What are the benefits of doing pull ups?
Pull ups are simply one of the most effective bodyweight exercises you can find and probably one of the most effective exercises, period. If you’re not including pulls ups, deadlifts, and squats into your routine, you’re really missing out. There’s a reason why so many institutions, including the U.S. Military, use this as the cardinal measure for strength.
Where do I begin? Pull ups are functional, convenient, effective, and simple to do. But the best benefit of a pull up … in my humble opinion … is its versatility and convenience.
You can literally do ’em anywhere you can find a stable bar including your home! On top of that, pulls ups activate a great amount of muscle tissue.
What muscle groups are targeted?
The primary target muscle is the latissimus dorsi, the most powerful muscle in your back. But that’s not all! Pulls ups also work out your teres major, rear deltoids, pectoral minor and major muscle (yup, the most powerful “pushing” muscle), biceps brachii, brachioradialis, rhomboides, trapezius, and triceps (3). Basically, this covers most of the muscles in your upper body.
Pull ups offer some great benefits. You can use them for different forms of training. For instance, if you’re doing cardiovascular and endurance training, you simply do as many reps as you can.
But what about if you’re trying to build muscle? Remember that the optimal rep range for packing-on size is 6-9 reps. So, if you can do more than 10 reps (with max intensity), then just wear a weighted vest or dip belt, and voila! You now have adjustable resistance.
The benefits of doing pulls ups go way beyond what I’ve mentioned thus far. Let’s take a closer look.
Top 10 Benefits of Including Pull Ups in your Work-out Routine
1. Pull Ups Can Be Done Anywhere You Can Find a Bar
You can do pull ups in the gym, the park, or even at home. You don’t need any fancy equipment or an expensive gym membership. That’s the beauty of this amazing exercise.
All you need to do is find a horizontal bar that you can hang from.
Just make sure it is stable, leveled, and not connected to any electrical wires. Use common sense and don’t be like this guy:
You can find many suitable bars at your local park. But why go to the park when you can do pull ups right from your home? Of course, going to the park isn’t that bad. In some cases, you can even breathe some fresh air…right? But wouldn’t it be nice to bang out a few sets throughout the day?
If that sounds appealing to you, you have three general options. We go over them below:
- Your first option, which is what I prefer and recommend for most people, is the popular door frame pull-up bar. Remember those annoying Iron-Gym commercials that used to air on TV? If you purchased one, you might recall how flimsy and damaging to the door frame they were. Well, the design has come a long way and many companies have produced amazing variations of it. In particular, the Iron Age Pull Up Bar solved every single issue we experienced with Iron-Gym.
- Your second option is very similar to the first. It’s basically a straight bar that can (technically) be screwed between any two vertical posts that are 2-3 feet apart. Of course, most people opt to screw it between the walls of their door. This produces a less stable structure than the first option, but it’s better than nothing if your door frame is not suitable. The Garren Fitness Maximiza seems to be a popular choice.
- Lastly, you can purchase an equipment stand such as the Power Tower. This option is most expensive and requires a lot of room, but you get to perform a better range of exercises, such as pull ups, dips, push-ups, knee raises and so on.
2. Pull Ups Are Suitable for Both Building Muscle and Losing Weight
Pull ups are great because they are very scalable. By that I mean you can easily increase the resistance.
If you want to do cardiovascular work (in-order to lose weight or get in shape), you simply do as many pull ups as you can while taking minimal rest (30-45 seconds) in-between sets.
What about if you are trying to build muscle?
In my gym workout plan for beginners, I mention that building muscle is very simple and requires just one thing— progressively overloading your muscles. That means trying your absolute best to lift heavier weights each week. If you follow this golden rule, you will see results no matter what you do. It’s really that simple. Consistency is key here.
So, how can we progressively overload our muscles while doing pull ups?
Well, when I was younger, I used to do pull ups while wearing a backpack. After each set, I would add one book to the backpack. I couldn’t afford anything high-tech and it was better than nothing. But there were two issues. Firstly, the bag eventually ripped under the tension. So that’s not good. Also, “one book” isn’t exactly a good unit of measurement.
A better option altogether is an adjustable weighted vest such as Mir Air.
