The Best Upper Body Pull

This one is going to be simple. There is only one contender—a hollow position pull-up, strict and heavy.

Note that “hollow” does not mean hollowing your abdomen/sucking in your stomach. The hollow position is a posture from gymnastics designed to maximize your strength: tensed and shortened abs, tensed glutes, a tucked-in pelvis, flared shoulder blades, and a slightly concave body shape. The grip is secondary; the posture is primary.

Best upper body pull
Tactical pull-up in a hollow position. Photo courtesy Tony Blauer.

The hollow posture sets up a lat synergy with the anterior muscles—pecs, serratus, abs, and obliques. This type of synergy is used in a great many athletic situations:

  • Consider gymnastics. All elite ring feats like the iron cross are performed in a hollow position.
  • Consider a punch from an expert in any-stand up fighting art.
  • Consider two wrestlers facing off. You will not see a puffed-up chest and pinched scapulae of a bodybuilder.

The Bodybuilding Pull-up

To drive the point home, you need to feel it. Jump on the bar and do a few bodybuilding pull-ups—bent knees, a big chest, and retracted scapulae. To exaggerate the effect, cross your ankles and turn your knees out as far as they will go. And use the anatomical breathing match: expand the chest as your going up.

If you have good body awareness, you will notice that the external hip rotation took the load away from the front of the torso, making it stretched and weak, and shifted it to the middle and lower back. An entirely different type of a lat synergy.

Does it mean that this exercise is no good? No. The bodybuilding pull-up may be a poor choice in the general strength category, where the goal is high carryover to the greatest range of athletic and on the duty or on the job situations, but it has its uses, primarily as a postural correctional exercise.

The Best Upper Body Pull: The Hollow Position Pull-up

Studs and duds alike need correctives to stand straight. Athletes from many sports, gun carrying professionals, and people with physical professions acquire what Ori Hofmekler calls the “warrior posture.” You know the look: a slightly sunk-in chest and flared scapulae, a mild kyphosis, a neck that does not quite look happy where it is. I remember teaching kettlebell skills to a high-level acrobat. His lats could have been folded wings of a pterodactyl, while his rhomboids were nowhere to be found.

Which brings us into the correctives territory. We will go there another time, when we discuss rows.

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Pavel Tsatsouline
CEO
Pavel Tsatsouline is the Chairman of StrongFirst, Inc.

45 thoughts on “The Best Upper Body Pull

  • So i am a bit confused about the “right” way to do a pull up. Having Problems with my right elbow because of my shoulders rotating in Front of my body (that was the explanation of my doc) i do a lot of work for my rhombos. That includes rhombo dominate pull ups. So the initial movement is the retraction of my shoulder Blades(scapula pullups) (Pulling the Blades back and down and bringing the Head and the chest a bit higher this was way). Now i also Started to use the hollow Body Position. At the Moment i am Doing Both: hollow Body Position and the initial movement of the shoulder Blades as in scapula pull ups. Is that a fault? Should i not retract the shoulder blades?

  • Hi Pavel,

    Thanks for this very informative article.
    I admit, for some period of time I was in favour of so called sapular pull-ups, but not for body building benefits. I simply assumed, that doing both types of pull-ups (1. retracted scapulas + bar to chest 2. hollow position) allow me to develop better back and shoulder stability and mobility.
    Another aspect was that I wanted to increase lats stength for front lever and most of front lever progressions I’ve seen suggest that pull-ups with scapula retraction is the key exercise to strengthen back the for front lever.

    Motivated by your article, I researched a bit more and found some good explanation of the problems with scapula pull-up form or excessive retraction of scapulas (i.e. good videos on that by Dr. Evan Osar)

    Now, assuming front lever is a skill plus maximum strength evolution, I wonder, why the scapula pull ups are so popular as front lever progression exercise. Isn’t the hollow position more powerful for it?
    Would you have any comments on that?

    Thanks,
    Mat

  • Love the site. I can do a “bodybuilding” pullup strict with 105# from a dead hang untill the bar touches my adams apple. I tried these hollow pullups with BW, they do feel stronger. I can’t figure out how to do them with a Dip belt and weight. is it possible?

    • poplawsj, you can and the weight helps if you hang it right—high, at midthigh level—and keep your legs together. Shorten your belt or, better yet, get one from IronMind.

  • Hey Pavel, thanks for the article. I’m hoping to stick to an efficient Power-to-the-People schedule of working out. What do you think of this simple workout 5 days a week, which shouldn’t take too long? Is it better to stick to the four “best” exercises you recommended and go with a zercher squat instead of deadlift?

    2×5 Deadlifts (with 2nd set at 90% of 1st)
    2×5 Bench Press (with 2nd set at 90% of 1st)
    2 sets pull-ups
    Some amount of KB swings

    Also, regarding warming up, I understand that with this sort of program it’s better to just start at a comfortably low enough weight that minimal or zero warm-up sets are needed?

    Thanks so much for your books and site!

    • Kostya, looks good, either with Zerchers or with deads.

      To ‘warm up’ do a couple of light low rep sets. E.g., if your work set is 315×5, do 135×5, 225×3, 275×1.

  • Didn’t you say in the “Best” Press article that you were going to go into why you didn’t divide presses into “horizontal” and “vertical”? I didn’t see anything on that in this post.

    • Manny, because, if you do them right, you get carryover from one to the other. Adding an extra category just means doing more work and creating more confusion.

