The pull-up – an exercise that is possibly the most efficient in developing the back muscles for a v-shaped body. My fascination with chin-ups & pull-ups began when I was around 10 or so. There is a playground close to where I live and I would see the older boys train there, yet I couldn’t do a single chin-up.
Even worse, on my first PT test as high school fresh man I still couldn’t do a single pull-up or chin-up. This was one of the reasons I started working out (managed 10+ chin-ups at the end of that freshman year). This, and the goal of getting a v-shaped back.
On a side note – Tony Jaa, pictured above, is an excellent example of an athlete with a great v-shaped body. He has a very wall percentage of body fat which accentuates the small waist. At the same time his back, the latissimus dorsi is very developed and creates the appealing v-shape.
Tony is a martial artist, stuntman and actor from Thailand who has starred in a few explosive action movies already. If you are going to see a film with him – check out Ong Bak. My friend Rusty Moore has gone into great detail in his article about him ==> Is Tony Jaa the Next Bruce Lee?
1. Close Grip Chin-Up
Grab the bar with your palms facing up. Either place your hands right next to each other or space them one fist apart. Just pick whatever feels most natural to your body – this rule of thumb will give you more strength and less injuries on any exercise you do.
Pull yourself up using your back and finish with a strong biceps contraction. Lower under control. Do not make the mistake of just letting your body drop. This is very taxing on your elbows and you may soon develop tendonitis (pain in the elbows that can only go away with rest).
2. Close Grip Pull-Up
Grab the bar with your palms facing down this time. Again – either place your hands right next to each other or space them one fist apart.
Pull yourself up using your back (armpit muscles) and finish with a strong a contraction of the muscles on top of your arm – the brachialis (the muscle beneath the biceps), the brachioradialis (the one that goes from your forearm to your upper arm as well as all the little extensor muscles on the back of your forearm.
3. Parallel Grip Pull-Up
This time your palms will be facing each other. This position is anatomically the easiest on the joints and also the most natural one for your shoulder, elbows and wrists.
4. Shoulder Width Grip Chin-Up
The shoulder width grip chin-up is fantastic for involvement of both your upper back and your arms. You can add a lot of resistance here too. Just be careful – the biceps is a relatively small and weak muscle compared to the latissimus dorsi (the upper back) and you should add resistance here gradually.
Sudden jumps in weight may find your arms unprepared and cause an unnecessary injury – such as the one I had a few years back when training for a maximum attempt on weighted chin-ups. I managed to chin myself up with 42.5 kg in addition to my 80. However I had to take a month or two off from the exercise after that because my biceps got a minor injury.
5. Shoulder Width Grip Pull-Up
Shoulder width grip pull-ups are the best overall position to train with. They are a natural position, allow you to feel the engagement of the upper back and allow additional weight without stressing the biceps too much.
As an added benefit – if your next goal after mastering pull-ups and chin-ups is the muscle-up, this position is the way to go. The muscle-up starts with the same movement as the shoulde width grip pull-up.
6. Wide Grip Pull-Up
The benefit of doing wide grip pull-ups is that they partially isolate the upper back. This way you can learn to contract the lats and initiate the pull-up with them. In fact this is how I started training them.
The disadvantages however are numerous. For one, there is a decreased range of motion. This means your muscles do less work. Second, you are limited in how much weight you can add. Again – less work.
Pull-up Exercise Variation Video and Action Plan
Whatever variation you choose, make sure to stay away from failure, vary your reps (low, high, medium) and switch things up every month or so. Mastering the pull-up is rewarding both as a goal and because it will give you a cobra-like v-shaped body.
Here is an older video we shot which shows six types of pull-ups and chin-ups. that you can use in your workout along with the main benefits or emphasis of each type that we just discussed.
Note: Make sure to balance pull-up training with an exercise that trains the opposite movement in order to avoid muscle imbalances and injuries. Good choices are the military press and the handstand pushup.