If your goal is to work toward your first pull-up or to make the pull-up more challenging, then it’s important to choose the right pull-up variations.
Below are 10 of the best pull-up regressions and progressions you can do to help you build more muscle and upper body strength, and improve your pull-ups.
- Machine Assisted Pull Up
- Partner-Assisted Pull Up
- Eccentric Pull Up
- Lat Pulldown (Regression)
- Band Assisted Pull Up
- Chin Up
- Mix Grip Pull Up
- Weighted Pull Up
- Tempo (Eccentric-Focused) Weighted Pull Up
- Lat Pulldowns (Progression)
To help you get the most out of pull-ups to build a more muscular back, I’ll share my top 10 pull-up variations and how to incorporate them into your workout routine.
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Related Article: How Many Pull-Ups are Considered Strong
The pull-up is an upper-body bodyweight vertical pulling exercise that trains your back muscles.
This exercise requires you to hang from a pull-up bar and pull your torso up so that your upper chest touches the bar.
The pull-up primarily trains the back muscles (lats, traps, rhomboids, etc) but it also recruits the biceps for elbow flexion and the forearm muscles for grip strength.
Your forearm muscles and biceps are smaller muscle groups compared to the back, so they tend to fail before the lats do.
This is an issue if you want to attack your lats and only have access to a pull-up because your grip and biceps will always limit your back development.
If you feel limited by your grip strength or biceps rather than your back, then you may need to use lifting straps or tweak your technique to get more out of your pull-ups.
How To Do A Pull-Up
Below is a step-by-step guide to properly execute a bodyweight pull-up.
- Grab the pull-up bar with palms facing away and a shoulder-width grip (or slightly wider).
- With the arms fully extended and your body hanging under the pull-up bar, press your legs together to create tension in your body.
- Pull your chest up to the bar by pulling your elbows down to the sides of your ribcage.
- Once your chin passes the bar, slowly lower yourself back down to the start position and repeat.
10 Pull-Up Variations
Below are eight regressions and three progressions you can use to help you build a stronger, more muscular back with pull-up variations.
The regressions can be used to help you gain muscle if you are unable to do a bodyweight pull-up and work toward your first one.
The progressions are for those looking to improve their pull-up abilities by building more strength and muscle mass.
Below are seven regressions of the pull-up that you can use to (1) build muscle mass, (2) build strength, and (3) learn how to perform pull-ups properly.
1. Machine-Assisted Pull-Up
The machine-assisted pull-up allows you to train the back just like a pull-up.
The machine keeps the same tension on you at all times rather than getting easier as you lower back down. This means that you will have more tension on the muscle throughout the entire range of motion, which can result in better muscle growth and strength development.
- Set the pin in the weight stack of the machine. The more weight on the machine, the EASIER it will be.
- Grab the pull-up handles with a shoulder-width grip and palms facing away, then place your knees on the pad.
- Hang from the bar with straight arms, and press your thighs together to create tension in the body.
- Pull yourself up until your chest passes through the space between your hands, and then slowly lower yourself all the way down (arms straight and stretch out overhead) and repeat.
2. Partner-Assisted Pull-Up
The partner-assisted pull-up allows you to train the pull-up movement using support from a partner that can lift some of your body weight (10-20% and has some experience with knowing how much to help and when to make you struggle).
It also allows you to focus on controlling your lowering phase (eccentric) to increase time under tension.
- Grab a pull-up bar with a shoulder-width grip and your palms facing away from you.
- While hanging from the bar with straight arms, press your legs together and bend your knees.
- With your partner standing behind you, place your feet on the front of their thighs as they grab the front of your ankles.
- Pull yourself up using your arms, and push into their thighs with your feet as much as needed to pull yourself up. Make sure your partner is stable. They can also lift your legs with their hands to provide additional assistance.
- Slowly lower yourself down without using your partner’s assistance, and repeat.
3. Eccentric Pull-Up
The eccentric pull-up can help build muscle mass and the strength necessary for the pull-up by focusing on the lower phase rather than the pulling phase.
