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The Effect of Grip Width and Hand Orientation on Muscle Activity During Pull-ups and the Lat Pull-down

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HAND ORIENTATION (SUPINATED, NEUTRAL, PRONATED) AND GRIP WIDTH ARE COMMONLY VARIED DURING PULL-UPS AND LAT PULL-DOWNS IN AN ATTEMPT TO FOCUS THE TRAINING ON SPECIFIC MUSCLE GROUPS OR TO ENSURE THAT THE MOVEMENT IS SPECIFIC TO THE SPORTING ACTION. THE AIM OF THIS ARTICLE WAS TO IDENTIFY IF VARYING GRIP WIDTH AND HAND ORIENTATION EFFECTS MUSCLE ACTIVITY DURING PULL-UPS AND LAT PULL-DOWNS. IT HAS BEEN DEMONSTRATED THAT USING ROTATING HANDLES DURING PULL-UPS OR USING A PRONATED GRIP DURING LAT PULL-DOWNS TENDS TO RESULT IN THE GREATEST ACTIVATION OF THE LATISSIMUS DORSI, WITH NO DIFFERENCE IN LATISSIMUS DORSI ACTIVITY BETWEEN GRIP WIDTHS.
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The Effect of Grip Width
and Hand Orientation on
Muscle Activity During
Pull-ups and the
Lat Pull-down
Kelly. L. M. Leslie, BSc (Hons) and Paul Comfort, MSc, CSCS*D
Directorate of Sport, Exercise and Physiotherapy, School of Health and Social Care, University of Salford, Salford,
Greater Manchester, United Kingdom
SUMMARY
HAND ORIENTATION (SUPINATED,
NEUTRAL, PRONATED) AND GRIP
WIDTH ARE COMMONLY VARIED
DURING PULL-UPS AND LAT PULL-
DOWNS IN AN ATTEMPT TO FOCUS
THE TRAINING ON SPECIFIC MUS-
CLE GROUPS OR TO ENSURE
THAT THE MOVEMENT IS SPECIFIC
TO THE SPORTING ACTION. THE
AIM OF THIS ARTICLE WAS TO
IDENTIFY IF VARYING GRIP WIDTH
AND HAND ORIENTATION EFFECTS
MUSCLE ACTIVITY DURING PULL-
UPS AND LAT PULL-DOWNS. IT
HAS BEEN DEMONSTRATED THAT
USING ROTATING HANDLES DUR-
ING PULL-UPS OR USING A PRO-
NATED GRIP DURING LAT PULL-
DOWNS TENDS TO RESULT IN THE
GREATEST ACTIVATION OF THE
LATISSIMUS DORSI, WITH NO DIF-
FERENCE IN LATISSIMUS DORSI
ACTIVITY BETWEEN GRIP WIDTHS.
INTRODUCTION
Numerous studies have been
conducted to identify muscle
activity during a range of ex-
ercises for both the lower body
(1,3,10,13,14,16,18) and upper body
(2,7,11). In addition, reviews discus-
sing optimal technique of exercises
such as the squat (4,5,17) and bench
press (9) have been published summa-
rizing the findings of prior research
from electromyographic (EMG) stud-
ies. However, no such review regard-
ing the performance of the variations
of pull-ups or lat pull-downs has been
published.
Previous studies investigating lower
limb muscle activity during variations
of the back squat found that a wide
stance width rather than a narrow
stance width performed at 0–70% of
one repetition maximum (1RM) eli-
cited a 297% greater level of muscle
activity for the gluteus maximus, but
there were no differences for other
lower limb muscles (15). Similarly, an
increased squat depth (half squat 458,
parallel squat 908, full-depth squat 1258
knee flexion) resulted in a greater per-
centage contribution of the gluteus
maximus (3,14). In addition, rotating
the feet (neutral, 30–408medial, 808
lateral rotation) while performing the
squat, regardless of depth and stance
width (75–140% shoulder width), has
been shown to have no noticeable
effect on muscle activity of the thigh
muscles (rectus femoris, vastus medi-
alis, vastus lateralis, adductor longus,
semimembranosus, semitendinosus,
and biceps femoris) (5,6,13,14,18).
