Nail the Pull-Up for Back Muscle, Strength, and Full-Body Control

Here's everything you need to know about pull-ups.

The pull-up is a foundational upper body exercise that carries many benefits — namely more back and arm muscle, pulling strength, and full-body control. It’s also straightforward to do. Whether you belong to a big box gym or have your own home gym, you just need a pull-up bar. From there, you pull yourself up until the chin passes the bar. Easy, right? Well, not so fast.

Though the exercise is simple in execution, it takes a lot of practice to nail your first pull-up. Below, we’ll go over how to do your first pull-up, in addition to the move’s benefits, variations, alternatives, and programming recommendations. 

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new fitness, nutritional, and/or supplement routine. None of these supplements are meant to treat or cure any disease. If you feel you may be deficient in a particular nutrient or nutrients, please seek out a medical professional.

Pull-Up Video Guide

Check out BarBend‘s video tutorial on how to master the pull-up. 

How To Do The Pull-Up

While there are many ways to perform pull-ups (see variations and alternatives below), the following is a step-by-step guide for performing a strict bodyweight pull-up.

Step 1 — Establish Your Grip

Pull-Up Step 1

Start by assuming a pronated grip (palms facing away from you) on a bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Be sure to hang at the bottom of the pull-up freely. You should be able to have your head in between your biceps with the elbows fully extended. 

Form Tip: Brace your core so that your entire body is set for the pull.

Step 2 — Set The Back

Pull-Up Step 2

Once you’ve set your grip, retract the scapula slightly to create a firm foundation to begin your pull-up. This retraction will be very subtle and will “open” the chest slightly when done correctly. 

Form Tip: As you’re warming up — or if this is the sticking point in your pull-up — spend some time here doing scapular pulls (where your shoulder blades begin the pulling motion, but you stop and go back down before even bending your elbows).

Step 3 — Drive the Elbows to the Floor

Pull-Up Step 3

Once set, 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. Keep pulling until your chin is over the bar.

Form Tip: Avoid yanking with your arms, focusing on using your lats to drive the movement.

Step 4 — Stabilize and Descend

Pull-Up Step 4

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

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

Benefits of the Pull-Up

The pull-up comes packed with many benefits, and when they’re performed regularly, these benefits only increase. Below are a few of the most notable pull-up benefits. 

A Bigger, Stronger 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, as they’re an easy movement to provide progressive overload with.

Carryover to Other Lifts

The back muscles trained by pull-ups can play a large role in carryover to improvements across other lifts. For example, building stronger lats and traps using pull-ups can have indirect carryover to squats and deadlifts, as these muscles are crucial for their success.

Increased Full-Body Coordination

To complete a proper pull-up, your entire body will have to work together — literally from your fingers to your toes. You’re not simply pulling with your arms and calling it a day. Instead, you’re keeping your core braced and your lower body stable so that you’re not wiggling around while you’re executing the lift.

Better Grip Strength

Your hands and forearms are what connect your body to the pull-up bar, and so you’ll need and build a strong grip. Being able to hold and stabilize your entire body weight through multiple sets of work will get your hands and forearms accustomed to handling intense loads — without giving your body all the additional strain that, say, heavy deadlifts would give you.

Muscles Worked By The Pull-Up

The reason pull-ups are often a staple in upper body workouts is due to their ability to target multiple muscles at once. Here’s a breakdown of the muscles worked by the pull-up.

Man performing a pull-up outside
Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Latissimus Dorsi

This one might seem a little obvious, but your lats are the major mover with the pull-up — hence the reason the lift is often thought of as a huge contributor to a V-shaped musculature. Keep the lats in mind with each rep because it’s tempting to just yank with the biceps instead of using the discipline you need to raise and lower yourself with your lats.

Biceps Brachii

Even though you shouldn’t be primarily pulling through your biceps, they’ll get torched by a solid pull-up session. If you’re looking to really put your biceps to work, switch your grip to a chin-up.

Infraspinatus

Part of your shoulder cuff, the infraspinatus helps stabilize the shoulder joint and help you elevate and depress your shoulders, which is definitely a huge part of the pull-up.

Lower Trapezius

Your lower traps help you pull your shoulders back and down. Stronger traps translate into stronger lifts and less frequent injuries, so this isn’t a muscle area to be discounted.

