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Mix Up Your Pulling Routine with Grip Variations

Sep 20, 2021

Pull-ups are complex movements that require multiple muscles to work together to lift your chin over the bar. The primary movers, or the muscles responsible for getting the job done, include the lats, biceps, pecs, and the mid and lower traps. Depending on the phase of your pull-up, different muscles are firing to varying degrees. You can also manipulate how much certain muscles are activated by switching up your grip.

If you walk through a gym on a busy weeknight, you’ll probably see loads of variations on the standard pull-up. People may have their palms facing toward their face in a chin-up position, their hands could be spaced out wide on the bar, or perhaps they are pulling on rings or towels. None of these variations are right or wrong. Depending on your goals, you may choose a certain grip position, width, or device to do your pull-ups.

This post will walk you through some of the major grip variations, the differences in muscle activation, and the benefits for training a range of grip types. If you are working on getting your first pull-up, you can still incorporate a range of grips into your pulling exercises as you build strength. Add in the variations below to your scapular pull-ups, inverted rows, or negatives!

Major Grip Types

Pronated grip (pull-up)

The most common pull-up position uses a pronated grip, with palms facing away from the face and hands placed on the bar approximately shoulder-width apart.

Starting from a dead hang, the lower traps are the first muscles to initiate the pull, with the pecs following close behind. The biceps kick in to flex the elbow, and the lats are the last muscles to reach their peak activation, bringing the chin over the bar.

Supinated grip (chin-up)

The supinated grip position, commonly called a chin-up, can feel easier for some people as they work on getting their first pull-up. In this variation, hands are spaced shoulder width apart with the palms facing toward the face.

While the order of muscle activation is similar between the pull-up and the chin-up, studies have indicated that individual muscles put in more or less effort depending on the grip position. The lower traps and infraspinatus show greater activation in the pronated position, while the biceps and pecs work harder during the chin-up.

Wide grip

Another common variation is to place the hands on the bar further than shoulder width apart. Wide grip pull-ups put greater load on the back muscles, including the traps, lower lats, and rhomboids.

The wide grip variation may feel pretty challenging if you’ve mainly been practicing the standard pull-up or the chin-up.

Fat grip

Use wider bars or rubber attachments on your regular bars to perform fat grip pull-ups. Increasing the width of the bar causes your forearm muscles to work harder, which could be beneficial for athletes who need a lot of grip strength like rock climbers or golfers. Using a fat grip may reduce muscle activation in the biceps and triceps, however, so make sure to incorporate other grips to target these muscles.

Suspension / rotating grip

There are a variety of suspension devices that allow the wrists to rotate throughout the course of a pull-up. If you use gymnastic rings, rock rings, or other specialty equipment, your grip can rotate from the pronated to supinated position throughout the course of the upward pull.

Studies suggest that using a rotating grip doesn’t cause significant changes in muscle activation. So if you have gymnastic rings in your home workout space but no pull-up bar, don’t worry! You can use rings for similar strength gains.

Why mix it up?

Some people might tell you that if you’re using a chin-up position you’re doing your pull-up the “wrong” way. The truth is, there are many reasons to mix it up and incorporate different grip positions into your training.

Target different muscles

Changing up your grip position will help you build strength in different areas. If you really want to focus on your lower traps and infraspinatus muscles the standard pull-up position is the way to go. Use the chin-up position to increase activation in the biceps and pecs. Incorporate wide grip pull-ups to target your back muscles, and use a fat grip to really work your grip strength. Use all of the above for a well-rounded routine!

Injury prevention

Introducing more variety in your pulling routine could also help prevent injuries that result from repetitive overhead motion, like impingement or bicep tendonitis. If you have a specific injury in your upper body, you may also be able to modify your grip position to put less stress on your problem area.

For example, this study suggests that the deltoid experiences more loading during a chin-up than a wide-grip pull-up. For someone rehabbing a deltoid injury, it may be easier to start with a wide-grip position. Though it’s important to consult with your physical therapist or medical team before incorporating new strength training after an injury!

Sport specific strength

Some sports require strength in a variety of overhead positions. Rock climbers, for example, may press and pull in any direction they can to continue upward progress. The more variety you incorporate into your training, the more tools you have to succeed in your sport!

Different resources at your disposal

Especially this year, lots of us have been getting creative with what we have at home to stay fit. Maybe you don’t have a pull-up bar, but you can use two towels anchored behind a closed door to get your pulling workout in. With a little creativity and plenty of consistency, you can still get strong without access to a gym!

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