Mini-Study: Muscle-Ups, Rope Climbs, Peg Boards…Which is Harder?


By Adam Scott, MS, CSCS

After teaching a few of our Advanced Programming Courses over the past few months I know better than to enter into a debate for one type of pull-up over another.   

So, in no way is this an argument for or against any exercise.  This mini-study is simply a quantified look at common upper-body pulling movements.  The reader can decide for him/herself which best fits their training goals…



Armed with the *Athos **EMG (Electromyography) clothing we decided to test the muscle activation and heart rate (HR) response during seven common pull-up-type exercises.             

Each exercise was tested for muscle stimulation in the lats, biceps, pecs, traps, triceps, and delts.  Since we weren’t concerned with bi-lateral differences, left- and right-side measures were averaged to create a single score for each muscle group.

The testing protocol consisted of five rounds, each round contained all seven exercises:    

5 Rounds, 60-90 seconds rest between exercises

  1.   5x Pull-Ups
  2.   5x Chin-Ups
  3.   5x Kipping Pull-Ups
  4.   3x Bar Muscle-Ups
  5.   5x Tarzan Pull-Ups (Mixed Grip)
  6.   20ft Legless Rope Climb
  7.   Peg Board Ascent (10x Holes)
Muscle Activation during Peg Board Exercise (at 7sec), measured with Athos EMG Clothing
We took the average scores and HRs from each exercise and compared them.

Here is what we found…



HR Data:
Not surprisingly there was very little difference in HRs between the exercises.  After all, these were short sets with ample recovery time.  Each training set lasted between 11 and 19 seconds.  With the kipping pull-ups being the shortest (average = 12.5 sec) and the rope climb being the longest (average = 17.0 sec).  TABLE 1 contains the average HR and standard deviation for each exercise.


TABLE 1: HR Data For Each Exercise
Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 8.32.11 AM

As you can see that Peg Board climb actually produced the highest average HR, followed by Muscle-Ups (3 reps).  The lower HRs were found, not surprisingly, in the Pull-Ups, Chin-Ups and Tarzan Pull-Ups. 
SEMG Muscle Activation:
Based on our sEMG data, we found that the Peg Board ascent just barely edged-out Muscle-Ups for the most muscle activation (341.2 to 339.8 **Athos PME Score).  Interestingly, although the total muscle activations were similar for the two exercises, the individual muscles they used were very different. 


TABLE 2 and GRAPH 1 contain the average muscle activation scores for each exercise.  As you can see in the table, the Peg Board ascent was heavily dominated by the lats, biceps, and pecs.  While Muscle-Ups required far more traps, triceps, and delts (more on this below).

GRAPH 1: Muscle Activation
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TABLE 2: Muscle Activation
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This is probably a good place to mention the impact of technique and technical proficiency since they likely have a large impact on muscle activation.  This case study was completed by a single athlete, so the results are probably not completely representative of other athletes.Our athlete, while able to complete each exercise fairly easily, was not as practiced in more technical skills (like Kipping and Muscle-Ups).  This is likely what created the large standard deviation (SD) in these movements (seen in TABLE 2).  It is also very possible that more technical proficiency could have decreased upper-body muscle activation by transferring some of the load to the hips and legs.Ok, moving on to the individual muscle groups…GRAPHS 2-8 contain the individual muscle activation for each exercise.  The graphs pretty much speak for themselves, but I will point out a few things.– First, as far as the traditional “pulling” muscles are concerned (lats, biceps, etc.) the Peg Board and Rope Climb were the big winners.- Second, surprisingly, we did see quite a bit of activation in the “pushing” muscles (pecs and triceps) – especially above the bar during Muscle-Up, and helping to stabilize during the Rope Climb and Peg Board.- Lastly, we were a little surprised to see the relatively low amount of shoulder muscle (delt) activation across six of the seven exercises (Muscle-Ups being the exception).


GRAPH 2: Muscle Group: Lats
Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 8.37.30 AM


GRAPH 3: Muscle Group: Biceps
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GRAPH 4: Muscle Group:  Pecs
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GRAPH 5: Muscle Group:  Traps
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GRAPH 6: Muscle Group: Tricep
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GRAPH 7: Muscle Group: Deltoids
Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 8.43.40 AM



Just for fun, we attempted to calculate the difficulty of each exercise.  Based on our data we can offer the following estimations for overall difficulty.  These rough estimations are the result of a predictive equation derived from the athletes’ muscle activation (weighted for increased effect), their HR and a magnitude constant (based on the weighted ordinal ranking of the exercises).


TABLE 3: Pull-Up Conversions For Each Exercise***
Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 8.46.21 AM




*Note 1:  Athos clothing uses Surface Electromyography (sEMG) via embedded electrodes to detect electrical activity generated by the muscles.

**Note 2:  Athos clothing reports muscle activity in “percent muscle effort [PME] on a scale of 0 to 100% where 100% is [the] highest potential.”  According to the company, a muscle effort score is based on the sEMG upper signal bound (the highest signal or output an individual’s muscle can produce).

***Note 3:  Estimated Equation is:
[(((Exercise PME)-(Pull-Up PME))/Pull-Up PME)*2+((Exercise HR)-(Pull-Up HR))/(Pull-Up HR))]*[(Ordinal Rank^1.1)*(Pull-Up Reps/Exercise Reps)]


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