The best pull-up grip

Categories: Videos & podcasts


00:00 Introduction

00:30 Studies on grip width

03:38 The grip width myth

04:54 Biomechanics during pull-up

10:41 Other considerations for interpreting research

12:26 Summary – 4 lessons


You’ve probably heard it said that during pull ups and pulling exercises a wide grip is better for the back whereas a narrow grip is better for the biceps This is wrong it’s caused by an improper understanding of biomechanics In this video I’m going to explain proper biomechanics of pulling exercises so that you can optimize your back and biceps training You might feel your back more with a wider grip and you might feel your arms more with a more narrow grip but feelings and objective muscle activity don’t correlate very well as I explained in the previous video I think the study that best illustrates the effect of grip width is one by Anderson et al. that you can see here they looked at the effects of three different grip widths of pull downs so it was a very controlled study and they did 6RMs at each respective grip they measured the muscle activity of a lot of different muscle groups as you can see here and they found no significant differences not for the arms not for the Latissimus Dorsi not for the traps and not for the Infraspinatus Multiple other studies have also compared different pull down and pull up variations generally finding no significant differences For example, they’ve compared neutral and supinated grip pull ups, wide grip pull ups, neutral or supinated grip pull ups and in general these studies have found no significant differences in terms of either back or biceps activity.

The Anderson study is by far the most well controlled one though. Of course, muscle activity as measured via electromyography is just muscle activity and it doesn’t necessarily correspond with muscle growth We also have a study by Gentil et al. that found that pronated grip pulldowns stimulate as much biceps growth as supinated grip barbell curls. So there are two comparisons here grip width and forearm orientation Forearm orientation I’m not going to discuss in detail in this video I wrote an extensive article on that on my website that you can check out. Just like grip width, most research finds no significant effects of forearm orientation again it might feel like you train the biceps more you see it contract more when it’s supinated but it’s still an elbow flexor the body will recruit it specifically the motor cortex of your brain it will recruit the biceps whether it’s supinated or pronated during any type of elbow flexion movement. In fact an argument can be made in light of the recent research of stretch mediated hypertrophy and findings that the biceps is better trained at long muscle lengths that pronating the arm like this, this is pronation, this is supination they show that longer muscle lengths are more effective to stimulate biceps growth and by pronating the arm you lengthen the biceps so an argument could actually be made that a hammer grip or even a pronated grip might be superior in some exercises for bicep growth Now as for the grip width this study lends strong credence to the idea that grip width is not a major determinant of bicep growth However,

I will say that Paulo Gentil, the lead author of the study a Brazilian researcher has a very poor reputation in the scientific community the exercise science community He was associated it was not implicated but he was associated with Matheus Barbalho who had multiple papers retracted essentially for data fraud or at least very improbable data patterns as we have to politically correctly call it So take these findings with a little bit of grain of salt but there is also other research namely a study by Pompermayer et al. that’s found that supinated shoulder width pulldowns and biceps ez bar preacher curls stimulate a similar level of muscle damage in the biceps So we have some convergence that the available research on muscle growth the lead researcher may not be entirely trustworthy it does converge with research on muscle damage and multiple studies on muscle activity Perhaps more importantly even, it makes biomechanical sense.

The idea that a wide grip is better for the back whereas a more narrow grip is better for the arms seems to be largely based on either a very specious superficial idea of biomechanics or feelings. it is true that the range of motion is decreased when you use a very wide grip but it only decreases range of motion in the contracted position which recent research finds may not actually be a big deal I’m not sure where the idea originally came from that the wide grip is better for the back and a narrow grip is better for the arms I think it is largely based on feelings the fact that we we see and feel the biceps more especially with a narrow supinated grip versus a wider pronated grip But with the proper understanding of biomechanics it actually makes sense that grip width doesn’t have a significant effect on biceps recruitment and I think what most people when they feel the arms more they think the back must be working less but that’s not true as I discussed in previous videos compound and isolation exercises on average in the literature have equal effects on muscle growth so it’s not the case that just because you’re training another muscle group as well that you’re training the primary muscle group less there is no mutual exclusivity in the body the body can easily train two muscles at the same time especially if they are synergists or they have no competing functions So how do the biomechanics work during a pull up.

