If you’re not aware of just how beneficial the pull-up is than you’ve more than likely have been living in a cave for the last decade. The pull-up is the squat for the upper-body and one of the biggest-bang-for-the-back exercises (see what I did there =).
Chances are if you’re reading this then you already perform pull-ups on the regular and are looking to change things up – all of the variations provided are some of our staple movements in both BPI & Rx Athlete individual programming.
I’m also assuming that you can perform multiple sets of a strict pronated grip pull-up. But if you’re still squeaking by performing 1-2 rep cluster sets, that’s okay too – this article will be more beneficial to you down the road.
Furthermore, some of these variations in there were responsible for the best gains I’ve made to both my biceps, forearms, and deltoids – in particular, the gymnasts routine that I’ll highlight so if you’re ready to add some new pull-up challenges and spark the gains train, read on.
One of the most brutal chin-up variations I’ve tried. To perform this one you’ll need to already be very proficient with your chin-ups and able to perform a minimum of 10 dead-hang chin-ups.
By way of increasing time-under-tension, you’re effectively increasing the demand on the biceps and isometrically on the abdominals – the level of demand you’ll incur on the anterior core is something that always surprises me.
You can modify the tempo to match your ability, but a 3-5 second concentric (raising) followed by a 3-5 second eccentric (lowering) will do the job nicely. But make no mistake, by adding a tempo the amount of total volume you’ll be able to handle will be less so I’d recommend keeping your sets small between 2-3 reps and sets high between 5-7.
5-6 x 2-3
1 1/4 Neutral Grip Pull-up
1 1/4 movements are a great way to add additional time under tension and with multi-joint movements like squats & pull-ups – 1 ¼ reps work quite well if you’re interested in gaining slabs of beef.
Much like the tempo chin-up, the demand for these is high on the arms and abdominals, but for this variation, you can go as far as adding additional load and/or performing higher amounts of the total volume if you choose.
Unweighted – 5-6 x 5-6.
Weighted – Build to a heavy 2-3 in 6 sets.
I’m not sure exactly how these came to be named “Rambo Pull-ups” but these could easily be called “Rocky” pull-ups as I recall them making an appearance in Rocky IV.
This variation can be done a number of ways – as shown attaching a fat v-handle to my rig or by simply placing a traditional v-handle used for seated rows over a straight pull-up bar.
I almost always lean toward using fat grip variations as it adds difficulty to grip strength/forearm flexors demand which can be instrumental in biceps growth.
For this variation, and almost all variations listed in this manner I prefer to accumulate volume rather than performing straight sets.
Beginner: 15-20 reps
Intermediate: 20-30 reps
Advanced: 30-40 reps
*Each side = 1 rep
Another great variation that places a considerable amount of stress on the forearms and biceps.
I love rope pull-ups not just for the immediate training effects such as a massive biceps pump, but because they are empowering. Being able to hold on to a thick rope and knock out 5-6 good reps is a win in and of itself.
The caveat here is having access to a rope, but luckily a cheap rope off of Amazon that can be draped over the bar as shown will cost you less than 50 bucks and can be used in a number of other ways such as for inverted rows or triceps extensions.
Beginner: 20-25 reps
Intermediate: 30-35 reps
Advanced: 40-45 reps
A variation that adds time under tension and a bit of accuracy on each repetition. Make no mistake, increasing time under tension with your pull-ups is not for the faint of heart and will require that you’re already a pull-up ninja. For programming – I prefer straight sets vs. volume accumulation.
4-5 x 5-6. Full recovery between sets.
– Right/Left = 1 Rep.
Band Assisted Pull-ups
I know what you’re thinking – you’re already way too swole to be using a sissy band to help with your pull-ups, but think again my friend. This variation is brutal and will make a grown man experience a lat pump from hell! The purpose of this variation is much like a lat pulldown, but the difference is notable in terms of execution and feel.
This is a great one we prescribe to high-level CrossFitters that can knock out pull-ups for days yet are in tears of after 3 x 15 band-assisted pull-ups.
Moving your body weight through space not builds strength-endurance/relative strength, it will jack up your arms, lats, and delts so before you dismiss this one give it a try.
For programming, we are going to push the envelope with reps per set to 15+. Shoot for 3-4 sets of 15 or more reps.
Band Assisted Speed Pull-ups
It’s common to see the bench press and overhead press variation used for dynamic effort training, but what about a 𝐯𝐞𝐫𝐭𝐢𝐜𝐚𝐥 𝐩𝐮𝐥𝐥 𝐯𝐚𝐫𝐢𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧?
Using bodyweight only or even a small amount of accommodating resistance such as chains while likely not create the movement velocity we need. But, using band assistance is a different story!
Dynamic Effort Pull-ups:
9 x 3 with band assistance, every 45s. Change grip every set.
Goal: Keep your reps as strict as possible, but aggressively accelerate through each repetition.
Gymnast Pull-up Routine
This routine I learned about more than a decade ago and after 8 weeks of performing this routine 1x a week, I had people commenting on my arm growth and accusing me of being on the sauce. First, you’ll need to be able to perform AT LEAST 10 strict dead-hang pull-ups. Any less than that you’ll be better served using another cluster set method that does not induce as much fatigue. Here’s how it works:
- Pronated shoulder-width pull up x submax reps (2-3 reps shy of failure.) Rest 10s.
- Pronated close grip (4-6 inches apart) pull up x submax reps. Rest 10s.
- Supinated shoulder-width chin up x submax reps. Rest 10s.
- Supinated Close grip (4-6 inches apart) chin up x submax reps. Rest 3:00
Perform this cycle one more time.
After 4 weeks perform this cycle for a total of 3 times.
You won’t need to add additional bodyweight or try to make this harder, but you can opt for a neutral if you have shoulder issues. Enjoy!
The Fat Grip Pull-up EMOM
This is one of those sneaky AF challenges that will definitely surprise you! This can be done without fat gripz, but if you’re a pull-up ninja already add them!
Here’s the challenge:
Every minute on the minute for as long as possible:
Minute 1: 2 Fat Grip Pull-ups
Minute 2: 4 Fat Grip Pull-ups
Minute 3: 6 Fat Grip Pull-ups
Minute 4: 8 Fat Grip Pull-ups
And so continuing to add 2 reps each minute. When you can no longer complete the prescribed work in the allotted minute is when you’re done. For example, let’s say you completed the round of 12 pull-ups (round 6) and then completed 12 reps of the 14 in round 7 (this was my score) your score would be 12 + 12.
Denote your score and retest in 12 weeks.
Adding variety to a monster movement like a pull-up is a surefire way to improve strength and add slabs of beef to your arms.
Additionally, you’ll effectively improve grip strength which will invariably transfer to other aspects of your training – grip strength has been correlated with a number of performance metrics. Plus, you’ll be able to build a massive set of forearms in the process!