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What is the purpose why people do wide grip pull ups? I know that these pull-ups are harder, but I would like to know why. Are there different muscle groups being stressed? Or is a wide grip pull-up equivalent to a weighted "normal" pull-up? If the latter is the case, shouldn't one prefer weighted "normal" pull-ups because of the greater range of motion?

EDIT: To clarify my question: I'm talking about the pronated grip.

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I wrote a rather big post about pull-ups vs. chin-ups where I also discuss the issue of grip width. I did it based on a few scientific papers whose links you can find there.

Those papers study the grip width in percentage of your shoulder width. In other words, if your shoulder-to-shoulder distance is 40 cm, then 100% grip width corresponds to a 40 cm distance between your hands, 150% grip width is 60 cm, 200% grip width is 80 cm, etc. The conclusions are that grip width doesn't change that much how much the lats are involved, as long as you stay in the range 100% to 150%.

Other papers I've read indicate that going over 150% width can be a good way to force your lats to be more involved, but you will lose a lot of biomechanical advantage. In other words, your lats will do a larger percentage of the work, but the total work is smaller (fewer reps due to the worse biomechanical position of your arm muscles, also smaller distance that you travel vertically in each rep).

All things considered, you should look at shoulder-width pull-ups (100% width) and normal-width pull-ups (150%) as very similar. Do the one which you like the most. Use wide grips (200%) if you want to isolate your lats, but remember to do compounds (normal pull-ups) before isolations (wide pull-ups)

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Thanks for this. The pubmed-paper you mentioned in your post seems to address exactly my question. –  zero-divisor Dec 11 '12 at 14:51
    
First of all, +1 for not being scared of reading a paper! Yes, that paper is very close to your question, although (as I mention in my post) they look at the lat pull-down instead of the pull-up, since it is easier to control other experimental variables (electrode placement, etc). Unfortunately I only have access to the abstract, but it is enough to answer your question. –  HerrKaputt Dec 11 '12 at 15:54
    
I've read the entire paper now. As you already stated, the essence is that there is a significant difference (in EMG activation) between pronated and supinated grip, but no significant difference between wide grip and narrow grip (lat pull downs). –  zero-divisor Dec 12 '12 at 7:28
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Any time you change your body's orientation to an exercise the muscle is used differently. One of the easiest-to-see examples of this is your bicep. Bend your elbow so your palm is facing towards you and look at your bicep, then turn your hand away from you and you will see your bicep disengage and your brachialis engage.

Holding your hands at a wider grip forces you to use your lats more. Close grip pull-ups allow you to use more of your bicep to pull yourself up. Therefore the wide-grip pull-up seems hard because you only use your lats.

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"...only use your lats...", technically you are primarily using your lats. Other muscles are involved, just not as much. –  Berin Loritsch Dec 10 '12 at 12:43
    
Berin is correct. Just didn't want to make it too convoluted. –  Grohlier Dec 10 '12 at 12:44
    
But does the wide grip pull-up have the same range of motion for the lats than the normal one? And I would be happy if you could give a reason why the lats are used more and the biceps are used less just because of the wider grip (I mean both grips are pronated). –  zero-divisor Dec 10 '12 at 12:54
    
The range of motion is less, but the exercise is more intense for your lats. Think of wide-grip pull-ups as isolation pull-ups. People tend to cheat normal pull-ups, and while you still can cheat on wide-grip it is harder. –  Grohlier Dec 10 '12 at 12:58
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The range of motion is different. Wide grip has more range of motion for the lats, while normal pull ups have more range of motion for the shoulder and biceps. That's why the wide grips are initially harder. However, once you can do them, you'll be able to add weight quicker because the lats are larger muscles. –  Berin Loritsch Dec 10 '12 at 13:02
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