Well if you’re doing a pull up like this then its actually not straightforward to see how the biceps is involved at all if your hands are inward of your elbows then it makes sense cause if this is the bar you’re holding a bar and the biceps is flexing which is this movement then it’s moving the bar down but if the elbow is directly below the hand and you’re pulling straight down and the biceps is doing this type movement then the force is going sideways which doesn’t appear to be helpful. Or does it? and even worse if the elbow is more inward than the hand so the hand is like this then the elbow flexion force going like this would even theoretically be expected to move the bar up.

So what’s going on well the problem is that this is only a biomechanical consideration of vertical forces, so Let me illustrate it with my amazing paint skills So here we have Hector Hector is doing pull ups and if you just look at vertical forces then he is pulling from two sides, right? and it’s going straight down because it’s that’s gravity, gravity pulls straight down Now, you wouldn’t be able to see how the biceps is involved at all because technically the axis of rotation the elbow is directly below the hand so there’s no moment arm for elbow flexion In reality what’s happening is that the biceps because the bar is fixed and you cannot move the bar the biceps is producing horizontal inward force which is like this.

Which means that the total resultant force factor of pulling down on the bar but also pulling inward into the bar creates a resultant force factor that goes somewhat like this And now u see that the moment arm on the elbow is actually positive because it’s directly perpendicular to your axis of rotation to the resultant force factor, so there is a positive moment arm for elbow flexion and for the lats, for the shoulder here we also have a resultant moment arm If you were only considering vertical forces it would be longer you would think that it goes all the way from the shoulder to the elbow the moment arm on the lats and in general the back muscles that are producing shoulder aduction This tells us two things One it explains why the biceps is involved at all and two it means that biceps involvement, horizontal force production from the biceps on the bar reduces the moment arm for the back muscles for the lats in particular so the shoulder adduction moment arm And that means essentially that the biceps and the back are working synergistically to lift the weight.

Now, that sounds super intuitive, right? If the biceps is more active the biceps is producing more force it makes things easier for the back essentially intuitively because you’re pulling on a fixed bar and the elbow flexion force goes kind of inwards but the bar cannot move, it’s fixed that inward force essentially helps you pull yourself up It makes it easier for the back So one more time quickly to make sure everyone understands just looking at vertical forces there would be no demands on the elbow and the moment arm would be like this but that’s not the case there is actually some horizontal force this way which means the resultant force factor goes kind of like this and there is actually an elbow flexion moment arm and an adduction moment arm like this So the biceps involvement makes things easier for the lats This knowledge of biomechanics also allows us to understand why rows especially with a dumbbell are not as effective for the biceps for example we have a study by Mannarino et al. that found that supinated dumbbell curls stimulate considerably more biceps growth, about two fold as much literally double the growth pretty much compared to supinated dumbbell rows In general rows don’t appear to be very good biceps builders that muscle activity levels muscle damage levels in multiple studies is quite low as opposed to pull down and pull up movements and that’s due to lower demands on elbow flexion but the general knowledge of grip width if you’re doing a barbell row for example with a medium versus slightly wider grip is likely very similar

