Pull-ups are most famous for their effect on the latissimus dorsi muscles (“lats“), but are equally important for the other muscles of the upper back – the rhomboids, teres major, serratus group and rotator cuff muscles; As well as the forearm and hand.
Pull-ups also work the pecs a bit if done with a diligent dead hang, and enough reps are used to tire the abs. Aesthetically, the right combination of pull-ups will make your upper back look like Michelangelo himself did it.
Because of this, pull-ups can help you develop strength, size, balance, and coordination as you master a variety of weighted and unweighted lifts.
What is the Pull up?
Pull-ups are a closed kinetic chain, universal multijoint upper-body strength exercise, meaning you need little or no equipment to do them, and you can do your workout almost anywhere. This is a closed-chain movement where your body is suspended by your hands, gripping a bar or others applied at a distance greater than shoulder-width apart, and pulled up. The pull-ups exercise works your latissimus dorsi (the largest upper back muscle), trapezius, thoracic erector spinae, infraspinatus, and also various other muscles in your torso.
Exercises like pull-ups aren’t just about increasing strength, they can also have a positive effect on the overall health! Studies have shown that resistance/strength training is medicine, significantly improves overall health, and is associated with better overall physical performance, running speed, movement control, and cognitive ability. 1
Getting stronger and fitter has been shown to help boost mood and mental health; It also helps improve symptoms of anxiety, depression, sleep and fatigue, and cognition (among other key benefits) in older adults. 2
Muscles involved during exercise
Exercise can improve an athlete’s shoulder girdle strength, stability, and ability to generate high force during pulling activities, such as (but not limited to) rope climbing, rock climbing, gymnastics, rowing, and swimming. 3 4 5
- Initial static stability in the starting position—the following muscles work statically: 6 7 8
- Middle trapezius
- Lower trapezius
- Pectoralis minor
- Pectoralis major
- Posterior deltoid
- Latissimus dorsi
- Teres major
- Biceps brachii
- Flexor carpi radialis
- Carpi ulnaris
- Palmaris longus
- Digitorum profundus
- Flexor digitorum
- Flexor pollicis longus
- External oblique
- Erector spinae
- Ascending position of pull-ups—all the muscles work during the initial static stability in the start position are work concentrically during this position. 9 10 11
- The descending position of pull-ups—all muscles work during initial static stability in the starting position and during the ascending position of pull-ups, work eccentrically during the descending position. 9 10 12
How to do pull-ups exercise?
Pull-ups require a lot of upper body strength, but don’t forget that your back needs to be strong enough to support your weight as well.
If you’re not ready to do full pull-ups, make sure you incorporate exercises like incline rows and reverse rows into your program. As you get stronger doing the moves, be sure to increase the resistance.
If you doubt that you are strong enough to do a full pull-up then to test your strength, try to do one repetition and see if you are able to. Make sure you have a trainer or friend with you to spot you and assess form.
Once you do pull-ups, follow the instructions for pull-ups with correct form.
- Begin by standing just below the pull-up bar. The pull-up bar should be high enough that you have to jump over it to grab it; Legs should be free.
- Jump up and grab the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away from your body) and hands slightly beyond shoulder-width apart.
- If you can’t reach the bar by standing on the floor, you can place a box under you and stand on it.
- Once your hands grab onto the bar, you are in the starting position. Fully extend the arms so that you are in a dead hang.
- Inhale, then exhale. Lift the feet off the floor or box, so you’re hanging from the bar, and engage the core by pulling the navel toward your spine. Pull the shoulders back and down.
- Engaging the muscles in your arms and back, bend your elbows and lift your upper body so that your chin is level with the bar. Pause at the top.
- You can imagine bringing your elbows in toward your hips if that makes the movement easier.
- Avoid swinging the legs around or shrugging the shoulders as you move. Make sure that your shoulder blades stay back and down throughout the exercise.
- At the top of the movement, inhale. Then spread the elbows and lower the body backwards until your elbows are straight.
- Repeat the movement without touching the floor.
- Complete the number of repetitions required for your exercise.
Whether someone is just learning pull-ups or getting a little more confident in their skills, there are some common issues that many lifters run into with pull-ups. To avoid these mistakes, know these mistakes ahead of time.
- If you look at the bar during the movement, you’ll actually move your body further away from the bar, making the movement more difficult.
- Aim to maintain a neutral neck position throughout the movement, looking directly in front of you rather than looking at the bar.
