Proficient with the traditional pull-up exercise? Include these modifications into the mix and pull yourself to the next level

In my “Pull for Strength” article, I made it clear my love for posterior chain exercises. Pull-ups, rows, and deadlifts will always be found in my athlete programs. In our anterior chain dominant lives, pull-ups are a great way to help with structural imbalances, injuries, injury prevention, weakness, filling out your newest V-neck; the list goes on and on. Regardless of what you do for a living, chances are you need more back-side strength training in your life.

Why so much love?
In addition to the short list above, there is plenty of research out there to support posterior chain training; especially the pull-up exercise. (Best exercise for back activation – Contreras)

I also love the fact that it’s a great ab exercise…yes, you read that correctly.
It’s a great ab exercise…? (Best ab exercises – Contreras)

They are the king of the “relative strength” movements. I realize pull-ups are challenging…typically, it’s the challenging ones that are the best ones for us (think sprints, single leg work, plyometrics, pullups). If the traditional pull-up is currently a bit too challenging, I highly recommend techniques such as eccentric-only, band-assisted, or equipment-based pull-ups like the Total Gym. Work on developing that strength so you can add the traditional version to your program.

For those of you looking to up your game, these are the variations I am currently using with my athletes.

1. 1-Arm Pull-up Variations
I can not perform a 1-arm pull-up. I hope to change that in 2012. I recently wrote up my exercise goals for the upcoming year, and the 1-arm pull-up made the list. One variation that will help me get there are is this one:

a. 1-Arm Assisted Eccentric Pulls
Using a Superband, begin the movement by using 2 arms to pull yourself to the top the movement, pause, then lower your body down slowly for a 5 count with one hand still on the bar and one hand on the superband. Using the superband is more challenging than a traditional 2-arm eccentric pull, but less challenging than a 1-arm eccentric pull. I use it as the go-between. Alternate arms for 8 total reps (4 per side).

2. Plyometric Pull-ups

Plyometric exercises are challenging, and for good reason. They should be performed with speed and explosiveness. When discussing “plyos” 90% of the time we are talking about lower body jumping. I love upper body plyos as well…plyometrics pushups for the front side of the body and these variations for the backside:

a. Plyo pull-up

Perform a traditional pull-up explosively enough so you can release the handles at the top of the movement and then quickly grab them again as you begin your descent. Try to control the eccentric portion of this exercise (deceleration) and really engage and challenge your lats.

b. Switch grip plyo pull-up

Similar to the variation above, however, after you release your hands you will supinate your hands and grip the handles with a different grip; either neutral grip or “chin up” grip. I prefer alternating between a pull-up grip and neutral grip.

3. Grip Challenging Pull-ups

These are common variations I use with my combat athletes. Since grip strength and endurance are both critical for their job, I like to include these on a weekly basis. The video below includes a few of these variations.
a. Towel
b. Gi
c. Rope
d. Fat bar/gripz
e. Odd-shaped objects (example: trees)

4. Weighted Pull-ups

Another popular choice with my fighters. If strength is your goal and you can prefer 10-12 pull-ups with great form, then incorporate weighted variations that allow you to complete 5-8 repetitions.
a. Hook kettlebells to feet
b. Weighted vest
c. Medicine ball between knees
d. Dumbbells
e. Superband around waist

5. Traveling Pull-ups

Another one that will really test your grip endurance. These require access to some unique equipment that is more commonly found at parks and playgrounds than traditional gym settings. Just another reason I love training outdoors.

a. Swing Set

If you have a playground with a swing set or other large apparatus, then you should be able to pull this one off. This is very advanced and not recommended unless you have solid pulling strength and adequate grip endurance. Move 2-3 hand positions in one direction, then perform 1-2 pull-ups. Continue this pattern until you reach your desired reps, the end of the apparatus, or you fall…which ever comes first.

b. Monkey Bars
I think everyone experienced monkey bars in their childhood. Remember how much fun they were? I like to bring them back with this pull-up exercise. Simply perform one pull-up in between each swing until you get to the end.


Final Thoughts
Pull-ups should be a staple in your exercise program. The variations listed in this article are advanced and I always recommend safety and becoming competent in the traditional movements before “experimenting” with advanced options. That being said, I would love some feedback on these and, if you have other challenging variations, please send me a clip! Pull away.

About Doug
Doug Balzarini is currently the strength and conditioning coach for the Alliance MMA Fight Team in Chula Vista, CA. He is also the founder of, which provides fitness-related articles and education. Previously, Doug worked at Fitness Quest 10 for 6 ½ years as a personal trainer, strength coach, and Operations Director for Todd Durkin Enterprises (TDE).

A Massachusetts native, he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science with a minor in Business Management from Westfield State University. Since moving to San Diego he has completed some graduate work in Biomechanics at SDSU, obtained an ACE Personal Trainer certification, the NSCA-CSCS certification, TRX instructor training, EFI Gravity instructor training, LIFT Sandbag Certification, Spinning certification, FMS training, and received his CPR/AED instructor status. He has also appeared in dozens of fitness videos, written numerous fitness articles, completed a MMA Conditioning Coach certification program and has competed in multiple grappling tournaments.

Prior to working at Fitness Quest 10, Doug worked for the American Council on Exercise as the Continuing Education Coordinator where he was responsible for managing over 400 continuing education providers.

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