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Ring Pull ups vs Bar Pull ups: Which is the Better Exercise?

Ring Pull ups vs Bar Pull ups: Which is the Better Exercise?

What is the more effective exercise, the ring pull up or the bar pull up and what are the benefits?

The ring pull up and the bar pull up one the face of it seem to be very similar exercises and target the same muscles ( primarily the biceps, lats and core muscles) but there are some key differences when it comes to:

  • Injury prevention

  • Strength and muscle building

  • Stability

  • Joint health

  • Technique

  • Functional fitness

The biggest and most obvious difference between the two is Stability...

 Rings vs bar pull ups: Stability

The bar provides a stable point at which to hold on to, whereas the rings are entirely different. The unique nature of the rings mean that they are not fixed in place like the bar and free to move in all directions. 

It is up to you to actively control the rings which requires a level of coordination and increased activation of the core muscles and shoulders. Both the bar and the rings require grip strength for you to hold onto them unassisted but with rings it is impossible to passively hang as the unstable rings require the body to balance and remain stable.

Benefits of ring pull ups:

The instability of the rings may sound like a disadvantage but the opposite is true. There are many benefits of training with unstable rings.

The first one is joint health. With a regular bar pull up your hands remain static in either a pronated grip (pull up) or suprinated grip (chin up). However with rings the angle of grip changes throughout the duration of the movement. If you grab a pair of rings and hang there, your body will natural find the the position with which it is most comfortable.

Typically this is a neutral grip that looks similar to a pronated grip but with the palms facing slightly more towards the body. The awesome thing about rings is that they move freely and independently from one another, therefore the body can naturally dictate the optimal angle form which to hang from and perform the pull up.

This is in contrast to the bar pull up where the hands are fixed in place. You have to adopt either a pull up grip or a chin up grip, without a compromise or movement. This can put a strain on joints and connective tissue such as tendons, ligaments and cartilage.

Wrist pain is a common injury or inconvenience to athletes and anyone who works out. Rings are much kinder on the wrists as the can move and rotate in the direction that feels most comfortable, rather then remaining static on a bar and moving at an angle that can exacerbate pain. 

Whilst the most natural position to hang from the rings is a more neutral grip, the angle of the rings and therefore the hands typically rotates throughout the movement. 

The grip turns from a neutral angle, with a bias towards a pronated angle of grip to a suprinated or chin up grip at the top of the movement. This means the rings have rotated about 130° through the course of the movement. 

This is not because of a specific tension applied or a deliberate turning of the rings but its simply the body following its desired and most comfortable movement pathway. 

This means the joints going up the arm, i.e. the elbows and the shoulders, can move into a position where they naturally want to move during the course of the movement. 

On the bar the range of motion and the freedom of movement is restricted. Your arms and joints generally have to follow a predetermined movement pattern already set by the bar. One that is not necessarily favourable to your joints. 

If you experienced any joint pain or discomfort I would recommend doing pull ups on rings rather then bars for this reason alone. 

Choosing the right gymnastic rings is important as the can differ in grip, diameter, length of the straps and durability. With cheap ones the wood can split and the buckles can give out. Check out my guide on the safest and best gymnastic rings from amazon that I have used for years.

The difference of time under tension between bar pull ups and ring pull ups

If someone were to complete 10 strict form pull ups, with excessive momentum or kipping on both the bar and the rings, the time it takes to perform the ring pull ups would be longer. This is for a few reasons:

  1. Because of the instability of the rings the shoulders and core in particular have to stabilise the body throughout the movement, this means more muscle activation per rep, more muscle activation means that more muscle groups are used in the movement and therefore it becomes a more effective compound exercise.

  2. The free movement of the rings means that you have to be far more controlled throughout the movement in order to have strict form. If you pull up and drop down too quickly then inevitably this will lead swinging and an uncoordinated movement. The rings rely on your ability to balance and coordinate more then the bar, therefore with the fixed stable bar your form isn't held to account in the same way as it is on rings. Your balance and stabilising muscles aren't being tested in the same way on the bars which makes it a less difficult exercise and more achievable to execute with strict form.

  3. The ring pull up is simply more taxing then the bar version. More muscle groups are used in order to remain stable and more effort is required to maintain balance. If you are not used to ring pull ups, the muscles around the shoulder joint aren't challenged in the same way as on the bar. When first attempting rings the instability factor makes you shake throughout the movements as you fight for control. This is simply the shoulder muscles being overloaded by the new stimulus and it can take some time before your body adapts to it by strengthening the muscles around the shoulder joint leading to greater stability and control.

Benefits of ring pull ups: Injury prevention in the shoulders

Another profound benefit of gymnastic ring pull ups is injury prevention. This benefit can only be attained after you become more accustomed to the instability of the rings. 

