Pull-ups are one of the best bodyweight exercises for building upper body strength. Not only do they need little equipment, but they also work a lot of different muscles at the same time.
But exactly which muscles do pull-ups work? Knowing the main muscles and other muscles involved help you get the most out of this exercise and focus on the parts you want to strengthen.
In this in-depth blog, we’ll explore the Following:
- What Are Pull Ups
- Pull Ups Muscle Worked
- How To Do Pull Up
- Common Mistakes To Be Avoided
- Benefits of Pull Ups
- Variations For Pull Ups
- What Are Pull Ups
- Pull Ups Muscle Worked
- Primary Muscles Worked Pull Up
- Secondary Muscles Worked
- Science Behind Muscle Worked During Pull Up
- How To Do Pull Up
- Preparatory Steps
- Common Mistakes To Be Avoided When Doing Pull-Ups
- 1. Using Momentum or “Kipping”
- 2. Incomplete Range of Motion
- 3. Elbow Flaring
- 4. Neglecting Core Engagement
- 5. Quick and Uncontrolled Movements
- 6. Over-Gripping the Bar
- 7. Focusing Only On Rep Count
- Benefits of Pull Ups
- 1. Builds Upper-Body Strength
- 2. Increases Grip Strength
- 3. Promotes Shoulder Health
- 4. Boosts Core Stability
- 5. Increases Metabolic Rate
- 6. Help To Improve Posture
- 7. Offers Versatility
- Modifications and Variations For Pull Ups
- Making It Easier: Beginners’ Adaptations
- Ramping Up the Intensity: Advanced Variations
- 1. Machine Assisted Pull-Ups
- 2. Isometric Holds Pull-Ups
- 3. Wide-Grip Pull-Ups
- 4. Weighted Pull-Ups
- 5. Clapping Pull Ups
- What are pull-ups good for?
- Are pull ups good for biceps
- Are pull ups a compound exercise
- Different Types Of Pull Ups With Muscle Worked
What Are Pull Ups
The pull-up is a straightforward exercise that doesn’t require complex techniques or an array of expensive equipment. All you need is a bar sturdy enough to support your body weight.
Pull-ups and chin-ups are often used interchangeably, but they do have some differences. The main difference between the two exercises is the grip used.
- A pull up is an exercise where the palms facing away from the body (overhand or pronated grip) while gripping the bar. This grip targets the back and shoulders more than the biceps.
- A chin up is an exercise where the palms facing towards the body (underhand or supinated grip) while gripping the bar. This grip targets the biceps more than the back and shoulders.
There are many different types of pull-ups that fit your fitness level and focus on specific muscles. You can perform assisted pull-ups, weighted pull-ups, wide-grip, narrow-grip, and even switch to chin-ups by simply changing the position of your hands.
Pull Ups Muscle Worked
With a pull-up, you’re not just working one or two muscles. You’re working a lot of muscles at the same time. Pull ups primarily work the back and bicep, but also involve many other muscle groups in the upper body.
Compared to a chin-up, pull-ups better engage the lower trapezius muscles.
Primary Muscles Worked Pull Up
With a pull-up, you’re not just working one or two muscles. You’re working a lot of muscles at the same time. However, certain muscles are the primary driving forces of the action. Here are the main muscles that pull-ups target:
1. Latissimus Dorsi (“Lats”)
The latissimus dorsi is the biggest muscle in the upper body. It is located on either side of your back and goes from the lower spine and hip bone to the armpit and shoulder blade.
When you pull yourself up, your lats are the primary muscles responsible for shoulder adduction and extension. They pull your upper body up and bring your elbows toward your torso.
2. Biceps Brachii
According to a 2018 study by the Journal of Physical Fitness, the bicep muscle is the second most active muscle during pull ups.
The Biceps brachii is responsible for elbow flexion and forearm supination. It also helps you bend your elbow and rotate your forearm to turn your palm upwards.
When you pull yourself up, your biceps are one of the main muscles used in the exercise. When your biceps contract, they help bend your elbows and raise your body.
The brachialis is located underneath the biceps and plays a critical role in elbow flexion.
The brachialis works in synergy with your biceps to flex the elbow, giving your pull-up that extra oomph.
