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Pull ups for a Strong Upper Body

The two most familiar bodyweight exercises for back are pull-ups and chin-ups. There are grip variations which engage the back in different ways depending on the angle of the grip and the width of the hand placement. Pull-ups generally have an overhand, wide grip, and the exercise focuses on the width of the lats. Chin-ups have a closer, reversed hand grip that engages the length of the lats from origin to insertion, as well as a secondary engagement to the biceps.

The movements utilize several muscles of the back in addition to the lats (latissimus dorsi.) The other muscles involved in these movements are the infraspinatus, teres major, teres minor, middle and lower trapezius, posterior deltoid, biceps brachii, and brachioradialis. The primary back muscles used in any of the following movements is the latissimus dorsi.

Proper exercise form. A proper pull-up begins with arms fully extended, hands forward with a wide grip, pulling the body upward until the head passes the pull-up bar. However, I personally find more benefit in engaging the muscles when stopping before the head passes the bar and holding for a brief one-two-second static tensing of the lats.

As I pull myself up and pause the movement, I flare my lats and squeeze the central muscles of my back. You’ll find that you will not get as many repetitions when controlling the exercise in this way, but the benefits are far greater than a sloppy form or rapid kipping pull-ups. In this variation, the biceps should finish parallel to the bar.

Go slowly. Both the upward and downward movements of any variation of pull-ups or chin-ups should be done slowly, having the lats endure the positive motion, the static motion, and the negative motion. The positive motion is the “pulling upward,” and the static motion is holding for one-two seconds, tensing or squeezing the muscles; the negative motion is the “downward motion.”

V-grip pull-ups is another excellent exercise that engages other important back muscles such as the rhomboids. It is performed holding a V-shape handle for a close grip, and pulling the body up to the point where the chest nears the V-grip handle.

This movement isolates the lats on the static and negative motions, and the central back muscles such the rhomboids and lower trapezius on the positive motion. The exercise can be performed straight up and down, or moving side to side if the V-shape handle is placed over a straight pull-up bar.

Side grip pull-ups have always been one of my favorite back exercises. This pull-up variation also engages the rear deltoids and rhomboids. Side grip pull-ups also provide a more comfortable position for the shoulders, and less stress on the rotator cuff simply because of the grip position. This grip also limits the engagement of the biceps. As a result of less biceps fatigue, you will find that you will be able to perform more repetitions with the side grip.

Hand position and grip. Positioning of the hands makes a tremendous difference on successfully performing the variations of pull-up exercises. Some choose to perform pull-ups with hand positioning that is just beyond shoulder width, but I have always used a wide grip pull-up to maximize my results for the width of the lats. For chin-ups, I have always placed my hands with a head’s width in between. I also use a side-to-side V-grip pull-up movement.

If you seek a wide, developed back as well as back strength and overall upper body strength, I highly recommend incorporating pull-ups, chin-ups, V-grip pull-ups, and side grip pull-ups. Adding bodyweight exercises that involve moving your own body weight will give you the benefits of dense muscle, better shape, and improvement in weight-training exercises. Basic foundational exercises are still the best in my book.