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21 Pull Up Variations for All Levels

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Pull ups are one of the most effective exercises for building impressive back strength and mass when done with a good tempo and through a full range of motion.

To that end, let’s review 21 pull-up variations for trainees of all levels. I’ve also shared programming tips to help you incorporate some of these into your training.

Best Pull-Up Variations for All Levels

Beginner Pull-Up Variations

Intermediate/Advanced Pull-Up Variations

Beginner Pull Up Variations Breakdown

Lat Pulldown

man lat pulldown machine PHUL

Lat pulldowns are not precisely a pull-up variation but more of an exercise with a similar movement pattern.

That said, pulldowns are the perfect starting point for a beginner because they teach proper form and build some strength to help you eventually do a regular pull-up.

Plus, they are far less intimidating for beginners who lack the strength and skill to do any pull-up variation. As such, you can build some momentum in your training early on rather than lose your confidence because you can’t yet do pull-ups.

Dead Hang

man dead hang

With the dead hang, you’re simply hanging from the pull-up bar. Despite its simplicity, the exercise is still highly beneficial because it develops grip strength, helping you get used to suspending yourself in the air.

Plus, your lats are stretched under load, which is beneficial for growth (1).

Pull Up (Assisted; Machine)

An assisted pull-up machine removes some of the resistance (you decide how much), allowing you to practice the movement pattern in a more controlled way.

This makes the variation beneficial if you’re a beginner who can’t do unassisted pull-ups. 

More advanced trainees can also incorporate machine-assisted pull-ups into their workouts for extra training volume to develop the back.

Pull Up (Band)

Band-assisted pull-ups are a good alternative if your gym doesn’t have a pull-up machine. However, they are more challenging because:

  • It’s more difficult to pick the ideal band
  • You get virtually no support near the top (as the band shortens)
  • Bands don’t stabilize you the same way the pull-up machine does

You can still use this variation to build strength for pull-ups and get used to the instability.

Jumping Pull Up

You can do jumping pull-ups in a couple of ways:

  • Jump to the top and control the descent (more on that next)
  • Jump a bit and use the momentum to complete the rep by pulling yourself up

The latter option is suitable for building strength at the top of the pull-up, and you can still lower yourself slowly (say, for five seconds) to stretch your back under load for muscle gain.

Negative Pull Up

The idea behind this variation is to get yourself to the top by jumping or stepping on something and controlling the lowering phase.

Negative (eccentric) pull-ups work great because muscles are stronger in the lengthening phase, which means you can control the descent even if you can’t pull yourself up yet (2).

So, you will eventually have enough back and bicep strength for a regular pull-up by doing the movement and applying overload (e.g., lengthening the descend duration or doing more reps over time).

Inverted Row

man inverted row barbell

Inverted rows are not your traditional pull-up variation because they are classified as a horizontal pull (pull-ups are a vertical pull), and your feet remain on the floor.

However, they are ideal for building strength in your back, and you can adjust the difficulty with your body position. Staying more upright would make the exercise easier, whereas being more horizontal would force you to pull a larger percentage of your body weight.

Half Pull Up

The objective is to start from a bottom position (arms fully extended) and pull yourself halfway up.

While this is a partial range of motion, the advantage is that you can stretch the lats under load at the bottom position.

Trainer’s tip: Extend your arms at the bottom of each rep, even if that means pulling yourself slightly less than halfway up.

How I Recommend Learning Pull-Ups as a Beginner

Here is how I recommend learning these movements in order:

Lat Pulldowns ⇒ Pull Up (Assisted) ⇒ Dead Hang ⇒ Inverted Row (more vertical body position) ⇒ Pull Up (Band) ⇒ Negative Pull Up ⇒ Inverted Row (more horizontal) ⇒ Jumping Pull Up ⇒ Half Pull Up

You don’t have to try all these, but this is a decent progression scheme you can follow for several months.

Also, consider doing more than one variation at a time for quicker results. For example:

  • Monday – lat pulldowns
  • Wednesday – Pull up (assisted)
  • Friday – Dead hang

Do a few sets and focus on gradual progression while maintaining proper form.

Intermediate/Advanced Pull Up Variations Breakdown

Scapular Pull Ups

Scapular pull-ups are an overlooked variation, where the goal isn’t to pull yourself up but to retract your shoulder blades while hanging from the bar.

You essentially move from a dead hang to an engaged position––the one you must master for strong and powerful pull-ups.

Trainer’s tip: Move slowly between the two positions and hold each for two seconds to engage your back muscles.

