Pull ups are the ultimate upper back exercise. Not only can they help you to build muscle in your back, shoulders, and arms, but they also represent an excellent strength to bodyweight ratio. Being able to perform multiple pull ups in a row is one of the most impressive achievements that you can do in a gym.
In this article, we will be taking a look at a common variation of the traditional pull up, the close grip (sometimes called narrow grip) pull up. We will walk you through how to perform it, discuss the muscles worked, and explain why this variation is beneficial.
What is a close-grip pull-up
A Close-grip pull-up is a great upper body exercise that develops the inner lats and strengthens the back, arms, and core muscles. Close-grip pull-ups put a greater emphasis on your biceps and chest muscles making for better upper-body development exercise.
Close-grip pull-ups also build functional strength as it takes athleticism, and coordination to execute the exercise. These pull-ups will help you in other strength training exercises, will improve your posture, and build more muscle coordination in your body.
How to Perform a Close Grip Pull Up
The difference between a close grip pull up and a regular pull up is the distance between your hands. Close grip pull ups use a narrower grip. A standard pull up grip is around shoulder width apart, sometimes slightly wider. Whereas a close grip pull up has your hands a couple of inches narrower than shoulder width. It doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but you will certainly notice it during the execution.
Jump up to the pull-up bar grabbing hold with your palms facing forward. Ideally, you want only around 6 to 8 inches between your hands.
Keeping your core tight and your back straight, pull your body upward until your chin is at the height of the bar. Pause for a second, then lower down under control to complete one rep.
Close grip pull up instructions
- Using an overhand grip, firmly grasp the pull up bar with hands side to side about 6-8 inches away from each other. The close grip ensures you emphasise your lower lats.
- Once you get into starting position, take a deep breath in. Squeeze your glutes and pull your abs in tightly. Really concentrate on the midsection when completing the motion. Lean back slightly so that your chest is pushed out, this will stop you from banging your chin onto the bar!
- Hanging from the bar, feet off the floor, pull yourself upward by depressing your shoulder blades and pushing your elbows down to the floor. Avoid swinging your body.
- Keep lifting yourself up until your chin meets the bar and your lats contract fully. Once your chin reaches over the bar, you can begin to lower your body back down to starting position.
- Repeat the exercise.
Close Grip Pull Ups: Muscles Worked
Pull ups are primarily an upper back and bicep exercise, targeting the Latissimus Dorsi (lats) muscles in particular, as well as the Trapezius muscle. But they target so much more than just those muscles. Interestingly, they also target the Pectorals and Triceps, muscles that are usually associated with pushing movements rather than pulling. We will discuss (in detail) their effect on the abdominal muscles later in this article.
Here are the muscles used when performing a close grip pull up:
- Lattismus dorsi (Primary)
- Teres major
- Levator scapulae
- Rotator cuff
- Erector spinae
- Rectus Abdominus
Muscle Activation Comparison – Close Grip vs Wide Grip
The muscles used are pretty much similar to the wide-grip pull-up, but the emphasis changes the closer the grip becomes.
As the hands come closer together, the inner lats are targeted more. The latissimus dorsi as a whole is still involved with pulling the arms closer to the body which results in your upward momentum. But with a close grip, the inner lats play a larger role.
The shoulders receive some more stimulus during the close grip pull up compared to the wide grip where they get to relax a bit more. The wide grip pulling motion not only lessens the shoulder activation, but it puts more emphasis on the lower lats and teres major.
With a close grip, it changes how the shoulder joint moves through the exercise. The shoulders are more engaged as the hand position requires them to also be activated as you pull your body upward, and lower under control through the eccentric phase.
The rhomboids also become more activated with the close grip and shoulder joint movement. The rhomboids are small muscles located between the shoulders and thoracic spine. During the pull-up, the contract during the downward motion of the shoulder pull, and this causes shoulder adduction.
This close grip (ideally with your hands about 6 to 8 inches apart) will also result in the lower traps becoming more activated. Since the trapezius muscle helps elevate you upward through a pull-up, the close grip moves the emphasis towards that lower area.
Close Grip Pull Up Biceps Involvement
The closer your grip goes, the more you activate your biceps, brachialis, and brachioradialis. Making the close grip pull up much more of a bicep exercise than a regular pull up.
As you pull upward with a close grip, the brachialis, and brachioradialis work in the same way they do during a hammer curl. Since you are lifting your entire body weight, they get more engagement than you would be able to lift with dumbbells.
