There are four main bodyweight movements:
By far, the most challenging basic bodyweight movement is the pull-up as you have to try and drag your entire weight off the ground to get your chin over the bar. Through doing this, you’re hitting nearly every muscle in your upper body, but most notably, your biceps, lats, forearms, and abs. Because of this, mastering the pull-up can help you with a variety of weighted and unweighted lifts, developing strength, size, balance, and coordination.
Today, we’re going to go over some of the best accessory movements to develop your pull-up and also, provide variety for your training. Of course, the best way to master a movement is to practice as often as possible. Yet, using other movements can help you to target weak areas and keep your training interesting.
We’ve also got an added extra section at the end for those who haven’t purchased a pull-up bar yet – ‘BONUS! 3 No Equipment Pull-Ups You Can Do at Home’.
Table of Contents
The 20 Best Pull-Up Variations List
#1 Australian Rows
First up, we have Australian rows which derive their name because you do them ‘down-under’ the bar. These help to develop strength in your upper back and arms whilst also helping to teach you how to row properly. Australian rows are best for beginners as they don’t require as much strength as the normal pull-up but it’s still a similar movement. As well as this, you can do them anywhere such as under a smith machine or table.
To complete an Australian Row, grab the bar or surface just slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and maintain a straight body by engaging your abs, lower back, and glutes. Next, use your biceps and upper back to bring your chest against the bar. Thinking about getting your elbows to the ground is a good mental cue to properly engage your back.
#2 Negative Pull-Ups
Negative pull-ups are one of the most heavily recommended pull-up variations for those trying to learn how to do their first pull-up. There are two portions to every movement: the negative and the concentric. The concentric is the part of the lift where your muscles shorten whilst the negative part is where your muscles lengthen. In terms of the pull-up, the concentric portion is when you pull your body up to the bar whilst the negative portion is lowering yourself back to the ground. Our muscles are actually stronger and can handle more weight in the negative portion of the movement, meaning that whilst you may not be able to bring yourself up to the bar, you’ll still be able to lower yourself down. In turn, you’ll build strength in your muscles and teach your body the proper form for the movement.
All you need to do to complete the negative pull-up is to get your chin over the bar by using a step and then take your foot off the step and lower yourself down as slowly as possible.
#3 Banded/Assisted Pull-Ups
Assisted pull-ups give you a helping hand in bringing your body towards the bar and may, in fact, be more useful than negative pull-ups as you have to complete both the concentric and eccentric portion of the lift.
There are certain machines that are designed to assist you in the pull-up, but for most people, the easiest and most accessible way will be with a resistance band. Tie the band around the bar and then loop the hanging part underneath your foot or knee. Aim to gradually decrease the resistance of the band you’re using overtime.
#4 Standard Chin-Ups
After the assisted pull-up, you’re ready to do your first full bodyweight-only movement. Many people get confused between the chin-up and the pull-up, but the former has your palms facing towards you whilst the latter has your hands facing away. Most people find chin-ups easier as you can engage your biceps better and don’t have to take such a wide-grip.
To complete a chin-up, simply grab the bar from the opposite side of you so that your palms are facing towards you. The next step is to imagine pulling the bar down to you opposed to pulling yourself towards the bar. Tuck your elbows in on the way up to properly engage your lats and make sure to get your chin over the bar.
#5 Standard Pull-Ups
If you can do 2-3 chin-ups, then you’ll definitely be ready to complete at least one pull-up. The pull-up places your arms just wider than shoulder width apart and has your palms facing away from you.
Simply imagine pulling the bar down to your chest and tuck your elbows towards your body. Make sure to engage your glutes and abs in order to keep a straight spine. A full rep will have your chin coming over the bar at the top of the movement.
If you’re struggling to properly engage your back, then it can be helpful to do some straight arm pulldowns or lat pull-ins with a cable prior to your working sets. For these sets, all you want to do is focus on the mind-muscle connection and getting blood pumping into your lats so that when you do go to do a pull-up, you can better engage your lats for a stronger movement. Don’t try to fatigue yourself on these sets as you then won’t be able to complete a normal pull-up properly – just aim to get a pump.