- In starting pulls, a lack of lat engagement can affect your form and ability to complete the pull-up motion. Before starting bridge, think about setting the lats down and back. This allows for better lat recruitment and less biceps pulling.
- When in the middle of a pull-up, it can be easy to focus on pulling your body upward – and forget to maintain full-body tension. This may make you less able to complete the movement. Focus on generating and maintaining full body tension during your pull-ups.
- Engage the core and imagine tension spreading from glutes to toes. This will not only help you complete the reps, but will also make you stronger.
- The lack of power and elbow drive at the top of your bridge can cause your shoulders to sag as your chin moves up and over the bar. When you shrug your shoulders, you’re recruiting more of your traps and less recruiting your lats.
- Instead, imagine squeezing the elbows together and maintaining a long neck position.
Learning pull-up exercises is a challenge, no matter what your fitness goal. It is one of the fundamental building block exercises in the gym, beneficial to cross-fitters, bodybuilders and general fitness enthusiasts alike.
This is a move that focuses on the part of your body you want to train. Strong back muscles help protect your shoulders from injury, and they help you get the most out of other exercises (like overhead press, push press, bench presses, deadlifts, squats, close-grip press, biceps curls, etc.)
There are three main styles of pull-ups you’ll see done at the gym. The real dead-hang is the pull-up, where you lower your torso until your arms are fully hanging, then pull yourself up as high as you can.
Bodybuilders often favor constant-tension pull-ups, where you almost lower yourself down but not all the way, then immediately start your next rep. Finally, there’s the kipping pull-up, loved by cross-fitters, where you rock your hips back and forth to generate momentum and help your chest move up to the bar.
- Westcott WL. Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2012 Jul-Aug;11(4):209-16. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0b013e31825dabb8. PMID: 22777332.
- Kraemer WJ, Ratamess NA, French DN. Resistance training for health and performance. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2002 Jun;1(3):165-71. doi: 10.1249/00149619-200206000-00007. PMID: 12831709.
- Ronai, Peter MS, RCEP, CSCSD, NSCA-CPTD; Scibek, Eric MS, ATC, CSCS. The Pull-up. Strength and Conditioning Journal 36(3):p 88-90, June 2014. DOI: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000052.
- Todd S. Ellenbecker, George J. Davies. “Closed Kinetic Chain Exercise. A Comprehensive Guide to Multiple-Joint Exercises,” Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2001.1–5: 28–30. doi:10.1016/S0899-3467(07)60039-1.
- Harman EA, Gutekunst DJ, Frykman PN, Nindl BC, Alemany JA, Mello RP, Sharp MA. Effects of two different eight-week training programs on military physical performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Mar;22(2):524-34. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31816347b6. PMID: 18550970.
- Antinori F, Felici F, Figura F, Marchetti M, Ricci B. “Joint moments and work in pull-ups.” J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 1988 Jun;28(2):132-7. PMID: 3184911.
- Johnson D, Lynch J, Nash K, Cygan J, Mayhew JL. Relationship of lat-pull repetitions and pull-ups to maximal lat-pull and pull-up strength in men and women. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 May;23(3):1022-8. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181a2d7f5. PMID: 19387371.
- Floyd, R.T.. (2014). Manual of Structural Kinesiology, 19th Ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2012. pp. 208–209, 217.
- Ricci B, Figura F, Felici F, Marchetti M. “Comparison of male and female functional capacity in pull-ups.” J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 1988 Jun;28(2):168-75. PMID: 3184917.
- Signorile JF, Zink AJ, Szwed SP. “A comparative electromyographical investigation of muscle utilization patterns using various hand positions during the lat pull-down.” J Strength Cond Res. 2002 Nov;16(4):539-46. PMID: 12423182.
- Youdas JW, Amundson CL, Cicero KS, Hahn JJ, Harezlak DT, Hollman JH. Surface electromyographic activation patterns and elbow joint motion during a pull-up, chin-up, or perfect-pullup™ rotational exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Dec;24(12):3404-14. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181f1598c. PMID: 21068680.
- Youdas JW, Amundson CL, Cicero KS, Hahn JJ, Harezlak DT, Hollman JH. “Surface electromyographic activation patterns and elbow joint motion during a pull-up, chin-up, or perfect-pullup™ rotational exercise.” J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Dec;24(12):3404-14. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181f1598c. PMID: 21068680.