Pull Ups – Thumb Over or Under? (The Grip Lowdown)

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It’s the timeless debate about pull ups – thumb over or under?

Who’d have thought that the position of your thumb when performing pull ups would create so many opposing views?

Surely there are more pressing matters to discuss when it comes to pull up?

With that being said, thumb position does seem to have people divided.

So, I wanted to provide you with my opinion, plus a breakdown of the differences when you have your thumb over or under.

Pull Ups – Thumb Over or Under?

It depends on what you’re specifically training for. Pull ups with your thumb over the bar transfers better into real-life situations, such as climbing over fences or walls, rock and mountain climbing. However, pull ups with your thumb under the bar will help you to increase volume and perform more pull ups over time.

My Preference For Thumb Position For Pull Ups

A Baby Holding Onto a Bar While Two Women Hold Him in Place

I have always performed my pull ups with my thumb under the bar.

This probably goes against the grain, as I would guess that a higher percentage of people have their thumb over the bar.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why some people have a preference for the thumb over the bar, but it’s just not for me.

I’m not training for anything specific, I am merely trying to get stronger and better at performing pull ups.

So, I believe that having my thumb wrapped around the bar allows me to achieve this.

That being said, I also believe that the more variety you have when doing pull ups, the more muscles you will work.

Therefore, every once in a while I will use the “gorilla grip” and have my thumb over the bar.

But, in truth, it never feels quite right to me, and somewhat uncomfortable.

However, this is probably due to the fact that I’m just not as used to it.

I also think there are a number of advantages to performing thumb under pull ups if your aim is to get better at doing pull ups.

I’ll get to these in a moment, but first let’s look at why some people prefer “thumb over”.

Pull Ups With Thumb Over

I guess the main reason to perform pull ups with your thumb over is that it transfers to real-life scenarios a lot better.

If you’re someone, who for whatever reason, does a lot of climbing in your everyday life then the thumb over technique will be much better.

If you’re having to climb over fences or walls (don’t ask me why!) then you won’t have the luxury of wrapping your thumb around a bar.

Dave Goggins Doing Pull Ups

The same can be said if rock climbing or mountain climbing is your thing.

Although, these are far more advanced activities than merely doing pull ups.

So, if you’re training for “real-life” situations then I would recommend doing thumb over pull ups.

Other Reasons to do Thumb Over Pull Ups

Even if you’re not specifically training for climbing activities there are a few advantages for using thumb over pull ups.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, a thumbless (or thumb over) grip will teach you to pull from your lats more than your biceps.

The pull up is predominantly a lat exercise, but many people fail to utilize this, as they use their arms much more.

So, if you’re not feeling pull ups in your lats, or you tend to use your arms more, then switching to a thumb over grip will certainly benefit you.

In truth, many people only ever use pull ups to exercise their upper backs.

I’ve even read of old-school bodybuilders who did no upper back exercise other than pull ups, and still had the most amazing set of lats.

So, if you’re lacking in lat development then give the thumbless variety a go.

Secondly, the thumb over grip will engage the forearms slightly more.

Many of us would love to get some more “free” forearm training into our workouts.

I mean there’s only so many hammer curls, reverse curls, and barbell twists and rolls that you can perform.

It feels great to get some secondary forearm work in, whether that is from deadlifts or pull ups.

Finally, if you’re performing pull ups on thicker bars, or you’re using thick grips, you may find it more difficult to wrap your thumb around the bar.

So, in these circumstances it makes more sense to use a thumb over bar grip.

And just to go one step further, discover what I have to say about how far apart your hands should be for pull ups.

Thumbless Grip Pull Ups

Pull Ups With Thumb Under

Obviously, being a fan of the thumb under grip, I can think of countless reasons why you should be doing the same.

However, I’ve decided to condense these into the most important.

So, here’s a couple of the advantages of thumb under pull ups as I see them.

Better Grip

Your grip is the weakest link when it comes to pull ups.

And your grip will always fail before shoulder or lat fatigue kicks in.

So, it makes sense that you should have as strong a grip as possible when doing pull ups.

By having your thumb under you have more hand surface area on the bar.

This in turn leads to a better grip.