Weighted vests are great because they can add resistance to any cardiovascular exercise you prefer. I’ve personally been using the Mir Air for years and absolutely love it for its comfort and ease of weight adjustment (up to 60lbs!).
If you already have plates in your home, a cheaper option would be a weighted belt such as the Iron Bull Strength Belt. The only downfall with a weighted belt is that you can’t jog with it (well, you could try).
3. There are lots of different types of Pull Ups
Pull ups probably offer the greatest variety of any exercise. So much so that I’m constantly discovering new ones.
Variety is important as it allows us to target many different muscle groups. The different forms of pull ups can be divided into two general categories: wide grip and close grip.
Wide grip pull ups primarily target your lats (latissimus dorsi, colored yellow below), while close grip pull ups target your rhomboids (colored red below).
In other words, the wider your hands are, the more you target the outer muscles of your back. The closer your hands are, the more you target the inner muscles of your back. Additionally, close grip pull ups also activate your chest, shoulders, and biceps a lot more than wide grip pull ups. This is the reason why many find that close grip pull ups are easier to perform.
Furthermore, you can adjust the amount of bicep activation by turning your wrists. The more you supinate your hands (palms facing towards you), the more you target your biceps.
Pulling movements that involve the hands in the pronated position (palms facing away from you) activate the biceps to a lesser degree.
Therefore, a wide grip pull up with palms facing towards you, targets both the lats and biceps to a great extent. To remove the biceps from the equation, you simply adjust your grip so that your palms are facing away from you. Another hand position lies in-between the protonated and supinated hand position.
If that last part was confusing, try this: bend one elbow at 90 degrees, rotate your palm so it faces you, and flex your bicep. Feel where the muscle flexes with your other hand. Now rotate your wrist 180 degrees. Notice how your bicep became less rigid as you rotated?
Here is another useful tip.
Movements that involve pulling along a vertical plane (from above your head, towards your body) help add width to your back. Movements that involve pulling along a horizontal plane (pulling towards the front of your body) help develop thickness.
Below are a few types of pull ups to get you started.
Standard Pull Up
The standard pull up is performed by placing your arms a bit wider than shoulder width apart with your palms facing away from you. This is the variation that the US Military (and other armed forces) use to gauge the strength of their soldiers. When done correctly, this variation minimizes bicep activation and maximizes lat activation. If you’re looking for that enticing V-shape look, this is the exercise for you.
The chin up is the most common variation. It’s basically a standard pull up, but with your palms facing towards you. The primary difference between a chin up and a standard pull up, is that the chin up variation activates your biceps and rhomboids to a higher degree.
Most people find this easier to perform as the magnitude of lat activation is very close to the standard pull up, plus you get a lot of help from your biceps. I find that chin ups are better for building thickness to your back, as compared to the standard pull up. And, as mentioned above, the wider your hands, the more you work the lats. The closer, the more you work your rhomboids.
Australian pull up
The Australian pull up provides a great opportunity for beginners who are not strong enough to do a standard pull up. Begin by positioning a bar about waist height. Grip the bar with your palms facing away from you. Your heels should be far out enough so that the bar touches your lower chest when you pull up.
The important feature here is the plane of motion. Work is done along a plane that is nearly perpendicular to the body. This is in strong contrast to a standard pull up, in which the work is done along a plane that is parallel to the body. Because our hands move towards our chest, a greater emphasis is placed on the muscles of your upper and middle back.
Note that the higher the bar, the less resistance. So if you are having trouble performing the exercise with the bar at waist height, raise it higher. You should then lower the bar gradually as you get stronger. Once you are comfortable doing 20 reps with the bar as low as possible, begin the transition into chin ups, then to standard pull ups.
Keep in mind that this list is not inclusive and that hundreds of great variations exist!
4. Pull Ups Are Functional
Pull ups are one of the few exercises that are very functional. A functional exercise is one that improves the quality of your life by developing the muscles that you use during everyday activities, such as carrying boxes or walking up the stairs. For example, the squat trains the muscles that you use to rise up from your seat or lift a heavy object off the ground.
The functionality of pull ups are especially important to athletes as they train the lats—a muscle that plays an important role in the transfer of force between the lower and upper body, and in developing core stability and breathing (4).