Secondary Muscles Worked
While pull-ups primarily target your latissimus dorsi and biceps, they also engage a set of secondary muscles that contribute to the complexity and efficiency of this exercise.
Even though they are classified as ‘secondary,’ these muscles are crucial for the effectiveness and safety of your pull-up routine.
This is a muscle of the forearm that originates near the elbow, runs along the forearm, and then attaches at the wrist.
The brachioradialis assists in both elbow flexion and forearm pronation. It provides additional pulling power and grip stability.
The trapezius muscle helps to stabilize the shoulders during a pull up. Different parts of the trapezius are engaged at various phases of the pull-up, helping in scapular rotation and stabilization.
The trapezius muscle aka trap muscle is a large muscle that extends from the neck down to the mid-back and outward to the shoulders.
The trap muscle is divided into three parts: the upper, middle, and lower trap. All three parts contribute to shoulder stability.
The rhomboids are in the upper back between the shoulder blades. They are important for pulling back the shoulder muscles.
During pull-ups, the rhomboids help to pull the shoulder blades together, which helps to stabilize the shoulders.
7. Teres Major
This muscle is sometimes referred to as the “little Lat” and works in conjunction with the latissimus dorsi to perform similar functions, such as adduction and extension of the arm.
While moving, the teres major assists the lats in pulling the humerus back and down, contributing to the lifting movement.
8. Core Muscles
9. Serratus Anterior
This muscle is located on the side of the chest and is responsible for pulling the scapula back. The serratus anterior helps stabilize the shoulder blades and prevents them from winging out during movement.
10. Forearm Muscles
Science Behind Muscle Worked During Pull Up
The biomechanics and muscular engagement of pull ups may appear straightforward, but they are based on complex scientific principles.
In one of the Study, electromyographic (EMG) activation of back, shoulder, arm, and abdominal musculature measured and expressed as a percentage of maximum voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) during a pull-up, chin-up, or rotational exercise with Perfect Pull-up twisting handles.
The muscles are:
- External oblique (EO)
- Erector spinae (ES)
- Pectoralis major (PM)
- Lower trapezius (LT)
- Infraspinatus (ISP)
- Biceps brachii (BB)
- Latissimus dorsi (LD)
The Biceps brachii and pec major were more active during the chin up compared to the pull-up, while the back and lower traps were more active during the pull-up.
Note: In this study, the difference in muscle activation between chin ups and pull ups is surprisingly small.
Another useful paper to look at for assessing the muscles worked in the chin up and pull-up is Electromyographic analysis of muscle activation during pull-up variations.
How To Do Pull Up
Now that you have an in-depth understanding of the primary and secondary muscles involved in pull-ups, you might be itching to jump on that pull-up bar.
Whether you’re a beginner or simply looking to perfect your form, here’s a comprehensive step-by-step guide to performing a pull-up correctly.
- Hand Placement: Grab the pull-up bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you).
- Positioning: Stand or hang beneath the pull-up bar, arms fully extended.
- Posture: Keep your core engaged, shoulders down and back, and gaze forward.
- Engage the Lats: Before initiating the pull, engage your latissimus dorsi by pulling your shoulder blades down and back.
- Begin the Pull: Start pulling your body upwards by driving your elbows towards the floor and squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Clear the Bar: Continue pulling until your chin rises above the level of the bar.
- The Descent: Lower yourself down in a controlled manner to fully extend your arms, returning to the starting position.
- Reps: Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Common Mistakes To Be Avoided When Doing Pull-Ups
The pull-ups are one of the most effective upper-body workouts, but they can also be tough. It’s important to do pull-ups correctly to get the most out of them and minimize the risk of getting hurt.
Here are some common mistakes’ people often make when doing pull-ups:
1. Using Momentum or “Kipping”
The Mistake: Swinging the legs and using the momentum to propel the body upward.
Why It’s a Problem: This technique doesn’t fully engage the target muscles and increases the risk of shoulder or back injuries.
2. Incomplete Range of Motion
The Mistake: Not fully extending the arms at the bottom or not lifting the chin above the bar at the top.
Why It’s a Problem: Partial reps won’t provide the full benefits of muscle engagement. It could lead to imbalances or even injuries over time.
3. Elbow Flaring
The Mistake: Letting the elbows flare out to the sides during the upward motion.