Big difference with rows though is that when you use a wider grip often they don’t just use a wider grip but they also move the elbows up and if you are rowing with the elbows below the shoulders the lats are quite involved because there’s shoulder extension taking place When you move the elbows up you essentially eliminate the shoulder extension demand and when the elbow comes at shoulder height there’s no more shoulder extension which means that the lats have very little work the lats can technically help but they have super super super weak leverage for pure horizontal shoulder flexion so in general when you do a high row type movement like this shoulder pulls face pulls high rows then the lats are mostly out of it and you are isolating the the middle and lower traps and the rear deltoids primarily Demands on the biceps are going to be quite low and they’re going to be even lower if you have a dumbbell or a loose implement because like I said the horizontal forces that works well when the implement that you’re pulling on like a barbell or a bar it cannot move because then that force is effectively used to it’s like because you cannot bend the bar it’s helping you pull yourself up or pull the weight down When you have a dumbbell that’s impossible because horizontal force production would actually move the dumbbell This is actually very similar for those of you who watched my video on the effect of grip width on bench press muscle activity it’s a very similar story If you haven’t watched it I highly recommend watching that because you’ll also see how there are a lot of myths on the effect of grip width on bench press muscle activity just like here for back training.

Now, there are a few more details you should be aware of when interpreting this research one is functional differentiation just because total muscle activity levels are similar with wider vs more narrow grips and total muscle growth and muscle damage might also be similar That doesn’t mean that it’s the same in all the muscle fibers because muscles have different muscle fibers with different leverages in different positions which means that during different movements you can train different muscle fibers a bit more or a bit less this is usually not a matter of pure isolation but you can emphasize certain muscle fibers over others In the case of the lats we have clear evidence of functional differentiation The lower fibers of the lats they as you can see in this image here they run more outward so they are involved very much in shoulder adduction which is like a pull up or a pull down movement elbows out to the sides and moving in this plane of movement.

The fibers more at top are more effective during shoulder extension cause they wrap around the body more and come to the front so the lower fibers are more like this and the upper fibers they wrap around the shoulder more which means that during a chin up movement or in general more narrow grip type movement you will, theoretically train the upper lats a bit more and when you do a wide grip pull down type movement you train the lower fibers a little bit more now I say theoretically because these differences in muscle activity are mostly apparent with submaximal muscle contractions Now, there is a school of thought in exercise science that the body will match the leverage with muscle activity however when you’re training close to failure with maximal effort then generally the body will recruit all muscle fibers regardless of how poor the leverage is because it’s simply all hands on deck So what does this all mean for your training program design Here are 4 practical lessons we can take away from all this knowledge.

First, vertical pulls are generally effective biceps training volume whereas horizontal pulls generally aren’t especially not if they are performed with dumbbells or other free loose implements like single cable handles or rings Second, muscle activity per se during either horizontal or vertical pulling movements probably has little effect on the ratio of back to biceps activity it has essentially no significant effect in most research on the recruitment of the lats the biceps or pretty much any other muscle group at least within practical ranges that people will ordinarily use During rows however a wider grip in practice often means that the elbows go up and when the elbows reach shoulder height there is no more shoulder extension taking place and it largely takes the lats out of the movement so regular rows train the entire back maybe not optimally that’s another story but they train pretty much all the back muscles but when you do a more high row type movement you isolate the upper back specifically the rear delts the mid and the lower traps more Three, even though there’s no significant effect on muscle activity there are still effects on the ranges of motion the muscle length experienced and the stresses imposed on the joints specifically in this sense I think that very wide grip pulling movements especially vertical pulls like pull ups are not very useful for most individuals.

They cause a lot more shoulder issues and when you go out to extremely wide grips there might become a negative effect on biceps recruitment. At some point the horizontal force production is not going to be able to compensate for the simply low demands on elbow flexion plus for the lats you’re actually not stretching the lats as much when you use a super wide grip because you want to you want the arm to go up a lot that stretches the lats more to get stretch mediated hypertrophy.

So in this sense of super wide grip I think it’s kind of the worst of all worlds and it doesn’t have a great place in most training programs. That said, lesson four It can still be useful to have different types of pulling movements such as uh chin ups and pull ups in the same program because of functional differentiation they target different muscle fibers in the lats theoretically at least.

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About the author

Menno Henselmans

Formerly a business consultant, I've traded my company car to follow my passion in strength training. I'm now an online physique coach, scientist and international public speaker with the mission to help serious trainees master their physique.

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