Pull Up

man pull up

Classic pull-ups through a full range of motion are simple and highly effective for developing your back, biceps, grip, and whole-body stability. 

You can experiment with tempo, grip width, and rep/set schemes to keep your workouts fun and see what works best. 

Wide Pull Up

Wide-grip pull-ups are slightly more advanced and generally more beneficial for lat activation and growth.

That said, don’t go too wide, as that can shift the emphasis to the shoulders and lead to some joint discomfort.

Chin Up

man pull up

Chin-ups are the same as pull-ups, with the primary difference being that you’re using an underhand grip (palms facing back).

Doing so puts your biceps in a more advantageous position, allowing them to produce more force (3). As such, you may feel slightly stronger on chin-ups than on pull-ups.

Isometric Pull Up Hold

Holding the isometric contraction at the top of pull-up reps is an effective way to build strength in that part of the range of motion. This can help you to more consistently and explosively get your chin over the bar for full range of motion pull-ups.

One option is to pull yourself up to the top and hold. Alternatively, jump up or step on a stool to get to the top position and stay there as long as possible.

Commando Pull Up

Commando pull-ups are a variation where you stand sideways and grab the bar with one hand in front of the other. As you pull yourself up, you must guide your head to the left or right of the bar.

The movement is not inherently better than a regular pull-up, but it allows you to use a neutral grip and might lead to better back activation in some trainees. It’s worth a try if regular pull-ups or chin-ups feel stale.

Sternum Pull Up (Gironda)

Sternum Pull up Gironda

Sternum pull-ups are a more advanced variation where the goal is to look up and lean the upper body back to a greater degree. Touch your lower chest to the bar as you pull yourself up to better engage your upper back. 

When done through a full range of motion (fully extending the arms at the bottom), these can train your back quite well and lead to intense muscle pumps.

Kipping Pull Up

Kipping pull-ups are another advanced version of the exercise, typically done in a CrossFit setting. 

Rather than doing slow and controlled pull-up reps, you must leverage kipping (jerking your body from head to toe) to generate momentum and do more explosive reps. 

This pull-up variation can benefit athletes looking to build explosive strength.

Pull Up (Weighted)

man weighted pull ups

Weighted pull-ups are essentially the final step for trainees who want to focus on the basics for strength and muscle gain.

The overloading potential is virtually limitless because you can continue to add weight via a special belt and provide the necessary overload.

L-Sit Pull Up

This fancy pull-up variation builds isometric strength in your midsection while working the back and biceps through pulling. To perform these, you must raise your legs forward and keep them in that position while doing reps.

A potential limitation is that the abs can get tired before the back muscles. This would force trainees to stop a set before they’ve effectively trained the primary target: the lats and other upper back muscles.

Frenchies

Frenchies are a pull-up variation that’s particularly popular among rock climbers. These translate well to that sport because they involve partial reps that build strength in specific ranges of motion. 

There are several variations of the movement. A straightforward way to do them would be:

Dead hang (5 seconds) ⇒ Pull halfway up (and hold for 5 seconds) ⇒ Pull yourself to the top (5 seconds) ⇒ Lower yourself halfway down (5-second hold) ⇒ Move down to a dead hang (5-second hold)

This would be one rep. Once done with it, repeat the whole sequence.

One-Arm Pull Up

If regular pull-ups are impressive, one-arm pull-ups are even more so. The ability to pull yourself up using just one arm is rare and reserved only for the strongest and most skilled calisthenics athletes.

It’s also important to note that one-arm pull-ups are more of a vanity exercise than a good back training approach.

Regular pull-ups provide just as good of a training stimulus, and you can always do weighted, Gironda, or wide-grip pull-ups to challenge yourself further.

Muscle Ups

man muscle up

Muscle-ups are another advanced pull-up version worth mentioning. The goal is to perform a powerful pull from the bottom to generate momentum. This allows you to get your shoulders and upper arms over the bar.

Once in this position, you can complete the rep by performing a bar dip, shifting the emphasis from the back and biceps to the chest, shoulders, and triceps.

How to Program Pull-Ups Into Your Training

How you program pull-ups into your training will largely depend on your training goals and fitness level. 

For the sake of simplicity, let’s see how beginners and intermediate-level trainees can incorporate pull-ups into their workouts to build muscle mass and strength.

Beginner Pull-up Programming

As a beginner, your pull-up ability will typically range from 0 to 5 reps per set. Regardless of where you stand, you can incorporate the following activities to improve your skills and build pulling strength:

  • Lat Pulldowns
  • Pull Ups (Machine Assisted)
  • Negative Pull Ups
  • Inverted Rows
negatives

You should spread these throughout your training week to manage fatigue and practice the movement pattern more frequently. 