Studies that have investigated EMG
activity of upper-body muscles, during
the bench press exercise, highlighted
no significant effect in activity of the
sternocostal head of the pectorialis
major (P.0.05). The narrow grip, how-
ever, significantly increased the activity
of the clavicular head (P,0.01) and the
activity of the triceps brachii (P,0.05)
compared with the wide grip (2,11). In
addition, no significant difference 65%
(P.0.05) in 1RM performance was
identified between grip widths (100
and 200% biacromial width) (2,11). In
comparison, performing a push-up with
hands posterior to the normal hand
position resulted in an increased activa-
tion of the pectoralis major and triceps
brachii (8).
Previous investigations into the effect
that various hand positions, such as
grip width and hand orientation (supi-
nated, pronated, and neutral), have on
KEY WORDS:
electromyography; latissimus dorsi;
performance; specificity
Copyright ÓNational Strength and Conditioning Association Strength and Conditioning Journal | www.nsca-scj.com 75
muscle activity during pull-ups and lat
pull-downs have demonstrated that
both grip width and hand orientation
affected muscle activity of selected
muscles (11,12,19,21).
HAND ORIENTATION
Youdas et al. (21) found the pronated
grip (Figure 1) during pull-ups (56 6
21% maximum voluntary isometric
[MVIC]) to be most effective at acti-
vating the lower trapezius compared
with the supinated grip (45 622%
MVIC). The pronated grip (Figure 2)
also resulted in an increased muscle
activity of the infraspinatus (79 6
56% MVIC) compared with the grip
of the perfect pull-up (71 652%
MVIC), which uses 2 handles with
the ability to rotate 3608(the subject
starts with a pronated grip then the
movement ends with the subject in
a supinated grip). In contrast, the per-
fect pull-up was found to show an
increase of muscle activation of the
latissimus dorsi (130 653% MVIC)
compared with the supinated grip of
the chin-up (117 646% MVIC). The
supinated grip did elicit an increase in
pectoralis major muscle activity (57 6
36% MVIC versus 44 627% MVIC,
respectively) and bicep brachii (96 6
34% MVIC versus 78 632%, respec-
tively) compared with the pronated
variation. It is worth noting that %
MVIC for the latissimus dorsi, during
each variation of the exercises, was
greater than the MVIC for all other
muscles assessed.
Lusk et al. (12) conducted a study to
analyze whether grip width (wide and
narrow) and forearm orientation (supi-
nated and pronated grip performed at
both grip widths) had any effects on
muscle activity during lat pull-downs.
Using 70% 1RM, they found that a pro-
nated grip elicited a 9% greater muscle
activation of the latissimus dorsi as
opposed to a supinated grip. In con-
trast, they found no difference in
biceps brachii or mid-trapezius muscle
activity between a supinated or pro-
nated grip. A similar study investigat-
ing the differences in muscle activity
levels between the wide grip (pulled
to the anterior and posterior) and nar-
row grip (supinated and pronated grip)
lat pull-down, by Signorile et al. (19),
demonstrated that a pronated grip
elicits a higher muscle activation of
the latissimus dorsi compared with
a supinated grip. The pectoralis major
indicated higher muscle activity during
the neutral grip compared with the
pronated grip; although this is clearly
not a pectoral exercise, with Youdas
et al. (21) demonstrating pectoral
activity of only 44–57% MVIC during
various types of pull-ups. The poste-
rior deltoid showed no difference in
muscle activity across all hand orien-
tations. In contrast, Lehman (11)
investigated the muscle activation lev-
els during the lat pull-downs, using a
10RM load, and little difference was
found in the muscle activity between
the pronated and supinated grips for
the latissimus dorsi and the biceps.
GRIP WIDTH
Lehman (11) found no significant dif-
ference in the muscle activation of the
biceps and the latissimus dorsi
between the narrow supinated grip
(Figure 2) and wide pronated grip
(Figure 3) lat pull-downs. Interestingly,
they did identify that the highest level
of latissimus dorsi activity is reached
when performing the seated row with
the shoulders retracted. Unfortunately,
as both hand orientation and grip
width were simultaneously altered in
this study, any differences in muscle
activity due to either grip width or
hand orientation are not identifiable.
