When it comes to building an impressive back, there's no exercise more powerful than the pullup. In addition to its tremendous payoff for strength and size, the pullup has so many variations that it's pretty much impossible to get bored. Truth be told, pullups aren't easy to perform and far too many people cheat them (sometimes without even realizing it). To get the most out of this monstrously effective exercise, it's key to hit the muscle from different angles and ensure you're going through the full range of motion on every single rep.
The good news is that pullups don't just target your lat muscles, but also engage dozens of smaller, contributing muscles, which can lead to rapid gains if done properly. Even if you can only do one or two pullups at a time, executing them with precision and intensity is vital. By working your way up and focusing on form, you'll find that 15-20 pullups at one stretch is well within your reach.
To get you started on the road to a massive, chiseled back, here are three of the most effective pullup variations to incorporate into your routine:
1. Wide-Grip Pullup
Although wide-grip pullups target every segment of the lats, they most strongly emphasize the top third. This makes them ideal as a width-builder. The range of motion on wide-grip pullups may be shorter than most other pullup varieties, but it's still important to get in as many reps as you can pulling as high as you're able. Get your upper chest as close to the bar as possible, squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement.
Side note: The wide-grip pullup was one of Arnold's favorite exercises for constructing wide lats. His training technique was to pick a number of reps - say, 50 - and do as many sets as necessary to reach that figure. Obviously the fewer sets it takes you, the better. If you're able to reach your goal number of pullups in five sets or less, it's time to add some weight to make it a little more challenging!
2. Shoulder-Width Pullup
By contrast, shoulder-width pullups emphasize the upper-middle lats, rhomboids, and rear delts. This is probably the toughest pullup variation because it engages so many different muscle groups to complete each rep. Since your hands are spaced together more closely, you're also able to get in a larger range of motion. To ensure the maximum benefit from the shoulder-width pullup, be sure to go all the way down and fully extend your arms on each rep.
Grip will become key on the shoulder-width pullup since it requires more involvement from your biceps. If you're someone who tends to get forearm fatigue, consider using straps to ensure you're able to make it through your working sets. Ideally you're shooting for 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps, again adding weight to increase the challenge level once you can perform the standard pullups with ease. Whatever you, DO NOT cheat the reps by doing kipping pullups.
The last of the pullup varieties, chin-ups tend to target your lower lats, rhomboids, and biceps. By using an underhanded grip, you'll ratchet up the biceps activation far more than with any other pullup variation and get a far wider range of motion. Chin-ups are probably one of the best variations for overall back development since you're firing up your lats from top to bottom as you make your way through each rep. It's also one of the easier pullup options for beginners given the underhanded grip. To keep maximum focus on your lats rather than your biceps, try banging out your reps without your thumb wrapped around the bar.