For example:

  • Monday – lat pulldowns and inverted rows (as part of pull or ‘back’ training)
  • Wednesday – negative pull-ups (during another workout)
  • Friday – machine-assisted pull-ups (during your third workout of the week)

This approach would work regardless of whether you do full-body or push/pull/legs training. Here is how these might look in your training:

Workout 1 – Pull

  • Inverted Row – 3 sets of 8-10 reps
  • Lat Pulldown (Cable) – 3 sets of  10-12 reps 
  • Seated Cable Row – Wide Grip – 3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Bicep Curl (Barbell) – 3 sets of 10-12 reps
  • Face Pull – 3 sets of 15-20 reps

Workout 2 – Push

Workout 3 – Legs

  • Squat (Barbell) – 3 sets of 6-10 reps
  • Romanian Deadlift (Dumbbell) – 3 sets of 10-12 reps
  • Leg Extension (Machine) – 3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Standing Calf Raise (Machine) – 3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Pull Up (Assisted) – 3 sets of 10-12 reps

Doing a handful of sets here and there doesn’t generate as much fatigue, which means you can practice each activity in a recovered state with better form for more reps.

It’s also important to mention that since pull-ups are a bodyweight activity, losing excess body fat can improve your performance. It’s one thing to pull yourself up if you weigh 200 lbs and another if you hover around 175-180 lbs.

Intermediate Pull-up Programming

Adding pull-ups to an intermediate program involves doing the movement often enough (ideally, two to three times per week) and managing fatigue.

In other words, it’s similar to doing pull-up variations as a beginner, with the primary difference being that you must be more mindful of your training volume and avoid doing too much

The primary reason is that you can do more unassisted pull-up reps, generating more fatigue than easier variations like assisted pull-ups or inverted rows.

You can add the pull-up (and variations) to your training in multiple ways, but follow these rules:

  1. Do them early in your training.
  2. Do them no more than two to three times per week.
  3. Recover for at least 48 hours between sessions.
  4. Don’t take sets to failure (leave at least a rep or two in the tank) (4).
  5. Vary the rep and set structure. 

That way, you would get enough quality practice without generating too much fatigue. This will further improve your skills with the exercise and help you steadily build strength.

For example, let’s take a four-day upper/lower split that’s fit for an intermediate lifter:

Upper A

  • Pull Up – 3 sets to RPE 8-9 (1-2 reps in the tank)
  • Bench Press (Dumbbell) – 3 sets of 6 to 10 reps
  • Bent Over Row (Barbell) – 3 sets of 6 to 10 reps
  • Shoulder Press (Dumbbell) – 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps
  • Low Cable Fly Crossover – 2 sets of 12 to 15 reps
  • Dumbbell Curl – 2 sets of 12 to 15 reps
  • Rope Cable Face Pulls – 2 sets of 15 to 25 reps

Lower A – no pull-ups

Upper B

  • Pull Up – 5 sets to RPE 7-8 (2-3 reps in the tank)
  • Incline Bench Press (Dumbbell) – 3 sets of 8-10 reps
  • Seated Shoulder Press (Machine) – 3 sets of 8-12 reps
  • Straight Arm Lat Pulldown (Cable) – 3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Push Up – 2-3 sets to RPE 8-9
  • EZ Bar Biceps Curl – 3 sets of 10-15 reps
  • Triceps Kickback (Dumbbell) – 3 sets of 12-15 reps

Lower B – no pull-ups

Conclusion

Pull-ups are a simple and effective bodyweight exercise with numerous benefits for trainees of all levels. 

You can choose from numerous variations and modify the classic exercise to fit your current abilities––for example, by using a band to remove some resistance or adding external weight to challenge yourself more.

Check out the Hevy app if you need help organizing your training, logging your workouts, and tracking your performance. The app provides in-depth analysis and makes workout tracking a breeze.

FAQs

1. What is the best pull-up variation for the lats?

There are multiple variations to build thick lats, rhomboids, traps, brachialis, and biceps. Regular pull-ups are one fantastic option, but you can also consider machine-assisted ones if you’re a beginner or weighted pull-ups if you’re more advanced.

2. Do I need to do multiple pull-up variations?

You can build thick lats with just one pull-up variation. Choose one that allows you to train through a full range of motion and focus on gradually increasing the difficulty of your training (e.g., doing more sets and reps).

3. What if I can’t do a single pull-up?

Machine-assisted pull-ups, band pull-ups, slow negatives, and inverted rows are good movements to build strength and work your way up to your first unassisted rep.

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