By slowly controlling and lowering yourself in the eccentric portion of the pull-up you can build muscle and strength even if you can’t do a pull-up on your own.
- Start by jumping up to a pull-up bar or having a partner assist you in getting your chin above the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart (palms facing away).
- Slowly lower your body by allowing the elbows to bend.
- Do not allow your body to gain speed as you lower. The entire eccentric should be 4-6 seconds.
- Once you reach the bottom position with your arms fully extended, jump up or have a partner assist you back to the starting position.
4. Lat Pulldown
The lat pulldown is a machine to build strength and muscle mass. This machine trains the back and allows you to do so without being limited by your overall strength or ability to control your body in space.
This machine is highly beneficial to all levels, even those individuals who can already do pull-ups, as they are not as taxing on the entire body as pull-ups, which allows you to isolate the lats further.
- Grab a pulldown bar handle with a double overhead (palms facing away), slightly wider than a shoulder-width grip.
- Sit on the seat with straight arms and secure the knees under the pad.
- Pull the elbows down to the sides of the rib cage.
- Once the bar touches the upper chest, slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
5. Band-Assisted Pull-Up
The band-assisted pull-up can bridge the gap between strength exercises like pull-downs and machine-assisted pull-ups.
The band-assist pull-up can help teach you the body control needed for the pull-up.
Note: Band-assisted pull-ups may not be the best option to build pull-up strength since the movement is providing more assistance at the bottom of the movement, and when you’re looking to build muscle, you want to have the hardest loading when the muscles are at the most lengthened state.
- With a resistance band looped around the pull-up bar, place your hands (one on each side) of the band roughly shoulder-width apart (palms facing away from you).
- Step on the end of the loop band with one foot, taking your other leg and wrapping it around the front and on top of the foot that is stepping on the band.
- Straighten your legs fully and step out onto the band so you are hanging from the bar with straight arms and your feet straight below you.
- Pull yourself up to the bar until your chest touches the bar, and then slowly lower yourself to the starting position.
- The thicker the band, the easier the pull-up.
6. Chin Up
The chin-up allows you to use more of your biceps than a standard pull-up, which can be an excellent way to progress yourself from some of the easier regressions when you are close to being able to do pull-ups but still needs to be quite there.
- Grab a pull-up bar with palms facing your grip. Your hands should be shoulder-width or narrower.
- With the arms extended, hang below a bar.
- Pull your elbows down into the sides of the body as you pull your chest up to the bar.
- Once you reach the top of the movement, slowly lower yourself back to the hanging position and repeat.
7. Mixed Grip Pull Up
This is a pull-up with one palm facing you (like a chin-up) and one falling away. Using a mixed grip, you can use more biceps to aid the pull-up.
- Grab a pull-up bar with a mixed grip that is shoulder width apart (one palm facing you, one palm facing away).
- With the arms extended, hang below a bar.
- Pull your chest up to the bar by bending the arms and pulling the elbows to the sides of the ribs.
- Once you get to the top of the movement, lower yourself back down slowly and repeat.
- Switch your grip every set (not every rep).
Most people want to nail a pull-up because it is a great way to build muscle across the back. When you can finally do a set of 5-10 pull-ups, it is time to progress your training to continue your muscle growth journey.
Below are three of the best ways to increase your muscle growth with the pull-up for a lifetime.
Note: I want to clarify here that doing more challenging variations to make something more complex is not the goal. To build muscle and strength, you must focus on increasing the loading and resistance, increasing your reps, or combining both.
Don’t mistake the difficulty of skill required to perform an exercise with its actual effectiveness for building muscle. Often the lowest-skilled movements, done hard with intensity, are your best ones for power and strength development.
1. Weighted Pull-Up
The weighted pull up is a great way to progress your pull-up when you can do more than ten strict pull-ups with control. Adding weight allows you to continue your progress by adding unlimited resistance.
- Place a weight belt around your waist with weight on the belt.
- Grab the pull-up bar with a shoulder-width grip and your palms facing away from you.
- With the arms fully extended and your body hanging under the pull-up bar, pull your chest up by pulling your elbows down to your ribs (on a 75-degree angle out away from the body).
