Pull-ups are one of the best bicep-building exercises you can do, especially if you tailor your grip to match your goals. In fact, data published in a 2010 article by strength and conditioning specialist Bret Contreras showed that pull-ups produce more biceps activation than isolation biceps movements, such as curls.
Specifically, weighted parallel-grip pull-ups and weighted chin-ups produced the most muscle activation. Optimizing your pull-up bar workout for your biceps involves adopting a particular form and technique.
But first, you should start by mastering proper form for a standard pull-up, and then progress from there.
How to Do a Pull-Up
Hang from a pull-up bar with your palms facing out and your hands shoulder-width apart. You may need to bend your knees and hold your feet behind you if you can still touch the ground while holding the bar.
Using the muscles in your upper back and arms, pull yourself up toward the bar until your chin is above the bar. Slowly lower yourself back down with control.
According to the National Federation of Personal Trainers, exhausting your muscles with 12 to 15 repetitions produces optimal stamina gains. If you can't do 12 reps with your own body weight, modify your pull-up by getting help from a spotter or weight-assisted machine.
Change Your Grip to Target Your Biceps
The way you grip the bar during your pull-ups changes which muscles your upper body recruits. Gripping the pull-up bar with an underhand grip (AKA a reverse-grip pull-up) emphasizes your biceps.
To modify a standard pull-up, the palms of your hands should face you.
The distance between your hands also affects the degree of biceps activation. Wider grips emphasize back muscle support, while narrower grips increasingly stimulate your biceps.
Neurophysiologist Chad Waterbury recommends gripping the pull-up bar with your hands less than shoulder-width apart—approximately six to eight inches from each other.
Try Other Pull-Up Variations
While the reverse-grip pull-up is your best bet for targeting your biceps, there are plenty of other pull-up variations you can incorporate into your upper-body workout that also recruit your biceps. You can even include these into your drop-set routine (see below for more details).
Use a set of parallel bars (one bar above each shoulder), face your palms toward each other and perform a pull-up.
Grip the bar with your hands wider than shoulder width and do a standard pull-up.
Hold onto the bar with only one arm and use your free hand to grasp that arm as you do your pull-up.
Once you get to the top of your pull-up, hoist your body above the bar so that your waist is at the level of the pull-up bar.
As you do your pull-up, explode over the bar, letting go for a split second before grabbing the bar and finishing your rep. If you can, add a clap at the top of your pull-up.
One hand faces forward, the other faces you. Do your reps then switch your grip.
Keep your hands close to each other (almost touching) as you perform a standard pull-up.
Hinge at the hips so that your legs are straight out in front of you as you do your pull-ups.
Perform a pull-up. Before doing your next rep, bring your knees over to your right side. On your next rep, raise them to the left.
Up the Ante to Build Your Biceps
Increasing the size of your biceps requires short and intense muscle contraction, and exhausting your muscles within four to six repetitions produces optimal mass gains. But your muscles adapt to whatever workout you do consistently by increasing the number of contractile proteins in your muscles and making your muscle fibers grow larger.
In order to keep seeing results and gaining strength and mass, you need to continue challenging your muscles with a new stimulus. Here are three ways to accomplish that:
Increase the resistance
Adding weight to your pull-ups means your upper body has to work harder to pull yourself up. Clasp a dumbbell between your ankles or use ankle weights, if your body weight is too light. Alternatively, attach weight plates to a dip belt, which you can wear around your waist.
Try an eccentric pull-up
Eccentric-focuses exercises increase the time devoted to lowering your body as your elbows extends during each repetition, which can help you stay within a target rep range, perform more reps or lift heavier weights. Double the amount of time it takes you to lower back to the start. For example, if you usually pull up on a three count and lower on a three count, double your lowering time to six.
Incorporate drop sets into your workout
Drop sets are repetitive sets of the same exercise but with slight variations in between sets (usually a drop in weight, making the exercise slightly easier). For pull-ups, personal trainer and founder of The Athletic Way Kyle Arsenault recommends starting with the most challenging grip and moving to the easiest as your body fatigues, which allows you to accumulate more work and therefore more results.
Sample Biceps Pull-Up Workouts
If you need a little bit more inspiration to get you started with your biceps workout with a pull-up bar, here are a few ideas:
-Beginner Pull-Up Workout:
Start with just one pull-up on your first day. Each subsequent day, add one more pull-up to your workout. Do this for a month.
-Navy SEAL Pull-Up Workout:
Do as many pull-ups as you can, being aware that true SEAL candidates aren't allowed to swing, kick or bicycle their legs during the test. Aim for 11 to be considered competitive with SEAL candidates.
-Pyramid Pull-Up Workout:
Start with as many pull-up as you can do. Then cut that number by one each set you do. For example, if you can do 10, follow that with nine then eight then seven, etc.
-Drop Set Pull-Up Workout:
Complete as many wide-grip pull ups as possible, then move to neutral-grip pull-ups. Do as many of those as you can, then finish with as many chin-ups as you can do.
What Do YOU Think?
What are your favorite pull-up workouts? Share with the Livestrong.com community in the comments section below!
(Additional reporting from Miguel Cavazos)
- Inside the Muscles: Best Back and Biceps Exercises
- NFPT Personal Fitness Trainer Manual
- ExRx.net: Pull-Up
- The Eight Best Muscle-Building Exercises
- 9 Ways to Amp Up Your Pull-Up
- Modified Pull-up Exercise Procedures Manual
- ISSA: Reverse-Grip Pull-Up
- Effect of Hand Grip on the Pull-Up
- The Athletic Way: Personal Trainer Kyle Arsenault