In addition to developing lat strength, pull ups activate many muscle groups (back, shoulders, biceps, and core) in unison. Because pull ups are a closed kinetic chain (CKC) movement (an exercise where the arm or hand is fixed while the body moves through space), it requires the contraction of both “push” and “pull” muscles. This coordinated movement is important because it reflects an important aspect of how our muscles are designed— to work together!
Almost all activities we do require many muscles to flex at the same time. This is especially true in sports. Think about how many muscles are activated when a tennis player goes for a serve.
Seldom does a physical activity require the use of a single muscle. That is why isolation exercises (such as bicep curls or tricep extension) are not so great for developing athleticism.
In case you aren’t aware, isolation exercises focus on a single muscle group and are mainly utilized by bodybuilders to develop a more aesthetic and proportional look. This is the polar opposite of a compound exercise, which trains multiple muscle groups at the same time.
If your goal is to improve your athleticism and overall fitness, your training should focus on compound movements such as the squat, deadlift, pull up, and bench press. These exercises will train your muscles to work together, which will improve your athletic performance and overall quality of life.
5. Pull Ups Develop Grip Strength
In addition to improving your ability to pull more weight, pull ups also develop your grip strength. This will improve your performance in sports such as rock climbing and wrestling.
The only other way to build a stronger grip is through isolation exercises, which, as I have mentioned, don’t provide a good bang for your buck.
While on the topic of grip strength, I should probably address an issue that affects a particular group of athletes.
Some people find that they can pull a lot more weight than their grip can handle. This can be due to having underdeveloped grip strength or from a condition known as tennis elbow. In either case, if you have trouble holding on to the bar, I highly suggest using wrist straps (the Cobra Grips are my favorite).
You should use wrist straps if you fall into any of these categories:
- You experience pain when pulling heavy weights.
- Your wrist strength is underdeveloped.
- You are a powerlifter.
If you fall under the second category, using wrist straps may seem counterproductive.
By removing tension away from your forearm muscles, you won’t give them a chance to develop, and the problem will only get worse. This is absolutely true.
That is why it’s important that you incorporate some sort of forearm strength training routine into your workouts if you use wrist straps. Personally, I like to begin my back workouts with forearm stretches and 4 sets of palms-up barbell wrist curls, and end with 3 sets of wrist rotations followed by 3 sets of farmer’s walks.
Keep in mind that the first two I mentioned are examples of isolation exercises, which tend to give rise to muscle imbalances (likely culprit of your underdeveloped forearm muscles). You should perform them until you have enough strength to pull without using straps, then drop ’em.
6. Pull Ups Prevent Muscle Imbalances
Like all compound exercises, pull ups activate a lot of muscles in unison. This prevents the issue of developing muscle imbalances.
Muscle imbalances usually arise when you focus too much on isolation exercises. I’ll use my personal experience as an example. Throughout the first 5 or so years of my fitness journey, I focused primarily on isolation movements. I wanted to become a professional bodybuilder, so I copied what professional bodybuilders did. Seems reasonable, right? My favorite bodybuilder happened to avoid deadlifts and squats (to prevent injury) and instead focused on isolation exercises for training his legs.
I did the same, and as a result, I developed a lot of imbalances in my core area; my lower back and abdominal muscles were much weaker than the muscles of my lumbar spine and hamstrings.
Quick muscle anatomy lesson: every muscle in the body works in opposition to another. The abs and hamstrings are a good example of this.
When the hamstrings overpower the abs, the lumbar spine is pulled in towards your belly. This results in lumbar lordosis, a painful condition that makes even walking difficult.
I’m getting off topic. The point is that you should incorporate compound exercises into your routine to prevent injury.
7. Pull Ups Prevent (and can even correct) Postural Problems
Muscle imbalances can also arise when you focus too much on similar movements. For instance, doing too many “push” movements (or not enough “pull” movements) can result in posture issues.
Pull ups avoid this issue (and even reverse it) as they engage muscles used in “push” movements such as the rear deltoids, the pec minor (which is essential to posture, shoulder function, and breathing), and (if you are doing the chin up variation) the sternal region of the pec major.
8. Pull Ups Provide Transferable Strength
The strength you build with pull ups will transfer over to many different exercises. As a matter of fact, the only exercises that won’t receive a boost are lower body isolation movements, such as leg extensions and calf raises—exercises I wouldn’t advise you doing anyway.