The benefit is strong shoulders that are less susceptible to injury. This is again the result of adapting to the free movement of the rings. As described before the supporting muscles around the shoulder joint become stronger which means your shoulders become more stable in gerneral.

Stability is good for the shoulder as it is a ball and socket joint that can rotate 360° as well as laterally out to the side. This dynamic joint is often susceptible to injury in both athletic competition or from lifting too weight that is too heavy and overloads the joints, muscles or connective tissue. 

Often shoulders are trained with a very specific plane of motion at a very specific angle with traditional lifts such as over head barbell press. This conditions the shoulder to become strong when pushing at one particular angle.

As the ball and socket joint of the shoulder can rotate and move in many directions this is a very limiting approach to shoulder training.

When training the shoulder out of the position is accustomed to it can be comparatively unstable and weak and this strength imbalance can often lead to injury. 

Ring training, including ring pull ups is a great way to strengthen the muscles responsible for stability and conditioning the connective tissue for bullet proof injury free shoulders.

Prevention is better the cure so if you currently do not have any shoulder discomfort but you do have a heavy training schedule or compete in sports then ring training can be a real asset in keeping your body fit, strong and healthy.

Strength and muscle building

In terms of strength and muscle building both variations of pull ups have a lot to offer. Both the bar and the rings require a strong grip which after a while burns your forearms, increasing their definition and endurance strength.

Both also hit the latissimus dorsi (lats) and biceps as the primary movers for both strength and mass building, depending on your rep range and desired goals.

An advantage of the straight bar is that it is easier to switch the emphasis on which muscle is the primary mover, i.e. which muscle is working harder. If you adopt the suprinated (chin up) grip and do chin ups with your hands close together then this will put the emphasis on the biceps.

Narrow grip chin ups are the most effective calisthenics technique for hitting the biceps and can be used to gain size and strength. 

However if you place you hands further apart and adopt the pronated grip (pull up) then the work load shifts more onto the lats. As this is a big compound movement that makes use of many different muscle groups, breaking down muscle fibres and stimulating growth and strength gains. 

The bar is useful in this regard as it can specifically target either the lats or the biceps depending on grip width or hand placement, easier then you can on the rings. The main benefit of this is you can build mass or strength in these specific areas accentuating the workload on these muscles. 

The rings however recruit more muscle groups during the pull up. Whilst lats and biceps remain the primary movers the core and shoulders are increasingly activated.

The abs help keep the body taught and under control during the inherently unstable movement. Of course as previously mentioned the shoulders also play a role when stabilising on the gymnastic rings and therefore also gain strength.

More muscle groups put under tension means more potential for strength and muscle increase.

Adding weight to either bar or rings pull ups

Adding weight with either a weight belt or a weighted vest to the rings or bar pull ups is a great way to increase the resistance. Some people are cautious about adding weight to the rings because of the instability factor. 

This is a valid concern when it comes to dips or any support hold where your body weight is above that of the rings, i.e. your centre of gravity is higher them the rings. This instability factor becomes far more pronounced and is usually enough of a stimulus on its own without the need to add weight for most athletes. 

However when your body weight is below that of rings then the instability less of a dominate factor and it is safe to add weight on either rings or bars. The best approach for adding weight is always to proceed with caution.

Bear in mind that you are already lifting your body weight which is a considerable lift in itself. Start by adding weight in increments of 5 KG (11 lbs) and get accustomed to that weight till you increase.

It takes time for both the muscles, tendons and ligaments to adapt to the extra tension. Any significant jump in weight can risk injury unnecessarily. 

Once you have adapted to adding weight it can become a great way to progress your pulling strength and gain muscle mass, particularly on your lats and biceps.

Conclusion: Which is more difficult?

The long and short of it is that ring pull ups are generally more difficult then bar pull ups. However you are rewarded for the increase in difficulty. The stand out benefit of ring pull ups is the injury prevention. 

The free movement and rotation of the rings adjusts how your body wants to move. The joints follow a more natural pathway making it far kinder on your wrists elbows and shoulders.

The shoulders adaption to the instability makes for more solid and strong shoulder joint. The considerable crossover benefits of this are not to be underestimated as more stable shoulders can improve athletic performance and will help you become stronger in other lifts.

In terms of strength and muscle mass gains there is not necessarily a huge difference between the two variations of the pull up. However the ring pull up does have more of an emphasis on shoulder strength and core activation thus making it a more difficult exercise

Which equipment you work with depends more on your goals and what you are looking to achieve from your workout.

As long as you follow the progressive overload principle and exercise within the optimal rep range for muscle and strength gains then either approach works well.

I would recommending occasionally cross training to some extent in both styles to reap the benefits of both exercises and remain injury free.


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