Pulling yourself from arm’s length up to a horizontal bar is a phenomenal exercise for your back, your arms, and your core. But there’s more than one way to do it, and I’m not just talking about the fact that “pullups” and “chinups” are technically two different exercises. There are countless variations to make the move harder, easier, or more interesting. Let’s dive in.
Pullup (and chinup) basics
A standard pullup is done with your palms facing away from you. Place your hands on the bar more than shoulder-width apart, then get into a “dead hang” where your arms and shoulders are stretched out long, your body dangling. Pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar, and there you are.
A chinup is the same thing, except your palms are facing toward you. You’ll probably want a narrower grip for these. The start and end positions are the same, as is the fact that you’re pulling yourself up and then lowering down to the start to begin another rep. Chinups are slightly easier than pullups, so you may be able to do more reps, but otherwise they’re very similar exercises that work similar muscles.
Some pullup bars also give you an option for a neutral grip, with your palms facing each other. You can also do pullups on gymnastics rings. Rings make grip a bit easier — you can rotate the ring as you move through the movement — but they’re harder to stabilise since the rings can sway as you move.
Easier pullup variations
If you can’t do a lot of regular pullups (or chinups) yet, don’t worry. There are plenty of variations that are easier to do than a standard pullup.
Negative (eccentric) pullups work the same muscles as a regular pullup, but you’ll be using your muscles to slow your descent rather than to pull yourself up. To do these, either jump to the top or stand on a box or bench. Begin with your chin above the bar and lower yourself, as slowly as possible, down to a dead hang.
Box-assisted pullups let you work the movement in the upward direction, while giving you a bit of a boost. Put a box or bench in a place where you can keep a foot on it during the exercise. Do your pullup, and push off the box only as much as necessary to keep you moving upward. Over time, you’ll be able to use less and less assistance from your leg.
Scap pullups are a good way to practice the bottom part of the pullup. The first thing your body has to do in a pullup is engage your shoulders. Your upper back muscles do this job before your arms can ever get involved. So hold onto the bar and activate your back, pretending that you’re trying to push the bar down with straight arms. That’s the whole rep; go back to a dead hang and do some more.
Flexed-arm hangs help with the top of the pullup. It’s easier to hang at the top than it is to get up there in the first place, so jump or step up there and just see how long you can hold on with your chin above the bar. Timing yourself is a great way to monitor your progress when you don’t have any reps to count yet.
Band-assisted pullups can be an alternative to box pullups if you don’t have a handy box, but many coaches say they’re a less effective option. Either hang a long, strong resistance band from the pullup bar, or stretch it across the rack below you if you have a setup that allows you to do that. The band assists more at the bottom, so remember to do extra scap pullups to round out your routine.
Assisted pullups on a machine are an accessory that helps to build upper-body muscle, but don’t expect these to get you to a pullup all by themselves. The machine stabilizes your lower body, meaning that your core doesn’t need to work as hard. If you use a pullup machine, think of it as a secondary exercise (for building muscle in your arms and back) and not as pullup training specifically.
If you’re just training for strength, you can skip this section. But once you’ve mastered the strict pullup, the CrossFit-curious may want to try kipping or butterfly pullups.
The idea of these variations is to use momentum to do more reps, and to complete them faster if you’re being timed. While purists may scoff about them being “cheating” or “not real pullups,” they’re a difficult skill that requires explosiveness and coordination, and nobody is doing these moves without first being able to do strict ones, so calm down. They’re an essential skill to master if you want to compete in this particular sport.
Kipping pullups use momentum from the legs to move the body’s centre of gravity in an S-shaped path, accelerating toward the bar and then pushing away from it to start the next rep.
Butterfly pullups also use momentum from the legs, but instead of approaching the bar from underneath, you get your centre of gravity travelling in almost a circular motion, sliding downward past the bar on every rep and then kicking back up when you get to the bottom.
Weighted pullups are just like normal pullups, but heavier. Wear a weighted vest, or hang plates from a dip belt. You can also hold a dumbbell between your feet, or pinch a bumper plate between your knees.
Hockey or commando pullups use a standard pullup bar, but you stand at 90 degrees to the usual position. Grab the bar with both hands close to each other (your palms will be pointing in opposite directions, like a staggered neutral grip) and pull yourself up so the bar is over your left shoulder. On the next rep, go to the other side so the bar nearly touches your right shoulder.
Corncob or typewriter pullups involve a side-to-side slide at the top of the movement, as if you were eating your way down a corncob, or simulating the feeling of being the carriage on an old-fashioned typewriter.
Archer pullups also get you moving side to side, but in a different way. As you pull yourself up, only bend one arm, while keeping the other straight. The straight hand will end up holding very little of your weight, and at the top of the rep you’ll look like an archer about to unleash an arrow.
L-sit pullups are done with your legs held straight out in front of you, so that your body is in the shape of a capital letter “L.” They’re extra work for your core.
Towel pullups have you holding onto a towel draped over the bar instead of holding onto the bar itself. These are very challenging on your grip. You can use a separate towel for each hand if you want a wide grip, or one towel held in both hands.
Single-arm pullups are the ultimate conclusion of all this pullup work. You need strong arms, a strong back, and a strong grip, but when it all comes together you’ll be able to pull yourself up with just one hand on the bar. Hold onto your wrist with your free hand, or go for the ultimate showoff move by keeping your non-working hand free.