The amount of weight you can deadlift, squat, bench, and shoulder press will be massively improved by your efforts with the pull up. You’ll even be able to curl more weight as the biceps are a big player in this exercise.
9. Pull Ups develop a very special muscle in the body – the latissimus dorsi
This is my favorite benefit of doing pull ups. The latissimus dorsi (AKA lats) is a muscle that doesn’t get enough attention from the fitness community. I consider this strange considering how much cross-sectional area it encompasses. Let’s have a look at it.
Notice how large the muscle truly is? The obvious benefit here is that it has a lot of potential for growth. So if getting big is your goal, lat development is something you should really focus on.
Also, notice the points of attachment? The lats connect to the vertebrae (T6 > sacrum), pelvic, rib cage, scapula, and humerus. From this, it’s reasonable to infer that the lats are very important stabilizer muscles for the spine, which is absolutely the case. If your lumbar spine is that stable, you will not be able to squat and deadlift efficiently.
In addition to being important stabilizing muscles of the lumbar spine, the lats are also an avenue for the transfer of force in certain exercises. Consider the squat; the resistance that your body must work against is located on your upper back (where the bar rests).
In order to work against this resistance and move the weight upward, we must generate enough force from the ground. This force doesn’t magically transfer to our upper body, correct? It must pass through an avenue. The force crosses the pelvis into thoracolumbar facia, which is connected to the lats. The lats then transfer the force to the bar.
The same mechanism applies for the deadlift and the bench. If you’re interested in learning more about the functional anatomy of the lats, check out the Eric Cressy article (linked below, 5).
As you can see, pull ups truly are an amazing exercise. Just by using what you were born with, you can sculpt an amazing upper body.
Pull ups make a great addition to any fitness routine. But did you know that entire workout programs can be constructed around the pull up? Thats right! The pull up is so versatile that in some cases, its really all you need.
Many great programs have been devised by fitness professionals and I’ve tried out a few over the years. But by far the most effective and compressive pull up programs I’ve come across is this 166 page book by strength coach Meghan Callaway.
Meghans approach is unique in that she takes a holistic approach to pull up progression. As we have discussed, the pull up is a dynamic exercise that activates almost all of the muscles in your body in unison. Most pull up programs reduce the pull up to an isolation exercise by following the most basic progression paradigm- today we will do x reps, tomorrow x+1 reps, and so on.
While this works great for training individual muscle groups (such as the biceps or deltoids), it is not effective for complex, compound movements such as the pull up. This is because the pull is very dynamic and involves the activation of many muscle groups.
Meghan instead views the pull up as an interaction between different components. For instance, one component is core strength and another is glut strength. If anyone of the 10 or so components are overlooked, you will find it very hard to progress. If your shoulders are weak, you will have trouble with the upper portion of the movement. If your lower back and core is weak, you will start arching your back which can lead to injury. You get the picture.
The Ultimate Pull-Up Program addresses all of the problems which prevent many biggeners from excelling at the pull up.
At this point, it may seem that this is nearly a pull up program. Its not!
It’s a very effective full body routine that will help you strengthen and grow all of the muscles in your body, with the end goal of helping you dominate the pull up.
It is comprised of four phases with each lasting about 8 weeks. In each phase you will:
1. Improve your pull-up technique, so you can perform them efficiently
2. Improve your upper body strength, so reaching the bar isn’t so daunting and intimidating
3. Improve your upper body muscle tone/hypertrophy, so you have the ability to perform many pull-ups
4. Improve your scapular and shoulder controlled mobility, so you can travel to and from the bar with no fear
5. Improve your grip strength, so you have the hang time needed to perform multiple reps and sets
6. Improve your core and glute strength, so you leave yourself with no weak links
7. Improve your lower body strength, so your glutes, quads, and hamstrings are stronger than they’ve ever been and don’t hold you back.
As you can tell, I really appreciate Meghans style of coaching as it is scientific and systematic.
But I’ll warn you now: her program is not easy, but it works . I believe that many people are willing to put in the work required to change their body, but they are limited by the stream of ineffective programs that are designed with the sole intention of appealing to lazy people. Because the truth is this- getting fit is not easy. Easy sells. Which is why I’m always hesitant to recommend any program to my readers. Meghans program, however, is different. If you want to read up more about it, click here.