Just going back to what I said about using your lats more with a thumb over grip, there is a case to be made for the thumb under too.

For me, I like to literally “crush” the bar with my grip, while having my thumb wrapped around the bar.

I feel this leads to a better mind-muscle connection, thus allowing me to really focus on my lats during pull ups.

Finally, a better grip translates to more time on the bar.

This means that you can perform more reps, whether you’re using additional weight or not.

Oh and by the way, I have previously spoken about when to add weight to pull ups.

So, the added volume from having a better grip means better gains in size and strength.

Injury Prevention

Pull ups are synonymous with potential elbow or shoulder injuries.

However, I believe that a thumb under grip can take the stress off the joints in a few ways.

When you grip the bar tightly with your thumb under this allows for better wrist stability.

Better wrist stability will typically lead to reduced elbow pain.

If your wrists aren’t stable during pull ups, either from swinging or not pulling in a straight line, the elbows are placed under far more stress.

I’m not saying an injury will definitely occur, but there is more likelihood of reduced wrist stability with a thumb over grip.

Additionally, a thumb under grip allows the knuckles to be further over the top of the bar.

This is even more important in terms of the pinky (little) finger knuckle.

The “over the top” knuckle position allows the shoulders to remain externally rotated.

So, the shoulders are both engaged and stabilized during the pull up.

Furthermore, this ensures that your elbows are less likely to flare out to the side, thus engaging the lats more.

Another “injury worry” that I have often seen mainly in Crossfit forums is falling off the bar.

Okay, I’m not a fan of using body English when performing pull ups, or not doing them with strict form.

But, I know there are many varieties of pull ups.

In Crossfit circles the kipping pull up seems to rule.

So, this violent-type movement when performing pull ups means that you need a more stable and firmer grip on the bar.

Finally, it is said that a thumb over grip can lead to blisters.

I’m sure many of you (much like me) have calluses on your hands from lifting.

However, because of how your hand is placed on the bar with a thumb over grip, you place far more stress on this area of the hand.

This can lead to blisters, and I’ve even heard of people ripping blisters open when performing pull ups.


I must admit whenever I perform thumb over that I do feel far more pressure on the calloused-areas of my hands.

So, avoid additional pain and potential ripping blisters by having a thumb under grip.

How to Grip a Pull Up Bar

The Pull Up Solution – What John Sifferman Says

The Pull Up Solution is a program I have used and followed.

The Pull Up Solution

However, it’s time to hold my hands up and admit that I didn’t follow every protocol strictly.

The creator, John Sifferman, advocates thumb over pull ups.

In fact, John states that your thumb should grip the same side of the bar as the rest of your fingers ALL of the time.

Sorry John, I did try, but I reverted back to my normal thumb under grip.

That being said, I did follow through on John’s program.

I learned a lot.

I definitely got better at pull ups, and I feel a lot stronger.

So, thank you for that John.

But I just didn’t use the thumb over grip for the entire time.

The Pull Up Solution is a 3-month workout program aimed at both beginner and advanced trainees.

Whether you want to perform your first ever pull up, or 10, 20, or 30 reps in a row, John’s got you covered.

You can learn more about the program by reading my review of The Pull Up Solution.

2 thoughts on “Pull Ups – Thumb Over or Under? (The Grip Lowdown)”

  1. I do both depending depending on what I am doing.

    When doing the annual fitness testing, I do thumb under because I can do a few more that way and the testing protocols do not specify. Also, hand width is not specified in the testing protocols so I move my hands closer together and squeeze out a couple more.
    When I am doing my daily workouts, I do thumb over (most of the time). They are harder for me, so I do the harder variants like thumb over and hands farther apart. I want to get fitter, not just meet some arbitrary number quota.

    • Hey Dave,

      Thanks for the insight, and that actually makes a lot of sense.

      Funnily enough, since first writing this article I’ve actually switched to thumb OVER.

      Admittedly, it did feel a little weird to start off with, but I got used to it within a week or so.

      Now, I perform all my pull ups all the time with a thumb over grip, and it’s now become my favoured method.

      I will say that I did feel the difference in lat axctivation when I first started, although not so much now (but, I guess this is simply because my lats are now more used to being properly activated during pull ups).



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