- Once you get to the top of the movement, slowly lower yourself back down at a consistent 1-2 second descent and repeat.
3. Tempo Weighted Pull-Up (Eccentric Focus)
Like the eccentric pull-up in the regression section, you can also use these exercises to progress your pull-ups. This is often done by adding weight to your body (like a weighted pull-up) and overloading the back muscles.
The key is to keep control of the lowering phase for 4-6 seconds. The goal is to get a heavy, loaded stretch and keep tension on the back muscles when extended (the last half of the lowering phase).
- Place a weight belt around your waist with weight on the belt.
- Grab the pull-up bar with a shoulder-width grip (or slightly wider) and your palms facing away.
- Jump up or have a partner assist you in getting your chest to the bar, then slowly lower yourself.
- Lower yourself on a 4-6 second count, ensuring you are not gaining speed the lower you go.
- Once you reach the bottom of the movement, jump back up to the top or have a partner assist you as you pull yourself back up.
4. Lat Pulldown
Look no further than the lat pulldown if you want a back-building exercise to complement your pull-up training. There is a reason why many athletes and bodybuilders still rely heavily on lat pulldowns even though they can do pull-ups with weight.
Lat pulldowns allow you to train very, very heavy without having your body be the limiting factor. Oftentimes general fatigue prevents you from doing more pull-ups rather than the back itself, so it’s best to add lat pulldowns to supplement your pull-up training to continue building muscle and strength over time.
- Sit on the seat facing the weight stack, and place your knee under the pad.
- Grab the bar with your palms away and a shoulder-width grip (or slightly wider).
- Sit tall and pull the bar down to your upper chest, thinking about pulling your elbows towards your ribcage.
- Once you touch the chest, slowly raise the arms back overhead, focusing on keeping tension on the muscle (as the arms stretch above you, do not lose pressure; this is the phase where you can get the most growth).
Related Article: Build a Bigger and Strong Back with This 4-Day Split
Other Pull-Up Variation Considerations
Now that you’ve found the best pull-up variations for your current fitness level, it’s important to understand how to incorporate them into your program for the best results.
Pull-ups and the variations above are like any other movement, which means you want to typically train them with 2-5 total sets.
This range helps to engrain better technique and allows you to get enough training volume in (muscle work) to build muscle in most rep ranges (5-15 reps).
When looking to build strength and muscle with the pull-up, you should be training anywhere between 5-20 reps.
If you can only do a few pull-ups, then you should also incorporate machine-based movements, like machine-assisted pull-ups or lat pulldowns to help you get enough training volume (muscular work) to build the lats.
For most people, pull-ups themselves may not be the best choice for muscle growth simply because most people cannot do multiple sets of 10-15 reps of strict-form pull-ups.
If you can, then consider yourself stronger than most!
Most lifters should be training pull-up variations (vertical pulling exercises) 2-3 times a week.
If you struggle to perform pull-ups, training pull-up variations 2-3 times a week will allow you to get enough training stimulus and skill work to progress over time.
If you are someone who can already do consecutive pull-ups and you’re looking to maintain your progress and/or build more muscle, then you could train pull-ups as little as once a week (but 2-3 times is best).
To encourage progression, you can add more loading, add more reps, or switch to a more challenging variation.
As a general rule of thumb, you should aim to progress load or reps every week for at least 4 weeks in a row before switching movements.
It is also important to note that you do not need to switch movements out if you are still able to progress with loading and reps in your current variation. Switching movements too soon could prevent you from maximizing your growth from that movement.
Pull-Up Skill Progression
If you are looking to progress your skill of doing pull-ups for a sport (such as CrossFit or gymnastics), then understand that your goal of progressing pull-ups is not for muscle growth but rather skill improvement.
Most people mistake a more complex skill for something that builds more muscle, however, this is not always the case.
For example, a muscle up is not as potent of a muscle builder as a lat pulldown despite being less complex.
However, if you want to improve your pull-up skill and try more advanced pull-up movements, you can try some of the ones below:
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About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.