motion into a hybrid of a pull up and a row utilizing a neutral grip. Be sure to fully retract and depress the scapula
Lean Back Scapular Retraction: your goal is very similar to the Gironda pull-up but now it’s closer to a rowing variation where you will arch your back and bring your heels toward your head with minimal core engagement.
Tuck Lever Row: your goal now is to get your body horizontal to the ground while pulling your legs into a tuck position. From there, use your arms to row your body up.
Ice Cream Maker: Here you transition from a front lever to the top position of a pull-up. The main goal is to teach you to keep the lats engaged. This is best done from a tuck position at first and eventually moving toward a straight body position.
L Pull-Up: begin by raising your legs until they’re parallel with the ground. Then, pull your chest up to the bar while maintaining your leg position. Lower your body to the starting position by letting your arms extend fully. This is a very hard movement for the majority of people.
Alex Kikel is a MS, PES, CPT and Speed and Explosion Specialist Level II
Effects of grip width on muscle strength and activation in the lat pull-down. Vidar Andersen, Marius S. Fimland, Espen Wiik, Anders Skoglund, Atle H. Saeterbakken. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24662157