Pull ups (all variations) tend to target the forearms more than dumbbell exercises anyway, because there is such an emphasis on grip strength.
The biceps take more of the weight load as you lift and lessen the load distributed to the lats. The lats, of course, are engaged, but not to the same extent as they would be during a wide grip pull-up.
The biceps, brachialis, and brachioradialis, are fully lengthened at the bottom phase of the pull up which can result in increases in hypertrophy.
Close Grip Pull Up Rectus Abdominus Involvement
What muscle do you think is most activated during a pull up? The upper back? The arms? Actually, according to a study in 2018, the muscle that is most activated during a pull up is the rectus abdominus.
The order of activation goes:
- Rectus Abdominus
- Latissimus Dorsi
This does not mean that the pull up is an abdominal exercise, but that the muscles are activated heavily during a pull up. Interestingly, this applies to all four back exercises that were tested in the study. Which were: Pull ups, seated lat pulldown, kneeling lat pulldown (using a cable station), and assisted pull ups (using a machine). The study did not test the activation of the shoulders, the forearms, or the pectoral muscles, so this should be kept in mind.
But it is interesting to note how vital a strong set of abdominal muscles are for a good pull up. It is also interesting to note how effective pull ups are as abdominal exercises! They are still primarily upper back exercises, but perhaps they should be seen more as compound lifts for the upper body?
Close Grip Pull Ups Benefits
The first main benefit of the close grip pull up is that they will be easier to perform than the wide grip. This makes it an easier exercise to perform if you are wanting to do some bodyweight exercises but haven’t yet developed the strength required for wide grip pull-ups.
Another main benefit has to do with muscle usage. As mentioned, the wider the grip, the more lat engagement you will get. This is great to develop back development and a V-taper, but the close grip pull up may be a better choice for more muscle development.
Since the emphasis moves from just the lats with the wide grip, the close grip gives you better arm, deltoid, and even pectoral engagement. This can help a more balanced physique and can create more of a 3-D effect as far as upper body muscle development.
Since the close grip changes the emphasis on the back muscles, close grip pull-ups can help build more back thickness because of the emphasis on the inner lats and lower traps.
Wide Grip Pull Ups vs Close Grip Pull Ups
If you are looking to build more functional strength and want to focus primarily on your lat development, wide grip pull-ups will be your exercise of choice. If you have developed a great deal of strength, the wide-grip pull-up will be more challenging than the close grip and continue to provide a great muscle stimulus.
The close-grip pull-up will be better for those who can’t perform many wide grip reps, or if they are looking to build more muscle through the arms or middle back. They won’t create as good a V-taper as a wide grip pull up, however. The close-grip pull-up may also be your superior choice if you are looking to build more balanced muscle through the upper body the way that a gymnast does. The majority of their pulling motion is more close grip-based and creates more of that 3-D muscle appearance.
The one downside here is that the close-grip pull-up may cause more strain on the shoulders so if you have any rotator cuff issues, they could be aggravated more during a close-grip pull-up. The ideal solution is to combine both close, and wide-grip pulls ups during your back or pulling days. It will help to create more variation through your workout and give the muscles through the back, and upper body, a constantly changing stimulus.
Close grip pull-up alternatives
To give some alternatives to the close grip pull-up you can position your hands so your palms are facing towards you making it a chin-up. This will engage the biceps to a higher degree and make the exercise easier to perform.
Another option – and to really make them more challenging – is to use a towel to perform close grip pull-ups. Loop a towel over the bar so that the ends are hanging down on each side and between shoulder-width apart.
You will grip each end of the towel with your hands and perform a pull-up while holding on. This will engage all the muscles in your hands, wrists, and forearms along with the back. This exercise will build immense back, arm, wrist, and grip strength. Studies have shown that towel pull ups activate the lower trapezius muscle slightly less than regular pull ups, with more emphasis on the arms, shoulders, and upper traps.
The 2018 study we cited earlier found that for lower rep ranges (under 10) assisted pull ups had more lat activation and comparable bicep activation compared to a regular pull up (but less abdominal and trapezius activation). So, if you are struggling to get past 10 reps of close grip pull ups, you might want to try an assisted pull up machine.
If you are performing a close-grip pull-up at home you will need a home or outdoor pull-up bar, Most gyms should have a pull-up bar either attached to a multi-functional exercise machine or separate on its own.