Erector Spinae

The erector spinae consists of a group of muscles and tendons running on your back from the base of your skull down to your hips. During a pull-up, these are what will help you maintain proper body positioning and posture.

External Oblique

Throughout the entire pull-up, you’ll be steadying yourself against core rotation — enter your external obliques, which help keep your body stable and from twisting or collapsing.

Who Should Do The Pull-Up

The short answer? Everyone who has access to overhead bodyweight movement and wants to create some serious upper body strength. There are also sports-specific and day-to-day reasons you might want to start thinking about integrating pull-ups into your routine if they’re not already there.

Strength And Power Athletes

All strength and power athletes are typically interested in similar things: building serious upper body strength, increasing midline stability, improving grip strength, and enhancing overhead stability.

  • Powerlifters: While powerlifters don’t compete with overhead lifts, more powerful lats translate into a more stable shelf for the back squat, more off-the-floor strength for the deadlift, and a stronger push off the chest for the bench press.
  • Weightlifters: Overhead strength and stability are immensely important to weightlifters, which is exactly what pull-ups will give you.
  • Bodybuilders: In addition to increasing overall strength, pull-ups can create that oft-desired V-shaped taper by targeting a lifter’s lats.

Functional Fitness Athletes

CrossFitters often incorporate various versions of pull-ups (usually involving kipping) into WODs. That said, even if CrossFit isn’t your thing, there’s almost no move that’s more functional than being able to pull and manipulate your own bodyweight.

General Population

Even if you need to modify a pull-up to start, it can feel pretty empowering to hold your entire body weight from a bar. That sense of accomplishment — and the serious physical gains it will come with — can be a serious source of inspiration for sporadic gym-goers and seasoned athletes alike.

Pull-Up Sets, Reps, And Program Recommendations

Figuring out how to program your pull-ups to integrate into the rest of your training depends on your goals, how much experience you have with pull-ups, and your overall fitness level. Make sure you’re adjusting these recommendations as desired to suit your needs. For example, if the recommendations call for a set of 11 pull-ups and you’re not quite at that level yet, try 11 banded pull-ups instead.

[Related: What Are Workout Splits and Which One is the Best One]

How to Fit Pull-Ups Into Your Training Program

In general, you need to work with what you’ve got. If you’re slowly building up to being able to do your first pull-up, you’ll want to work in extra sets of dead hangs, bent over rows, and inverted rows into the days you’re working your back.

If you’re just getting the hang of pull-ups (pun definitely intended), continue the supplemental accessory work above as required by your program. Also, make sure you’re programming pull-ups at least twice a week into your pull days. You’ll want to do them when you’re fully warmed up, but don’t save them until the end of your session. If your goal is about pull-ups right now, for example, program them before deadlifting. But if your goal is improving your deadlift, program your pull-ups soon after your deadlifts (before other big back moves, but after a solid active rest period to recover).

When pull-ups are a normal part of your repertoire, you can work them into your program in a broader range of ways. If you’re super comfortable with them, you can add them to the end of your dynamic warm-up or superset them with other moves. You can make them the centerpiece of your pull and/or back days, or you can include more casual sets a handful of times per week. Really, it’s about figuring out what your body (and mind!) can handle without either plateauing or inhibiting your day-to-day recovery.

How Many Sets And Reps Of Pull-Ups Should You Do?

How many sets and reps of pull-ups you should do also depends on your experience level. If you can’t do a full pull-up yet, work in three or four sets of dead hangs to near failure; bent over rows in hypertrophy range, three or four sets to eight to 12 reps; and three or four sets of inverted rows to near failure. Once you’re comfortable with dead hangs, try adding eccentric pull-ups to your repertoire, too. Add these to your program once or twice a week when your body is first getting used to the movements.

If you can do some pull-ups already, calculate your reps and sets based on how many pull-ups you can comfortably do in one go. In other words, if you can knock out a set of 10 pull-ups without a problem, start programming in three or four sets of 12-15 reps. On the other hand, if you’re struggling and fighting for that 10th rep, program three or four sets of five or so reps instead. Work your way up just like you would with any other lift. The same holds for pull-up variations — base what you program on what you can do now, and be patient with yourself.

