What Is The Best Type Of Pull Up?
When you walk into a functional fitness gym anywhere in the world you are likely going to see folks doing all different variations of the classic pull up. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering which variation you should choose, then here is a comparison of how they might fit into individual training goals. In addition, we’ve summarized which muscle groups are activated during each movement.
What Are The Common Variations Of The Pull Up?
Strict Pull Up - This is the classic version. In brief, the strict pull up is performed by setting your hands just wider than shoulder-width apart and hanging from a crossbar with an overhand grip. Engage your core and then pull your chin toward the crossbar.
Kipping and Butterfly Pull Up - These are both variations of the classic strict pull up. Both the kipping and butterfly pull up use a hollow and arched body position to gain momentum before using a “kip swing” to help accelerate vertically toward the crossbar. As you swing back and have momentum going toward the bar you will pull with your arms and upper body. As you swing back down you can repeat the motion.
Muscle Activity In Different Types Of Pull Ups Explained
Recently, a study was published in the the journal of sport and exercise that compared the muscle activity of the common variations of the pull up using surface electromyography (Surface EMG). Surface EMG is a non-invasive technique in which electrodes are placed onto the skin overlying a muscle to detect the electrical activity of the muscle group. This study compared upper and lower body muscle activation during the concentric and eccentric phase of each movement. The concentric phase refers to the pulling up portion of the pull up movement. This is a type of muscle contraction in which the muscle shortens while generating force greater than the external load. The eccentric phase refers to the lowering portion of the pull up movement. This is a contraction where the muscle elongates while under tension due to opposing force being greater than the force generated by the muscle.
The primary muscle activation for the strict pull up is the lats (latissimus dorsi). This movement also uses the rhomboids and lower lats to help squeeze the shoulder blades. In addition, the rotator cuff muscles stabilize the shoulders. The lats are the large, flat muscles covering the width of the middle and lower back. It connects the bone of the upper arm to the spine and the hip.
This study found a reduction in muscle activation in the biceps (bicep brachii) during both concentric and eccentric phases of the butterfly pull up when compared to the strict pull up. In other words, less use of the biceps in general.
Activation of the lats was lower during the concentric phase of the kipping pull up when compared to strict pull up. In addition, there was lower activation of the lats during the eccentric phase of the butterfly pull up compared to the strict pull up.
In general, there was greater muscle activation in the rectus femoris (muscles that flex the hips and extend the lower leg at the knee), gluteus maximus and rectus abdominis (abdominal muscles) in both the kipping and butterfly pull ups compared to the strict pull up.
Both styles of kipping pull up increased lower body muscle activation and decreased upper body activation compared to strict pull up.
This study used surface EMG to confirm muscle groups used in these variations of the classic pull up. Take together, these findings suggest that the strict pull up’s greatest benefit is to build strong back muscles for long-term fitness goals. This movement involves using full-body tension. If building strength is your goal, the classic strict pull up is for you. In contrast, the kipping variations of the pull up engage the lower body muscle groups more than the lats, biceps and shoulders by using the kip swing to generate the upward momentum.
What Is Your Training Goal?
At Graviton, we believe there are no “bad movements”, but maybe the wrong movement for the individual. It’s important to select movements that fit your training goals. If you’re looking to build foundational strength and muscle, then the strict pull up is the way to go. However, if you’re an athlete looking to compete in the sport of fitness, then consider honing your dynamic gymnastics skills to master the kipping and butterfly pull up. Kipping pull ups have value if you are looking to advance into other movements like the muscle-up and other crossbar skills. However, the kipping pull up is not a progression to the strict pull up. The strict pull up must be mastered before moving on to the kipping variations.
Interested in learning more about our training program at Graviton? Whether you’re an experienced athlete or looking to jumpstart your fitness, Book your free intro session today.
Toby Williamson , Phil Price. A comparison of muscle activity between strict, kipping and butterfly pull-ups. The Journal Of Sport And Exercise, 2021.