How to safely strengthen your back with neutral grip pull-ups
We all know of the pull-up’s reputation as a notoriously grueling upper body strength training exercise. But did you know that you can make this exercise a bit less challenging just by switching your hand placement? Meet the neutral grip pull-up.
But wait, don’t be complacent too soon. Just because you changed the way you grasp the bar doesn’t mean the exercise suddenly became much easier. We did say a bit less challenging.
Oh, the difficulty is still there, but pulling up with a neutral grip makes a whole lot of difference as far as the number of reps is concerned.
Wanna know how? Then read on.
What is a neutral grip pull-up?
The only difference between a neutral grip pull-up and a regular pull-up is the way you hold on to the bar. While a standard pull-up is typically performed with an overhand grip, a neutral grip pull-up puts your hands in a position where your palms are facing each other and your arms shoulder-width apart on the bar.
Just like in a regular pull-up, you are also working the majority of your upper body muscles by using your body weight as resistance during the upward phase. However, the neutral grip pull-up puts more emphasis on the biceps, brachialis, and forearms than the regular pull-up because of the change in grip.
Other than that, the neutral grip pull-up targets your back muscles and engages your pectoral muscles and deltoids during shoulder extension the same way as a regular pull-up.
Compared to other variations, the neutral grip pull-up is beginner-friendly. Because your hands are facing in, pulling up is much easier on the shoulders. With that being said, this slightly less challenging version of the pull-up is the advisable option for those who are just starting to build their upper body strength.
Since the exercise is relatively easier, you are likely to perform more reps that will eventually strengthen your upper body. As a result, you become ready to take on more advanced pull-up variations.
How to do a neutral grip pull-up
1. Grab the parallel handles with a firm neutral grip.
2. Hang from the bar by fully extending your arms and depressing your shoulder blades.
3. Slowly bend your elbows to lift your body until your chin goes above the bar. Breathe in as you do this.
4. Make sure to activate your abdominal and gluteal muscles during the upward phase to stabilize the torso. Avoid using momentum and keep your chest out to prevent your body from swinging.
5. Once you reach the top of the movement, pause for a moment to squeeze the latissimus dorsi.
6. Lower yourself back to the starting position by slowly extending your arms, not abruptly dropping your body. Breathe out as you do this.
7. Repeat. For beginners, start with at least 5 sets of 3 reps each with a 40-second rest in between then increase the number of sets and reps as you get stronger.
The muscles at work during a neutral grip pull-up
The latissimus dorsi is a back muscle that resembles an inverted triangle and stretches out to the sides of the body. During a neutral grip pull-up, the lats are responsible for moving your upper arms closer to your body. This is a major movement in the exercise that enables you to raise your torso and pull yourself up on the bar.
The biceps are the primary movers during a neutral grip pull-up. Without effectively recruiting them, you will not be able to pull yourself up on the bar. The biceps work closely with the lats during this movement and also when you lower your body to return to the starting position. But while pull-ups alone are not enough to build the biceps, it is a good start.
The trapezius muscle is located in the mid-upper back. Together with the lats, they take the load and assist with shoulder elevation during a neutral grip pull-up.
Being an upper-body-focused exercise, the pull-up activates the deltoids as well. The degree by which they are worked varies depending on the grip though. For instance, using a wide grip will stimulate your deltoids more, making the pull-up a good shoulder exercise too.
However, in a neutral grip pull-up, there is less activation of the deltoids due to the placement of your hands on the bar. But the good news is that this exercise places less strain on your shoulder joints which is not an entirely bad thing after all.
The work of the pectoralis major may not be as obvious as the other muscles involved during a neutral grip pull-up, but it does play an important role. Together with the coracobrachialis—the muscle which is located in front of the shoulder joint and stretches out to the upper arm—the pecs assist the lats in pulling your upper arms closer to your body in the lifting portion of the exercise.
Teres major, infraspinatus, teres minor
The teres major is located above the lats and connects to the scapula and the humerus. Meanwhile, the infraspinatus spans the back of your shoulder blades and stretches out to the upper arms. Underneath the infraspinatus is the teres minor which sits just on top of the teres major. Together, these three muscles work to assist the lats.
Benefits of doing a neutral grip pull-up
Strong and defined back
It is no surprise that a tough and sculpted back is the number one benefit of the neutral grip pull-up. This is a back-centric, upper body strengthening exercise after all. Moreover, the best way to increase muscle growth is by performing exercises that offer a great range of motion with lots of muscle tension, and the neutral grip pull-up is exactly that. Need we say more?
Build the biceps
Pull-ups, regardless of the variation, are mainly a back exercise. But if done properly, they can be a great way to work your biceps as well. Since the biceps are smaller and weaker compared to the lats, you can think of pull-ups as an arm exercise first and a back exercise second. However, this is not to say that you should ditch bicep curls for good, but if toned arms are part of your goals, then pull-ups are a good alternative too.
Improve grip strength
A firm grip is crucial in just about any exercise, and since you need this to accomplish a pull-up, you will inevitably build your grip strength as you keep doing it. And since pull-ups require you to lift your body weight using only your arms, your forearm strength will be developed as well.
Performing deadlifts flawlessly begins with strong lats, and strong lats are built by exercises such as the neutral grip pull-up. By strengthening this muscle, you are effectively ensuring that the weight stays close to your center of gravity so you can lift heavier loads with more efficiency.
Neutral grip pull-ups can burn some serious calories. At this point, you should already know how many muscles are involved in this exercise, and the more muscles an exercise involves, the more calories you will burn doing it.
You also get a metabolism boost from doing neutral grip pull-ups. This means that as you build muscles, you also need calories to sustain it, and the more muscle you have on your body, the more calories you will burn per day. In other words, improving your pull-up performance can lead to faster weight loss.
Neutral grip pull-up mistakes to avoid
Dropping the body
The lowering phase of the neutral grip pull-up is just as important as the upward phase. If you drop your body abruptly, you are essentially putting your elbow and shoulder joints at risk. Always remember that controlled movement is the key to an effective pull-up, so make sure that you lower yourself back to the starting position by slowly extending your arms until you get into a dead hang.
To avoid this, practice your pull-up progression with negative pull-ups. What they do is help strengthen your upper body muscles by resisting gravity instead of using momentum to pull your body up and down the bar. Think regular pull-ups, but in reverse.
Not maintaining a neutral neck
Many people tend to look up at the bar as they pull up, but this should be avoided because doing so puts your neck in an uncompromising position. Your spine must remain straight throughout the movement, and that includes your neck. This means that your head should stay still and your eyes looking straight ahead. Maintain this until your chin goes above the bar so that your body is aligned once you reach the top of the movement.
Not taking enough rest in between sets
Never treat pull-ups like typical strength training exercises where you train to failure. To develop explosive movement and prevent damaging your joints, stop as soon as you feel pain, lose grip, and compromise your form. Taking longer recovery breaks is crucial in effectively performing the succeeding reps. This ensures that you are building your power by training your nervous system to cope with the exercise, instead of pulling up until you can’t.