#6 L-Sit Pull-Ups
L-sits are frequently touted as one of the best abdominal movements around, and for good reason, too. There’s no better way to increase strength and stability in your abs then learning how to do an l-sit or combining it with other movements, such as in the case of the pull-up.
Grab the bar with an overhand grip and raise your leg so that they’re straight out in front of you. Your torso and legs should now create a 90-degree angle. All that’s next is to pull your body up the bar as you would normally. If you can’t fully extend your legs, then you can just raise your knees. If you want to train your abs further, then you can do dead-hang l-shits where you simply hang from the bar with your legs straight in front of you. These are fantastic for the end of your workout to burn out your grip and abs at the same time.
#7 Rope Pull-Ups
Rope pull-ups are designed for those who want to maximally improve their grip. Instead of holding onto a bar, you hold onto a thick rope and pull yourself up using that. If you don’t have a rope, then you can also just loop a towel over the bar for a similar effect.
Another great way to improve your grip with the pull-up is to use thicker bars or fat gripz which force your forearms to work harder in order to keep yourself attached to the bar.
#8 Commando Pull-Ups
With possibly the coolest name on the list, commando pull-ups are also one of the more odd movements. Combining the pull-up and the chin-up, you place both hands next to one another on the bar with one hand using an underhand grip and the other using an overhand grip. You then pull your head either side of the bar on each rep. These require a little more stabilisation from the entire body to stop yourself from spinning around or losing grip.
#9 Ring Pull-Ups
Ring pull-ups require more stabilisation, strength, and recruitment from your muscles whilst also working as a great way to develop into a muscle-up. Most people find it easier to do muscle ups on rings opposed to a normal bar, so getting used to the rings is a good way to progress if you want to take your pull-ups further. Using rings is also a good way to get more involvement from your lats as you can really pull your elbows into your side.
#10 Weighted Pull-Ups
If you’re looking for the easiest and most direct way to overload your back and get stronger with pull-ups, then look no further. All you need for these is a weight belt and some weights. Simply strap the belt around your waist and lift your body up to the bar. Over time, try to increase the weight around your waist. When you go back to doing normal pull-ups, you’ll feel much lighter and more explosive.
#11 Kipping/Butterfly Pull-Ups
These types of pull-ups have developed a bad reputation because of Crossfit, but they’re actually an incredibly useful tool for training your back and biceps with more volume and getting in more pull-ups for time. I wouldn’t recommend these as a staple of your training, but they can be good to do once in a while as a way to combine your strength and cardiovascular training in one.
With kipping pull-ups, you use your entire body to bring yourself up to the bar. This means kicking your legs below you and waving your torso to build momentum and energy.
#12 Plyometric Pull-Ups
Plyometric pull-ups are a fantastic way to build explosivity in the movement and to be used as a stepping stone towards the muscle-up. Plyometric pull-ups simply involve pulling your body up so fast that you can release your hands from the bar. Over time you can add in a clap or two to make sure that you’re getting enough air and also, add a challenge.
#13 Ice Cream Makers
They might sound exciting, but these will definitely have your entire body aching. It’s one of the best ‘bang for your buck’ exercises as it trains your biceps, lats and abs heavily without releasing any tension. For this reason, you need to already be quite strong before attempting your first rep.
Essentially, you need to first grab the bar in an overhand grip and pull yourself up so that your chin is over the bar. Next, you need to engage your abs and glutes to keep your spine straight as you lean backwards. From your shoulders to the bottom of your feet you should be able to draw a straight line throughout the entire movement. Your back should be parallel to the ground at the top of the movement. You then lower yourself to the ground before the next rep.
To make the movement easier, you can tuck your knees into your chest opposed to keeping your legs straight.
#14 Archer Pull-Ups
Archer pull-ups are a tried and true stepping stone towards one-arm pull-ups and can also help you to work through any imbalances.
Archer pull-ups involve starting in the standard pull-up position and then bringing your chin up to one hand before lowering yourself down. You would then do the same on the other side for one rep.
#15 Around the World Pull-Ups
Around the world pull-ups are the next step up from archer pull-ups but aren’t that much harder. However, they do require near constant tension on your muscles throughout the entire movement.