Pull-Up Variations

After you’ve conquered the strict pull-up, you can begin to add variations based on your training goal. Like every exercise, use the pull-up variations below to increase specific adaptations instead of haphazardly programming them. 

Weighted Pull-Up

If you’re looking to maximize both strength and hypertrophy, weighted pull-ups are the way to go. This lift is a typical go-to variation for athletes trying to progress their pull-up intensity using an external load. This variation is endless and only capped by your ability to execute great reps at various amounts of weight.

To execute a perfect weighted pull-up, strap yourself into a dip belt (not just for dips!) and loop in a weight plate of your choice — then proceed as normal. Just make sure your form remains rock solid the whole time.

Pull-Up Pauses and Holds

If you’ve got strict pull-ups down and want to add some more challenges to your pull-up routine, try using pauses and holds throughout various ranges of motion. Basically, instead of just lowering yourself slowly, you’ll add in full pauses at certain points to increase time under tension and the time you spend holding your own bodyweight at different angles.

When using pauses in pull-ups, some great starting places are at the top of the movement (when a full contraction is needed) and at the midway point (when your elbows are at about 90 degrees). Ensure you are thoroughly warmed up for this and pay attention to any sharp pains in your elbows — which are signals to abort the mission and take it easier on your upper body joints.

Chest-to-Bar Pull-Up

The chest to bar pull-up is a pull-up variation that can be done strictly, with weight, or through 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.

To perform a chest-to-bar pull-up, you’ll follow the same protocols that you would for a strict, weighted, or kipping pull-up — but instead of finishing with your chin clearing the bar, you’ll follow through even further to bring your chest to the bar.

Kipping Pull-Up

Amongst CrossFitters and gymnastic sports folk, the kipping pull-up is often a go-to. This pull-up style is ballistic in nature and utilizes momentum gained from a kipping motion to increase a lifter’s inertia to pull themself to the bar.

To perform a kipping pull-up, use your body’s momentum to create a slight forward swing from the bar. On the back end of the swing, channel that momentum into bringing yourself up to complete the pull-up.

Important note: even though you’ll probably be able to break out a few more reps with a kipping pull-up, the overall muscle damage and demand on your shoulders — in compromising positions — is greater than in a strict pull-up, so the risk of injury is often higher.

Pull-Up Alternatives

Not quite at pull-up level yet? No problem. There are plenty of alternatives to pull-ups that can help build some serious back strength and help you give you the form and strength you’ll need to work up to your first ever pull-up.

Dead Hangs

Get into the initial pull-up position described above and engage your shoulder blades like you’re preparing to perform an actual pull-up. Instead, you’ll just maintain a strong grip on the bar with your elbows straight. Concentrate on the activation in your upper back, and make sure you’re breathing. Stay up there with good form for as long as you can and record your time to track your progress.

Pull-Up Eccentrics

One of the best ways to acclimate oneself to pull-ups is by performing pull-up eccentrics. In the pull-up, the eccentric is the lowering portion of the movement. For pull-up eccentrics, the goal is to lower your body with a time-oriented goal. The longer the lowering process, the tougher the movement.

To integrate these into your program, find a box or bench and use it to stand on so you can jump to the top of the pull-up bar. Once your chin is clear of the bar, begin to lower yourself slowly with a time-based goal you’ve set for yourself. At first, it might be to just move with enough control to avoid flopping back down. Then you might build to two seconds, then three, then seven, etc.

Banded Pull-Ups

Banded pull-ups are excellent tools to help get you where you need to be. Essentially, you’ll be securing a band underneath your foot to help offset some of your body weight to assist you in performing your pull-up.

Loop a long, sturdy resistance band securely around a pull-up bar so that it’s dangling in front of you. Step one foot into the loop and grab onto the pull-up bar. Take a moment to get your balance, adjusting your non-banded leg as needed to keep your midline centered. Perform a strict pull-up as outlined above.

Inverted Row

The inverted row is basically a horizontal pull-up, often used to help folks who can’t yet do a pull-up get acclimated to manipulating their bodyweight while pulling. While these exercises both incorporate back, biceps, and grip training, the inverted row and the pull-up angles are different — you’re pulling yourself vertically with a pull-up and horizontally with an inverted row. Athletes should strive to build strength using inverted rows and assisted pull-ups and then progress into full pull-ups.

