One of the best things about back workouts is that there are an immense amount of options you can do with nothing but a pull-up bar. So although this guide won’t be like some of my past entries, which require no equipment, this series requires a door jam and a good pull-up bar to get you started. Rows, lat pull-downs and other exercises are also great for getting that coveted V-shaped back, but pull-ups still reign supreme when it comes to overall back strength. For the purpose of this guide, we’ll focus just on pull-up variations, as they’re far and away the most accessible back exercise to tap into from the comfort of your home.
Unlike some other exercises, set length is a bit flexible when it comes to creating your pull-up regimen. Because there’s such a steep learning curve, you’ll have to get started and see what feels like a reasonable amount to aim for per set. If you’re just starting out, I would recommend sticking to a set amount of pull-ups instead of “x” sets for “x” reps. Just focus on a number (15 reps) and do that in small sets until completion. Slowly overtime play with the variations and amount of reps. You can also do a pyramid structure: start with a set of 5, then do a set of 4, then do a set of 3, then 2, then 1. That gets you to 15!
And if you’re still having trouble doing single reps (pull-ups are hard!), then consider some of the assisted options on the list. You can also do almost any of these variations as holds rather than reps of pull-ups. To do so, jump up into the peak of the pull-up position (in whichever grip you want to work on) and hang as long as you can, keeping your core engaged. This is the best way to start building up the lat strength necessary to start churning out big sets of pull-ups down the line. You’ll be knocking out sets of 8 in no time.
For the first few assisted options, you’ll need an elastic band in addition to your pull-up bar. They’re cheap and can be found at any sporting goods store or online, so it’s definitely a good investment if you’re just starting out.
Normal grip pull-ups are harder than chin-ups, but the bands can make a huge difference when you’re starting out. For a traditional grip pull-up, you have your palms facing away from you and you place your hands slightly wider than shoulder width. Engage your lats (the muscles or “wings” under your armpits) and pull your upper chest towards the bar. It only counts when your chin comes over the bar! The more you do traditional pull-ups, every other exercise on this list will get easier.
“Chin-ups” traditonally refer to the pull-up position where your palms are facing towards you, which activates your biceps more than the traditional pull-up position—your palms facing away.
To perform this exercise, take an elastic band around the bar and get your feet in the band (the strength of the band can vary, so you can work up from easy to hard before doing a pull-up without assistance). Depending on the height of the bar, either jump up or use a step stool to get up and grip the bar with your palms facing towards you. Start in a full hanging position, and then pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar. Because you’re incorporating bicep strength, chin-ups are a bit easier for beginners who may still be developing their back strength.
As the name implies, here you will have your hands a little closer to each other, adding difficulty to the exercise. All previous rules apply. Try not to use any momentum; you can spread your legs into a V-shape to discourage “kipping”, which is when you swing your body weight up. It’s best to avoid “kipping”, because you can injure yourself if you’re not careful. The close grip will activate your lower lats, traps and will even activate your pecs a bit.
Holds are another great options for beginners who are building up to full on pull-ups. To do a hold, either perform one rep of a pull-up (as pictured) and then tighten your core once your chin is above the bar and hold as long as you can OR jump up into the peak of the repetition and hold.
Neutral grip holds are the same as the above, but you’ll want to have your palms facing towards each other. Hold for as long as you can, making sure to keep your core engaged—these are good for core strength as well!
This is a really great option for beginners. You can rely on your biceps and shoulders in addition to your back strength and hold for as long as you can. This is the exercise a lot of people use when first getting into pull-ups.
As the name suggests, these are the same as the previous pull-up variations, but you’ll want to use a wide grip with your hands much wider than shoulder width. These are more difficult than the previous entries, as they require you to rely almost entirely on lat strength, as opposed to utilizing your biceps and shoulders. These are also a great option for a hold!
Now we get into the non-assisted variations. To perform a traditional chin-up, hop up onto the bar with your palms facing towards you, pull until your chin surpasses the bar (hence, “chin-ups”) and then slowly return to a dead hang. Make sure to keep your biceps and back engaged as you lower yourself back towards the ground.
For these pull-ups, you’ll need a bar that has neutral grip attachments—most door jam pull-up bars have this feature. Or you can go to your local playground like I did! Neutral grip pull-ups are great; they feel good and are a little easier than normal pull-ups as you have your palms facing each other. This allows you to activate your shoulders and biceps throughout the exercise. Make sure you get a full stretch on the way down before pulling your upper chest to the bar again. Full range of motion is very important when it comes to any exercise, but especially with pull-ups. It’s easy to default to half-pull-ups when in the neutral grip, so make sure to return to a full hang before you start your next rep.
This is as traditional as it gets. You’ll want to use a grip slightly wider than shoulder-width with your palms facing away from you, pull up until your chin is above the bar (keeping your core engaged) and then lower yourself to a full hang. Repeat.
These are the same as the above, but with a grip closer than shoulder-width. You’ll really activate your lower lats, traps and even your pecs.
When doing negatives, you pull yourself up like a normal pull-up, but when going down, you do it very slowly. You can play with the time but try to get up to 4 seconds on the negative. I usually recommend doing this on the last rep(s), or if you’re stuck on a certain amount of reps. For example: if you’re doing 4 sets of 8 reps and you want to work towards 4×10, you can add slow negatives to give yourself some more improvement opportunity so you can work towards 10, rather than just jumping in and doing the 10 with bad form. Make sure to keep your lats, shoulders and abs engaged as you lower yourself.
This is the same as the above, but with a normal grip. Similarly, consider adding it onto the final rep of a traditional set to add a little extra difficulty.
These are the same as above, but with a wide grip. Feel the burn!
I won’t lie to you, these are only for the highly advanced. This is a very hard exercise and I will not recommend doing or trying it if you’re not already repping at least 20 regular pull-ups. Once you’ve really honed your two arm pull-ups, you can start working up to the coveted one-arm pull-up by first starting with a band for some much-needed assistance.
This one is tough. Once you’re really comfortable with all of the other variations on this list, you can do one arm pull-ups to really isolate the muscle groups on either side of your body. To perform, grip the bar with one hand and then grip your wrist with the other.