For around the world pull-ups, simply pull yourself up to one hand, slide yourself over to the other hand in a circular motion, and then lower yourself back down. On the next rep, you would do the same but move the other way.
#16 Typewriter Pull-Ups
After around the world pull-ups, you have typewriters. Again these are extremely similar to archer pull-ups, but require more time under tension, placing more strain on your muscles and forcing you to work harder.
To complete a typewriter pull-up, you simply pull yourself over to one hand and then slide back and forth between the other.
The most well-known progression for the standard pull-up and one of the most impressive variations has to be the muscle-up. No other movement quite lives up the spectacular feat of not only being able to bring your body to the bar, but pulling it over the top into a dip. Most people can’t even do a single pull-up, so being able to do that and more is extremely impressive.
The muscle-up requires a slightly different technique to the standard pull-up as you need to allow space for your body to come over the bar and also, you need to pull with enough force to launch yourself over. Practising with plyometric pull-ups is a great way to get used to the explosivity required to complete a muscle-up.
A muscle-up can only be called a muscle-up if you whip both elbows over the bar at the same time. If you whip one, then the other, you may have gotten yourself over the bar, but that’s not the proper technique nor the most effective way to do it even though it might be easier.
To complete the muscle-up properly, you need to imagine pulling the bar down in front of your body as fast as you can. As your chest gets closer to the bar, you need to whip both elbows over the top and then press through the heel of your hands to bring yourself up. This is definitely one of the variations that requires more practice than the others, but if you stick with it, then you’ll get it eventually.
#18 Assisted One Arm Pull-Ups
There’s only one pull-up variation that trumps the muscle up in terms of strength and overall impressiveness, and that’s the single arm pull-up. This movement shows ultimate control and the sheer strength in just half your body. Not to mention, working up towards this feat of strength will get you incredibly thick back muscles, forearms, and biceps.
One of the best variations is to complete negatives or assisted one arm pull-ups using a resistance band. Simply set the band up the same as the normal assisted pull-up but only pull your body towards the bar with one arm.
#19 Uneven Pull-Ups
Another variation is to do one-arm pull-ups where half of your body has to work harder than the other to bring yourself to the bar. You can do these by hanging a towel over the bar and gripping it with one hand. This then forces the other side to recruit more muscles when pulling yourself up.
#20 One Arm Pull-Ups
Finally, once you’ve built up enough strength, you’ll be able to do a one-arm pull-up. There’s no real technique advice here as if you’re strong enough, then you’ll be able to do it. My advice would be to build up to a heavy single with your weighted chin-up that’s close to your bodyweight. If you can lift yourself as well as an equal weight around your waist, then you’re easily strong enough to do a one-arm pull-up.
BONUS! 3 No Equipment Pull-Ups You Can Do at Home
#1 Table Bodyweight Rows
We’ve already mentioned these in the above list, but a table works just as well as a bar. All you need to do is grip the table top with your hands and then place your body underneath. From here you can drive your elbows towards the ground and try to touch your chest to the table.
#2 Door Pull-Ins
The next no-equipment pull-up is the door pull-in where you wrap a towel around a door handle, squat into a floated seated position, and then row your body towards the door. Be careful as you’ll need a pretty sturdy handle to support your weight.
You can also complete these single-handedly by just gripping the handle itself and rowing yourself in.
#3 Floor Pulls
Lastly, we have floor pulls that challenge your abs as much as they challenge your lats. These mimic a lat pulldown and are a great way to get a large degree of activation from your lats from the comfort of your own home.
All you need to do is find a surface that you can easily slide on, place a towel underneath your knees, and then grip the floor in front of you with an open hand. You then bring your body closer and further away from your hands by using your lats to drag you across the floor.
The best part about bodyweight training is that there are always variations and now, with this list, you’ll never be lost for pull-up variations or back movements. Having a large back is one of the biggest components of creating a powerful, strong looking physique from all angles. The pull-up, in particular, is useful as it adds to back width, but be sure to pair it with some horizontal movements to increase your back thickness, too.
Founder of www.calisthenics-101.co.uk. Training calisthenics since 2012.
Currently working on: 30 second one-arm handstand, muscle-up 360, straddle planche.