How to Do a Pull up Correctly
The pull up is a relatively easy exercise to perform. Here is how to do a pull up correctly.
- Grab the bar with your arms, shoulder width apart and palms facing away from you (if you want to do the standard pull up).
- Use a stole or a bench if the bar is too high. I once tore my tendons trying to jump and grab the bar, so avoid doing that!
- Hang with your arms straight and legs off the floor.
- Inhale, then exhale as you pull your body off the floor. Pull your elbows down and chest up until your chin goes over the bar. Your shoulders should not roll forward while performing this movement (if they do, you need to develop more pulling strength by doing easier exercises such as the lat pulldown).
- Inhale while slowly lowering your body to the ground.
- Repeat steps 3-4 for as many reps as you can do with good form.
The motion itself is basic, but some people fall into a few common mistakes.
Common Pull Up Mistakes You Should avoid
Here are 4 common pull up mistakes you must avoid if you want to reap the full benefits of the pull up.
Not pulling yourself up high enough
Make sure you complete the full range of motion and avoid partial reps. At the end of the positive phase (Positive = body moves in the direction of applied force. Negative = body moves in the opposite direction of the applied force), your shoulders and chin should clear the bar.
Not going down low enough
At the end of the negative phase, your arms should be fully extended (this is known as the “dead hang”). You can rest in this position for a few seconds on the higher reps. You can even shift to a single-hand “dead hang” to give each arm a quick break.
Using too much momentum
Make sure the movement is slow and controlled. Don’t jerk your body to produce momentum. Doing 5 solid pull ups with good form is a lot more impressive than doing 10 while swinging all over the place.
Rolling your shoulders (Chest Should Be Pointed Upward Instead of Across)
Your shoulders should never roll while performing a pull up as this can lead to rotator cuff injury! You can prevent this from happening by making sure your chest is always up. In other words, lead with your chest and not with your shoulders.
Hyperextending the Lower Back with the Legs Swinging Up Underneath You
Make sure that your back is completely flat to prevent putting pressure on your spine. If you find yourself doing this, try to tighten your core and keep your legs straight.
Flailing the elbows forward
If you want to target your lats optimally, you should keep your elbows under the bar. The more you flare your elbows forward, the more your biceps activate.
Pull Up Strengthening Exercises
Everything you’ve read thus far is pointless if you can’t actually perform a single pull-up. If you are having trouble doing a single rep, you are either 1) overweight or 2) not strong enough. In either case, the solution is to get stronger. Here are some key pull up strengthening exercises you should focus on if you want to transition into pull ups.
This is the best exercise to help you with doing pull ups. The reason? The only difference (in terms of muscle activation) between a lat pull down and pull up is that a pull up requires you to stabilize your body. The amount of lat activation is about the same (1), which is great considering that the lat is the major player in this movement. The lat pulldown is also great because you can adjust the resistance from practically null to about 300lbs. The minimum resistance for a pull up is basically your own bodyweight (plus ~ 5 lbs for the weight of your clothing). But as the lat pulldown does not require much stabilization, your core muscles are not being worked, which brings me to the next type of exercise.
Core strengthening exercises
A strong core is required for doing pull ups. If your core is too weak, you might find yourself hyperextending your lower back. The best core exercises to improve your pull ups are of the isometric type. Isometric exercises involve movements where you hold a position under tension (2). And the best isometric exercise (for our purposes) is the pull up hold. There are 3 variations:
- The dead hang
- Pull up and hold
- Mid-pull up hold
These three variations are great for targeting weak spots in your pull-up. Other great isometric core exercises include planks, dip holds, and push up holds.
While the bicep is a sort of secondary muscle in the pull up, it is important to train if you want to complete your first pull up. If your goal is to do a basic pull up (the variation in which your palms are facing away from you), you should focus a little more on hammer curls (and any variation).
- AComparison of Muscle Activation during the Pull-up and Three Alternative Pulling Exercises
- 10 Isometric Core Exercises To Improve Your Core Stability and Strength
- Electromyographic analysis of muscle activation during pull-up variations
- Strength Training Programs: Are Pull-ups THAT Essential?
- Lats: Not Just for Pulldowns!