6 Pull-Up Progressions You Can Do to Test Your Upper-Body Strength

Once you can do about 10 pull-ups with perfect form, advance to these progressions.
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The first time you nail an unmodified pull-up — often seen as the star indicator of serious upper-body strength — is a cause for celebration. But once your muscles adapt to this stimulus and you're able to power through a number of reps with perfect form, your body and mind could be ready for a new challenge.

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One way to continue progressing in the gym: Amp up your workout's intensity by swapping the traditional exercise with advanced pull-up variations. The additional stress of progressions will require you to recruit more muscle fiber to complete the movement, ultimately leading to hypertrophy (muscle growth) so long as you recover properly, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).

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Need inspiration? Here, a certified strength and conditioning specialist shares six pull-up progressions worth attempting, plus the benefits of the movements and tips on how to incorporate them into your routine.

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The Benefits of Pull-Ups

Pull-ups are a compound exercise, meaning they involve multiple muscle groups and joints at once. The exercise builds strength and muscular endurance throughout your upper body, including in your lats, biceps, traps, pecs and forearms, according to a small August 2017 study in the ‌Journal of Human Kinetics‌. But other muscle groups throughout your body also assist in the movement, says Meghan Barrington, DPT, ATC, CSCS, a physical therapist, certified athletic trainer, and strength and conditioning specialist.

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"The way I coach and do pull-ups personally, I'm tightening my entire body," Barrington tells LIVESTRONG.com. "So while you're not necessarily using your legs or your abs directly to move your body, you are helping yourself by activating those muscles."

Aside from hitting multiple muscle groups at once, pull-ups can improve stability in your shoulder joint throughout its full range of motion, Barrington says. In turn, the movement can help reduce the risk of injury.

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"A lot of times, you get injured when your body isn't prepared for what's demanded of it," she explains. "So if you're in a sport [for example] and you don't have full range of motion, then you can be forced into a range that you don't 'own,' so to speak."

In order to reap this benefit, though, you'll need to avoid partial reps with pull-ups; make sure to begin in a fully stretched position so your lats are completely lengthened, then end with your chest above the bar and your lats fully engaged, Barrington advises.

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When to Upgrade Your Workout With Pull-Up Progressions

While everyone is different, take it as a sign to try advanced pull-up variations if you're able to perform a set of 10 reps with perfect form, according to Barrington.

In other words, you should be able to initiate the pulling movement with your lats (think: bringing your shoulder blades down and back toward one another) rather than with your biceps (think: bending your elbows), she notes. Your shoulders shouldn't roll forward excessively, a sign that your external and internal shoulder rotator muscles aren't in balance, and your chin should rise above the bar without your neck excessively stretching, she says.

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6 Advanced Pull-Up Variations to Test Your Strength

Once you're ready to put your upper-body muscles to the test, swap out your regular pull-ups with one (or all) of Barrington's favorite advanced variations, which she demonstrates below.

At first, stick with just a few reps, which reduces the chance of movement compensations that can ultimately increase the risk of injury, Barrington says. If gaining strength is your goal, build up to completing three sets of six reps with perfect form, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). Because these progressions create plenty of muscular tension, spend 2 to 3 minutes recovering in between sets, Barrington suggests.

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Despite the demand they place on the body, these pull-up progressions can generally be performed regularly.

"The way I got decently good at pull-ups was from doing them often," Barrington says. "You could do them every day — you just have to [vary] your intensity, so you can't be going all out to failure every single time. But if you just practice the movement every day, that's a great way to start."

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If any of these pull-up progressions feel too challenging from the get-go, don't be afraid to modify the movement. With the L-sit pull-up, for example, you can maintain standard form during the concentric portion of the movement (when you pull yourself up), extend your legs into the "L" at the top and keep them elevated as you straighten your arms and lower back toward the floor.

1. L-Sit Pull-Up

This advanced pull-up variation increases the challenge on your core, as you'll need to call on these muscles to keep your legs lifted in front of your hips throughout the movement. Plus, the position tips your pelvis posteriorly (backward), which ensures your lats are fully lengthened in the starting position, Barrington says.

If you need to build up to this progression, start with a hollow-body pull-up, during which you hold your body in a banana-like shape, she says.

Skill Level Advanced
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Place both of your hands on a pull-up bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your palms facing forward.
  2. Engage your core, then hang your body from the bar with your arms fully straightened, legs fully extended and squeezed together and your feet hanging slightly in front of your body.
  3. Keeping your core activated and legs straight, lift both of your legs toward the ceiling in front of your body until your feet are aligned with your hips and your body forms an “L” shape.
  4. On an exhale, squeeze your shoulder blades back and down and bend your elbows to pull your chest up to the bar.
  5. Continue pulling until your chin is hovering above the bar. Avoid swinging your body as you pull yourself upward and stretching your neck over the bar.
  6. Pause, then on an inhale, slowly extend your elbows to straighten your arms and lower your body back to the starting position. That’s 1 rep.