Similarly, Lusk et al. (12) found that
grip width, during the lat pull-down,
resulted in no difference in latissimus
dorsi, biceps brachii, or mid-trapezius
muscle activity. However, because the
wide grip variation was only slightly
wider than the narrow grip variation,
it may have masked any minor
differences.
Only the study by Sperandei et al. (20)
that has compared the wide grip lat
pull-downs with the front and behind
neck with a standardized grip width
and hand orientation demonstrated
higher latissimus dorsi and posterior
deltoid muscle activity during lat pull-
downs to the front, compared with
behind neck. Unfortunately, this study
did not compare between grip widths.
If individuals are to select the behind
neck version of the exercise, it is essen-
tial to ensure that the individual has
adequate range of motion to perform
Figure 1. Close pronated grip hand
position.
Figure 2. Supinated grip hand position.
Figure 3. Wide grip hand position.
Pull-ups and Lat Pull-downs
VOLUME 35 | NUMBER 1 | FEBRUARY 2013
76
the exercise safely and effectively
throughout the entire range (Tables 1
and 2).
It is worth noting that the differences
observed between grip widths may be
a result of the differences in range of
motion which occur between a narrow
and wide grip, rather than the actual
positioning of the hands.
PRACTICAL APPLICATION
It is suggested that when training the
latissimus dorsi using the lat pull-
downs a pronated grip be used or
rotating handles can be used, if avail-
able during pull-ups. A supinated grip,
during pull-ups, tends to result in an
increase in biceps brachii activity;
however, such a hand position may
not be specific for certain sports. Fur-
ther research is required to clarify the
effect of grip width on muscle activity
lat pull-downs.
Kelly L. M.
Leslie is a gradu-
ate from the
Sports Science
program at the
University of
Salford.
Paul Comfort is
the program
leader for the
MSc Strength
and Condition-
ing at the Uni-
versity of Salford.
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Table 1
Highest muscle activity during variations of pull-ups with different hand
orientations
Hand orientation Increased muscle activity
Pronated grip Lower trapezius
Infraspinatus
Supinated grip Pectoralis major
a
Biceps brachii
Perfect pull-up (3608rotating handles) Latissimus dorsi
Results are taken from Youdas et al. (21).
a
Not a pectoral exercise.
Table 2
Highest muscle activity during variations of lat pull-downs with different
hand orientations
Hand orientation Increased muscle activity No difference in muscle activity
Pronated grip Latissimus dorsi (12,19) Middle trapezius (12)
Supinated grip Biceps brachii (12)
Neutral Pectoralis major (19) Posterior deltoid (19)
Greatest muscle activity compared with other variations.
Strength and Conditioning Journal | www.nsca-scj.com 77
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Pull-ups and Lat Pull-downs
VOLUME 35 | NUMBER 1 | FEBRUARY 2013
78
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Based on electromyographic (EMG) studies, an anterior (in front of the face) wide grip with a pronated forearm has been recommended as the optimal lat pull-down (LPD) variation for strengthening the latissimus dorsi (LD) (Signorile, JF, Zink, A, and Szwed, S. J Strength Cond Res 16: 539-546, 2002; Wills, R, Signorile, J, Perry, A, Tremblay, L, and Kwiatkowski, K. Med Sci Sports Exerc 26: S20, 1994). However, it is not clear whether this finding was because of grip width or forearm orientation. This study aimed to resolve this issue by comparing wide-pronated, wide-supinated, narrow-pronated, and narrow-supinated grips of an anterior LPD. Twelve healthy men performed the 4 grip variations using an experimentally determined load of 70% of 1 repetition maximum. Two trials of 5 repetitions were analyzed for each grip type. Participants maintained a cadence of 2-second concentric and 2-second eccentric phases. The grip widths were normalized for each individual by using a wide grip that corresponded to their carrying width and a narrow grip that matched their biacromial diameter. Surface EMG of the LD, middle trapezius (MT), and biceps brachii (BB) was recorded, and the root mean square of the EMG was normalized, using a maximum isometric voluntary contraction. Repeated-measures analysis of variance for each muscle revealed that a pronated grip elicited greater LD activity than a supinated grip (p < 0.05), but had no influence of grip type on the MT and BB muscles. Based on these findings, an anterior LPD with pronated grip is recommended for maximally activating the LD, irrespective of the grip width (carrying width or biacromial diameter).
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