How to Do Pull-Ups — Muscles Worked, Variations, and Benefits

The definitive all you need to know guide for mastering the pull-up!

Back training is key for strength, power, and fitness athletes. Increased back strength and muscle hypertrophy can boost deadlifting, squatting, and overall strength performance.

In this pull-up exercise guide, we will cover:

  • Pull-Up Form and Technique
  • Benefits of the Pull-Up
  • Muscles Worked by the Pull-Up
  • Who Should Do Pull-Ups?
  • Pull-Ups Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
  • Pull-Up Variations and Alternatives
  • and more…

How to Do a Pull-Up

Below is a step-by-step guide on how to properly set up and shrug, specifically for the strict bodyweight pull-up.

1.
Get Your Grip

Start by assuming a pronated grip on a bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.

Be sure to freely hang at the bottom of the pull-up. You should be able to have your head in between your biceps with the elbows fully extended. Additionally, set your shoulder blades down the back by retracting and depressing them, as this will help secure the shoulder girdle from moving around during the pull-up.

2.
Set the Back, Then Pull

Once set, pull the chest and chin to the barbell by way of the back and bicep muscles.

Think about pulling the bar to your chest so that the elbows drive into your back pockets. You can also think about driving the elbows through the floor as you pull yourself upwards.

3.
Stabilize and Descend

Once you have arrived at the top of the bar, stabilize your body and then lower yourself to the start position under control.

Be sure to keep tension on the back and in between the shoulder blades throughout this moment, and always secure a stable core and shoulder girdle prior to proceeding into another repetition.

 

3 Benefits of Pull-Ups

Below are three (3) benefits of pull ups that coaches and athletes from most strength, power, and fitness sports can expect when implementing pull-ups into a training regimen.

1. Bigger, Wider Back

The pull-up is an effective exercise to increase back strength and muscle hypertrophy. Pull-ups can also improve the width of a lifter’s/athlete’s back muscles.

2. Stronger Squats, Bench Presses, and Deadlifts

The back muscles are responsible for securing a stronger, stable back positioning in squats (all forms) and deadlifts. Increasing back strength and muscle mass will enhance a lifter’s ability to resist flexion and/or rounding of the shoulders forwards in heavier lifts.

3. Improved Posture

Exercises that increase back strength, reinforce shoulder retraction and scapular stabilization, and increase a lifter’s overall ability to resist forward collapsing can promote better posture in lifts and non-lifts alike. The pull-up is an excellent exercise to strengthen back muscles and should be within most training programs, for all goals.

Muscles Worked – Pull-Ups

The pull-up is an upper body exercise that can be done to increase back strength, hypertrophy, and has application to many strength, power, and fitness movements. Below is a breakdown of the primary muscle groups involved in this exercise.

Latissimus Dorsi

The latissimus dorsi is one of the larger muscles on the upper body, and is targeted during pull-ups, rows, and other back exercises. The pull-up, specifically wider grip pull-ups, are an effective exercise for increasing back hypertrophy and strength.

Biceps

The bicep muscles are used to assist the back and forearms in the pull-up movement, specifically responsible for elbow flexion. Movements like the chin-up also work the biceps in a similar patterning.

Forearms and Grip Muscles

The forearms and grip muscles are used to secure the athlete/lifter to the pull-up bar. Limitations in strength can limit the overall pulling strength and performance in the pull-up, chin-up, and other pulling movements.

Who Should Do Pull-Ups?

Below are some reasons why strength, power, and fitness athletes can benefit from performing the pull-ups.

Strength and Power Athletes

Strength and power athletes rely heavily on the back for increased pulling, squatting, and overall athletic strength. Movements like the pull-up can be an effective bodyweight and weighted exercise to increase upper body strength and muscle growth. Enhancing muscle growth of the back, arms, and grip muscles can increase pulling strength, back tension in heavier lifts, and secure a stable positioning for pressing movements.