To perform an inverted row, use a stable bar — a Smith machine in a locked position will do nicely — and grasp the bar roughly shoulder-width apart. Allow yourself to limbo slightly underneath it, adjusting your feet to make yourself as horizontal as you feel comfortable with. As with a push-up, keep your core tight, and your glutes squeezed to maintain a solid midline. Pull yourself up toward the bar by initiating the pull with your shoulder blades, much like you would with a bent over row. If being horizontal is tough for you, that’s okay — stand a little straighter at first, and get lower to the ground as you get stronger and more used to the movement.

Dumbbell Row

The dumbbell row is a fantastic upper body unilateral pulling exercise that can serve as a great foundation builder for those on the quest of building more upper body strength. When hypertrophy and strength are your goals, then the dumbbell row can be a beneficial exercise to add additional pulling volume. 

Perform the dumbbell row unsupported or with your knee supported on a flat bench, with a similar movement pattern to a bent over barbell row — except your hand will have a neutral grip on the dumbbell instead of an overhand or underhand grip. Don’t jerk your hips and torso to the opposite side to kip the weight up. Instead, focus on putting your working elbow into your back pocket and lowering the weight again slowly, with your back roughly parallel to the ground the whole time.

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 isolate the latissimus dorsi muscles, overload the back with extra volume, and even increase lifters’ strength who may lack enough strength to perform a full pull-up.

To perform proper lat pulldowns, make sure you’re initiating the movement the same way you would with a pull-up (engaging your back instead of yanking down and away from the bar). To make it feel a little more like a pull-up in core engagement, perform lat pulldowns while in a tall kneeling position instead of a seated position.

Pulldowns are not a replacement for pull-ups but are a good accessory to help you increase back strength and start greasing the groove of your pull-up form.

FAQs

Can beginners do pull-ups?

Yes, absolutely. Beginners can certainly do pull-ups and should start learning the skill early on. More than likely, you’ll need to start with some pull-up alternatives, discussed above. Even if you’re an experienced lifter, if pull-ups have never been part of your repertoire, you might find yourself a beginner at pull-ups — and that’s okay. Take your time and focus on good form (and all the other lifts you can crush with ease). On the other hand, if you’ve never tried pull-ups and can hop up and get right into them with excellent form — brava! Dive into some of the pull-up progressions above.

 

What muscles do pull-ups work?

Pull-ups work multiple muscles and are fantastic for building a strong upper body. Some of the major prime mover muscle groups pull-ups work include:

  • Lats

A few secondary muscles the pull-up targets include:

  • Biceps
  • Obliques
  • Serratus anterior
  • Rhomboids

What’s the difference between a pull-up and a chin-up?

Think of chin-ups versus pull-ups as underhand grip (chin-ups) versus overhand grip (pull-ups). While every lifter is bound to have a lot of feelings about the pros and cons of each, the mechanics come down to this: pull-ups are performed with an overhand grip, and place more emphasis on the lats, while chin-ups place more emphasis on the biceps and pectoralis major with their underhand (or sometimes neutral) grip. However, this does not mean that chin-ups don’t engage the lats as the primary mover (they do) or that the pull-up doesn’t seriously recruit the biceps (it does).

Is it cheating to kip my pull-up?

Pull-up purists will have one answer, and CrossFitters will have another. While you may not consider it cheating to kip your pull-up, it does offer a lot more mechanical stress — and therefore pose a bigger injury risk — than strict pull-ups. While no two lifters are going to have the same opinion, a good rule of thumb is that you should look at kipping as a skill in and of itself — and you probably shouldn’t tackle that skill until you’ve fully mastered the strict pull-up. On the other hand, if you’re trying to kip to “achieve” your first pull-up, you probably want to back it up and build to a strict pull-up.

What muscles do pull-ups work?

Pull-ups work multiple muscles and are fantastic for building a strong upper body. While your lats are the primary movers for pull-ups, your biceps, serratus anterior, rhomboids, infraspinatus, erector spinae, and obliques will also all get to join in on the fun.

How can I do more pull-ups?

To perform more pull-ups, you need to practice pull-ups. Think of pull-ups like a skill and not just an exercise. A great place to start is to practice pull-ups two to three times a week with variations and progressions to increase your strength and work capacity for this movement.

Featured image: Syda Productions/Shutterstock