Why It’s a Problem: This can put undue stress on the shoulders and detract from the primary focus on the back muscles.
4. Neglecting Core Engagement
The Mistake: Allowing the lower back to arch excessively or the hips to sag, indicating a lack of core engagement.
Why It’s a Problem: A disengaged core can lead to lower back pain and reduces the effectiveness of the pull-up.
5. Quick and Uncontrolled Movements
The Mistake: Pulling up or dropping down too quickly, without control.
Why It’s a Problem: Fast, uncontrolled movements make it harder to engage your muscles properly and can increase the risk of muscle strain or joint injury.
6. Over-Gripping the Bar
The Mistake: Gripping the bar too tightly or placing the thumbs on the same side as the fingers (“suicide grip”).
Why It’s a Problem: An overly tight grip can cause wrist strain and doesn’t necessarily add any strength benefits.
7. Focusing Only On Rep Count
The Mistake: Prioritizing the number of repetitions over form.
Why It’s a Problem: Poor form can lead to injuries and doesn’t effectively target the intended muscle groups. It makes the exercise less effective overall.
Benefits of Pull Ups
Pull-ups are an essential part of fitness regimens, ranging from basic at-home workouts to specialized military training. But what makes them so universally valued? Here are some reasons why doing pull-ups is good for your body and why you should include them in your workout routine.
1. Builds Upper-Body Strength
Pull-ups are one of the most effective exercises for developing upper-body strength. They work multiple muscle groups, including the latissimus dorsi, biceps, and deltoids.
2. Increases Grip Strength
The pulling motion used in pull ups is a basic human movement pattern that can be used in many daily activities, such as lifting objects or climbing.
Regularly performing pull ups help improve grip strength, which can carry over to other exercises and activities.
3. Promotes Shoulder Health
When done correctly, pull-ups help promote shoulder stability by activating the muscles around the shoulder girdle. It’s good for people who have shoulder problems or who want to prevent them.
4. Boosts Core Stability
Although primarily an upper-body exercise, pull-ups also engage the core muscles, including the abdominals and lower back. This makes the core stronger and more stable, which is important for good posture and other athletic activities.
5. Increases Metabolic Rate
Pull-ups increase your metabolic rate, which helps you burn more calories even when you’re at rest.
6. Help To Improve Posture
Pull-ups are an effective way to strengthen the muscles in your back, contributing to a more robust and defined appearance. Beyond aesthetics, a strong back is crucial for supporting good posture.
Poor posture can cause chronic back pain, which can affect your quality of life a lot. Strengthening your back, you can improve your posture and reduce the likelihood of experiencing persistent back discomfort.
7. Offers Versatility
The pull up exercise is one of the most convenient exercises available. You can do it at home, outdoors and at the gym.
It’s super convenient, so you can easily fit it into your daily routine.
Modifications and Variations For Pull Ups
Adding different variations of pull-ups can really change the game when you want to broaden your workout routine without buying new gear or changing your entire workout approach. These exercises can be changed to fit your own needs, whether you want to make them easier or harder.
Making It Easier: Beginners’ Adaptations
If you find pull-ups too challenging, don’t worry—there are several ways to make them more accessible:
- Machine-Assisted Pull-Ups: Use a pull-up machine that counterbalances your weight, making it easier to lift yourself.
- Resistance Band-Assisted Pull-Ups: Loop a resistance band around the bar and your knees or feet to lighten the load you have to lift.
- Isometric Holds: Rather than doing full reps, hold yourself at the peak of the pull-up or chin-up for a specified duration to build strength.
- Box or Bench Assistance: Utilize a box or bench to step up to the bar, effectively reducing the amount of body weight you need to lift.
Ramping Up the Intensity: Advanced Variations
If you’re looking to increase the difficulty of your pull-up or chin-up routine, consider the following modifications:
- Weighted Pull-Ups or Chin-Ups: Wear a weight belt or hold a dumbbell between your legs to add resistance.
- Increase Reps and Sets: Simply increasing the number of repetitions and sets will make the exercise more demanding.
- Wide-Grip Pull-Ups: Using a wider grip will not only make the exercise more challenging, but also place greater emphasis on your forearms.
- One-Arm Pull-Ups: This advanced variation significantly boosts the difficulty and focuses on unilateral upper-body strength.