Functional Fitness Athletes

The pull-up is a movement that is often seen in functional fitness WODs, CrossFit workouts, and competitions. Variations like chest to bar pull-ups, kipping pull-ups, and strict pull-ups are all necessary exercises for sport skill and overall strength and muscle mass development.

General Fitness and Movement

The pull-up is a foundational bodyweight exercise that can develop upper body pulling strength, increase back and arm muscle hypertrophy, and be highly functional for fitness athletes and everyday lifters.

How to Program Pull-Ups

Below are three primary training goals and programming recommendations when programming the pull-up into workouts. Note, that these are general guidelines, and by no means should be used as the only way to program pull-ups.

General Strength– Reps and Sets

For general strength building sets, athletes can perform lower repetition ranges for more sets.

  • 4-6 sets of 3-6 repetitions, resting 2-3 minutes

Muscle Hypertrophy – Reps and Sets

For increased muscular size and hypertrophy, the below repetitions can be used to increase muscular loading volume.

  • 4-6 sets of 6-12 repetitions, resting 60-90 seconds between, with heavy to moderate loads

Muscle Endurance – Reps and Sets

Some lifters may want to train greater muscle endurance (for sport), in which higher repetition ranges and/or shorter rest periods are recommended. You can also hold for pauses and add time to the set (see pause pull-ups below).

  • 2-3 sets of 12+ repetitions or for more than 45-60 seconds under tension, resting 60-90 seconds between (this is highly sport specific)

Pull-Up Variations

Below are four (4) pull-up variations that can be used by coaches and athletes to keep training varied and progressive.

1. Weighted Pull-Up

The weighted pull-up can be done to increase strength and muscle hypertrophy for lifters who are able to perform higher repetitions of bodyweight pull-ups. Using weight during the pull-up can lead to increased pull-up performance, grip strength, and overall pulling capacities of the back and arm muscles.

2. Kipping Pull-Up

The kipping pull-up is often seen in CrossFit, gymnastics, or functional fitness workouts. This style of pull-up is ballistic in nature and utilizes momentum gained from a kipping motion to increase a lifters inertia to pull himself to the bar.

3. Chest to Bar Pull-Up

The chest to bar pull-up is a pull-up variation that can be done strict, with weight, or kipping. This variation is more challenging as it forces a lifter to pull himself higher into the pull-up, getting their chest to the bar rather than just the chin over the bar.

4. Pause Pull-Up

Pause pull-ups offer coaches and athletes a simple yet effective way to increase muscle hypertrophy, positional strength, and grip/muscular endurance. Pauses can occur at any point in the range of motion, and utilizes time under tension to promote muscle growth and adaptation.

Pull-Up Alternatives

Below are three (3) pull-up alternatives coaches and athletes can use to increase arm strength and muscle hypertrophy.

1. Lat Pulldowns

Lat pulldowns are a machine-based exercise that targets the same muscle groups used in the pull-up. Using the lat pulldown machine can help to isolate the latissimus dorsi muscles, overload the back with extra volume, and even help to increase strength in lifters who may lack enough strength to perform a full pull-up. Note, that this is not a replacement of pull-ups, but rather a good accessory exercise to increase back strength. If you cannot do a pull-up, it is suggested you work diligently to master the pull-up, starting with this 1-month beginner pull-up workout program.

2. Chin-Ups

The chin-up is another upper body pulling movement that targets the back and arms. Unlike the pull-up, the hands are supinated (underhand grip) on the bar, making this exercise much more bicep strength dependent that the back. While this is not a substitution for pull-ups (as they hit different main muscle groups), the chin-up can be used in addition to pull-ups to increase overall pulling strength and back/arm hypertrophy.

3. Inverted Body Row

The inverted row is a bodyweight exercise that is often used as a regression with lifters/athletes who cannot perform a pull-up. While these exercise both incorporate back, bicep, and grip training, the angles of the inverted row and the pull-up are different. Athletes should strive to build strength using inverted rows and assisted pull-ups, and then progress into full pull-ups.

Featured Image: Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

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