  • Bob, ladders are a great way to bring up numbers, stay with bw for a month or more. At that time, switch to some low rep heavy pull ups, for a while. Pavel, I tried flairing the shoulder blades and it helped, but why is this exactly?

      • Pavel, so with this engaging the serratus and other anterior muscles, do this accomplish putting more of the workload onto the Lats, or is it because the stabilizing muscles are engaging? Great informaion, wish I would have seen this a couple years ago.

        • cj, I have not seen EMGs to prove it puts more load on the lats but you definitely engage more synergists.

  • Thanks pavel, so alot of gtg. Due to having a door mounted pull up bar, I can;t go to the full hollow position but flairing my shoulder blades has helped. great post sir

  • Pavel,

    Love how you think. Straight to the point, no gimmicks, attention to detail. I do some modest climbing but make a point of staying out of warrior posture. Health > performance. Becoming less fond of pullups and big lats. Psyched on SFG.

  • Ram and all remember also that the “tactical” pullup is designed to help one get up and over a wall or a fence. No way to wrap the thumbs there.

    Also I don’t agree that wrapping the thumb automatically leads to more internal rotation. Just as with a gymnasts false grip on the rings one can externally rotate the hands with a thumbless grip. I do it all the time as the thumb grip hurts my shoulders do to increased biceps involvement and more shoulder flexion.

    Same with the bench press. I chose to bench thumbless as it allowed me to externally rotate more easily and save ear and tear on already high mileage shoulders.( ps. I never dropped a bar, either 🙂

    here is a video of my first pullups in quite awhile. Note how I “corkscrew” the shoulders and arms during the setup

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ggh5YucCT0I

    Rif

    • Rif, perhaps what you say (makes sense to me, BTW) is easier for a trained gymnast, and for regular folk a grip with the thumb around and shoulders externally rotated will get a better pull-up? I am just asking….

  • Pavel, I know that this is the best way to go for heavy pull ups. Would It be good to do them this way for repition pull ups for a test? And what is the best way to get warmed up for pull ups? I always just jog or do a light easy warm up such as jumping jacks, is there a better way?

    • Bob, if your rep goal is 20-25, doing nothing but low reps will get you there. Above that you need to train reps as well.

      Do a few reps with BW and go (unless your body needs more).

    • ZV, the analogy that “the kipping pullup to the strict pullup is what the push press is to the strict military press” has a point.

      The problem is, it is too easy to ruin your shoulders on the very bottom of the movement.

      I have seen how a Bulgarian gymnastics coach solved that problem. First, he reduced the ROM to 3/4 (do not go all the way down). Second, he does not use the palms forward grip (the shoulder is internally rotated and most vulnerable) but the parallel and the curl grip. Third, he kips with his hips very moderately—a light jolt, not a violent kick. I have seen Ivan knock off 70 reps in that manner.

      The above style seems to work due to the mechanisms I explained in RTK (fast eccentrics plus a nasty metabolic environment). It would lead to a loss of elbow extension if not complemented with other training (e.g. front levers, HLRs, HS).

  • Pavel: Is there a good intermediate pullup between two arm and one arm? I’ve used your techniques and can now do 20+ pullups, so I’m looking to find another difficult pullup variation/technique to make it more difficult (back to the 1-5 rep range). Is there a good bodyweight option?

    • Josiah,

      Pavel will have a good suggestion for you, but in the meantime, my own (limiting to BW, as you ask) would be to pull yourself to one side; using your opposite hand less and less. Also, you may be able to increase your ROM still – can you pull 20+ times to sternum, as well as to throat?

      • Thanks for the tips! I like the idea of working towards 20 sternum to bar pullups. I still want to find a pullups that I can do 1-5 reps of as well… ? I can do the side-to-side pullups pretty well.

  • Chairman Pavel,

    I am currently following the Fighter Pull Up Program. However, I am using an Iron Gym bar that I have to put on my doorframe. However, at the bottom part of the pull up I cannot fully extend my legs. Should I keep hollow position as shown in your picture at the bottom part of the pull up as well or is it okay to bend at the knees and fold my legs below/behind me?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Joey, you will not be able to go hollow with this setup. Still, better than no pullupsis at all.

  • I might be misreading, but wouldn’t “flaring the scapulae” make it very difficult to retract or pack the shoulder? I thought packing the shoulder was a must before doing pullup.

  • Pavel: for the pull-up, not using the thumb could cause an internal rotation of the shoulder, while putting the hypothenar eminence on the bar and gripping it with all fingers including the thumb would externally rotate the shoulders, would it not? I have seen Kelly Starrett advocate the grip with the thumb. Unless I have totally misunderstood….

        • Thank you for posting, Ram; I like what I saw.

          The gentleman is correct that a passive hang with a thumbles grip encourages internal shoulder rotation. Which is one of the reasons we teach the corkscrew technique as a part of the HLR progression (even before pullups).

          It appears that the particular grip Carl Paoli shows (note that it is not a simple matter of wrapping the thumb around the bar) makes you externally rotate the shoulders and flatten the rib cage without extra cuing. Now the part of your torso down to the x. process is already in the hollow position.

          One should be able to use the correct shoulder mechanics with different grips, including thumbless. I wonder if practicing in this manne would teach you that. I suspect it would.

  • “The grip is secondary”

    Being a poor “pull-uper” I find it better to grip and squeeze the bar. RKCII had the 24 kg thumbless pullup as a requirement, looking at SFGII I cannot find it. Is it a SFG level requirement?

    Regards,
    Andreas Almén

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