- Dynamic Movements: Incorporate plyometric pull-ups to add an explosive element to your routine.
- Pause at the Top: Holding your position when your chin clears the bar can increase time under tension, making the exercise more challenging.
1. Machine Assisted Pull-Ups
The machine-assisted pull-up is an excellent exercise for beginners who are not yet strong enough to perform a full pull-up. You can use the machine to gradually decrease the amount of assistance needed until you are able to perform a full pull-up on your own.
Machine-assisted pull-ups are not just for beginners. You can use them in more advanced workouts like drop sets to make your workout more interesting and challenging.
2. Isometric Holds Pull-Ups
Isometric holds in pull-ups involve pausing and holding your position at various points during the pull-up motion. Usually at the point where your chin touches the bar.
A static position for an extended period of time challenges your muscles differently than traditional pull ups, which will increase your muscular endurance over time.
To perform an isometric hold, start in the bottom dead hang position, gripping the pull-up bar. Then, pull yourself up to the mid-point of the pull-up and hold that position for a set time period, typically 5-10 seconds.
3. Wide-Grip Pull-Ups
During wide-grip pull-ups, the hands are positioned wider than shoulder-width apart on the bar. This grip variation allows for a greater range of motion and increased muscle activation in the upper back and lats.
The wide grip focuses more work on the outer lats than a standard pull-up. It helps to achieve the coveted V-shaped back.
4. Weighted Pull-Ups
In weighted pull-ups, additional weight is added to the body during the pull-up, typically in the form of a weight belt or a dumbbell held between the legs.
The added weight increases the resistance and the difficulty of the exercise.
It’s a great way to progress from bodyweight pull-ups and chin up and to increase the intensity of the workout.
It’s also important to have a strong base of bodyweight pull-ups before attempting this variation.
5. Clapping Pull Ups
Clapping pull-ups” also known as “explosive pull-ups,” are a variation of pull-ups that focus on power and explosiveness.
In this variation, the individual performs a pull-up and then quickly releases their hands from the bar, clapping them together before catching the bar again and lowering themselves down.
It requires a significant amount of power and control to perform this variation, which can help to increase power, explosiveness, and muscle activation in the upper body.
What are pull-ups good for?
Pull-ups are great for building upper-body strength, particularly in the back, shoulders, and arms. They also help improve grip strength and contribute to better posture.
Are pull ups good for biceps
Yes, pull-ups are good for working the biceps. Even though they mainly work the back muscles, the biceps also help you pull your body up to the bar. For more bicep engagement, you can try chin-ups, which use an underhand grip.
Are pull ups a compound exercise
Yes, pull-ups are a compound exercise that targets multiple muscle groups in the upper body. The muscles worked during pull-ups include the back, chest, shoulders, arms, and core.
Pull-ups are much more than just an upper-body exercise. They’re a multi-muscle move that’s great for building strength and endurance. It is a great way to strengthen your lats, shoulders, and biceps, as well as your core.
In addition to building upper body strength and definition, pull ups offer a range of benefits, including improving grip and core strength.
So why wait? Add pull-ups to your workout routine today and see how they can transform your strength and physique.
- Hewit, Jennifer. (2018). A Comparison of Muscle Activation during the Pull-up and Three Alternative Pulling Exercises. Journal of Physical Fitness, Medicine & Treatment in Sports. 5. 10.19080/JPFMTS.2018.05.555669.
- James W Youdas Collier L Amundson, Kyle S Cicero, Justin J Hahn, David T Harezlak, John H Hollman: 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.
- Ronai, Peter M. and Eric P. Scibek. “The Pull-Up.” Strength and Conditioning Journal 36 (2014): 88-90.
- Antinori, F., Francesco Felici, Francesco Figura, Marco Marchetti and Benjamin Ricci. “Joint moments and work in pull-ups.” The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness 28 2 (1988): 132-7.
Different Types Of Pull Ups With Muscle Worked
Manish brings over 10 years of hands-on experience in weight lifting and fat loss to fitness coaching. He specializes in gym-based training and has a lot of knowledge about exercise, lifting technique, biomechanics, and more.
Through “Fit Life Regime,” he generously shares the insights he’s gained over a decade in the field. His goal is to equip others with the knowledge to start their own fitness journey.