2. Jackknife Pull-Up

During this pull-up progression, you'll hold one knee up toward your chest as if you are marching, which further challenges your abs and hip flexors, Barrington says.

Skill Level Advanced
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Place both of your hands on a pull-up bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your palms facing forward.
  2. Engage your core, then hang your body from the bar with your arms fully straightened, legs fully extended and squeezed together and your feet hanging slightly in front of your body.
  3. Flex your hip and drive your right knee up toward your chest as far as is comfortable. Hold this position, keeping your right foot flexed and your left glutes engaged.
  4. On an exhale, squeeze your shoulder blades back and down and bend your elbows to pull your chest up to the bar.
  5. Continue pulling until your chin is hovering above the bar. Avoid swinging your body as you pull yourself upward and stretching your neck over the bar.
  6. Pause, then on an inhale, slowly extend your elbows to straighten your arms and lower your body back to the starting position. That’s 1 rep.
  7. Repeat with the opposite leg raised toward your chest.

3. Slow Eccentric Pull-Up

Slowing down your pull-ups, particularly during the eccentric (aka lowering) portion of the movement is one of the simplest ways to progress. You can also try to push yourself away from the bar as you lower your body to the floor, which further challenges your abs and lats, Barrington says.

Skill Level Advanced
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Place both of your hands on a pull-up bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your palms facing forward.
  2. Engage your core, then hang your body from the bar with your arms fully straightened, legs fully extended and squeezed together and your feet hanging slightly in front of your body.
  3. On an exhale, squeeze your shoulder blades back and down and bend your elbows to pull your chest up to the bar.
  4. Continue pulling until your chin is hovering above the bar. Avoid swinging your body as you pull yourself upward and stretching your neck over the bar.
  5. Pause, then on an inhale, slowly extend your elbows to straighten your arms and lower your body back to the starting position. The eccentric portion of the movement should take about twice as long as the concentric portion. That’s 1 rep.

4. Resistance Band Hold Pull-Up

Rather than holding onto a steady bar, you'll grasp onto towels or resistance bands to perform this pull-up progression. As a result, your muscles will need to work even harder to keep your body stable, and your grip strength will also be put to the test.

Skill Level Advanced
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Wrap two towels or loop two resistance bands around a pull-up bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Grasp onto the towels or bands a few inches below the pull-up bar, with your palms facing forward.
  2. Engage your core, then hang your body from the bar with your arms fully straightened, legs fully extended and squeezed together and your feet hanging slightly in front of your body.
  3. On an exhale, squeeze your shoulder blades back and down and bend your elbows to pull your chest up to the bar.
  4. Continue pulling until your chin is hovering above the bar. Avoid swinging your body as you pull yourself upward and stretching your neck over the bar.
  5. Pause, then on an inhale, slowly extend your elbows to straighten your arms and lower your body back to the starting position. That's 1 rep.

5. Band-Resisted Pull-Up

While resistance bands can be used to modify a traditional pull-up, they can also take the exercise's difficulty level up a notch. "Normally, a pull-up gets easier at the top, but this one gets harder as you get near the top," Barrington says, as you'll have to fight against the band's increasing resistance to pull yourself upward.

Skill Level Advanced
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Wrap a long-loop resistance band around a power tower’s arm bars, positioned at mid-calf height. Place both of your hands on a pull-up bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your palms facing forward.
  2. Engage your core, then hang your body from the bar with your arms fully straightened and legs fully extended and squeezed together. Hang your feet slightly in front of your body and tucked underneath the resistance band, with the band resting against the tops of your feet. Keep your feet flexed.
  3. On an exhale, squeeze your shoulder blades back and down and bend your elbows to pull your chest up to the bar.
  4. Continue pulling until your chin is hovering above the bar. Avoid swinging your body as you pull yourself upward and stretching your neck over the bar.
  5. Pause, then on an inhale, slowly extend your elbows to straighten your arms and lower your body back to the starting position. That's 1 rep.

6. Monkey-Grip Pull-Up

With this pull-up progression, you'll ditch the traditional pronated grip in favor of a monkey-style hold, involving both a pronated ‌and ‌supinated grip. "[It's] a great way to mix it up and get a bit more biceps dominance in the pull," Barrington says. "Also, [it reveals] if you have an imbalance in strength side to side, due to the asymmetrical nature."

Skill Level Advanced
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Place both of your hands right next to each other on a pull-up bar, with your right palm facing forward and your left palm facing toward you.
  2. Engage your core, then hang your body from the bar with your arms fully straightened, legs fully extended and squeezed together and your feet hanging slightly in front of your body.
  3. On an exhale, squeeze your shoulder blades back and down and bend your elbows to pull your chest up to the bar.
  4. Continue pulling until your chin is hovering above the bar. Avoid swinging your body as you pull yourself upward and stretching your neck over the bar.
  5. Pause, then on an inhale, slowly extend your elbows to straighten your arms and lower your body back to the starting position. That’s 1 rep.
  6. Repeat with the opposite grip, your left palm facing forward and your right palm facing toward you.

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