The pull-up could is a foundational upper body exercise. It’s an exercise that carries a ton of benefits and it can be used for benefit in nearly every training setting. Outside of having specific strength, muscle, and sport benefits, the pull-up could also be described as a milestone movement, as in, it’s an amazing first accomplishment to tackle in strength training.
On the bar, the pull-up is no easy feat to tackle, especially for a true beginner. That’s why we built out an in-depth pull-up guide to help you along your way.
In this pull-up exercise guide, we will cover:
- How-To: Pull-Up
- Benefits of the Pull-Up
- Muscles Worked
- Pull-Up Progressions
- Pull-Up Variations
- Pull-Up Alternatives
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to properly set up and shrug, specifically for the strict bodyweight pull-up.
Establish 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.
Set the Back, Then Pull
Once you’ve set your grip, retract the scapula slightly to create a firm foundation to begin your pull-up from. This retraction will be very subtle and will “open” the chest slightly when done correctly.
Drive the Elbows to the Floor
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.
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.
The pull-up comes packed with a ton of benefits and when they’re performed regularly, these benefits only increase. Below are three of our favorite pull-up benefits.
1. 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.
2. 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 with the use of pull-ups can have indirect carryover to squat and deadlifts, as these muscles are crucial for their success.
3. Improved Sense of Accomplishment
Think back to that time you nailed your first pull-up. It was an awesome feeling, right? The pull-up is a fantastic tool for tracking upper body strength and progress, and can be a great tool for boosting internal confidence.
The reason pull-ups are often a staple in upper body workouts is due to their ability to target multiple muscles at once. In a 2010 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, authors compared the musculature used and needed by chin-ups and pull-ups. (1)
Each exercise worked a variety of muscle groups, check out the muscles worked by the pull-up below:
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Biceps Brachii
- Lower Trapezius
- Pectoralis Major
- Erector Spinae
- External Oblique
Keep in mind, these are only the muscles that were monitored in the study and other smaller, stabilizer muscles might be also be involved in the pull-up to some degree.
There are multiple pull-up progressions one can use to master great reps. It’s important to note that in this article we’ll provide progressions, but the rate and frequency in which they should be used will be based on your strength and skill level.
1. 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 one’s body with a time oriented goal, the longer the lowering process, the tougher the movement.
To implement 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 lower yourself slowly with a time-base goal you’ve set for yourself.
2. Banded Pull-Ups
3. Pull-Up Pauses and Holds
Another useful pull-up progression to use pauses and holds throughout various ranges of motion. Basically, instead of just lowering yourself slowly, you’ll add in pauses at certain points to increase time under tension and the time you spend holding your own bodyweight.
Some great starting places when using pauses in pull-ups are at the top of the movement when a full contraction is needed and at the midway point.
After you’ve conquered the 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, as opposed to haphazardly programming them.
1. Weighted Pull-Up
- Why Use It: Strength and Hypertrophy Gains
The weight pull-up is a typical go-to variation for athletes trying to progress their pull-up intensity with the use of external load. This variation is endless and only capped by your ability to execute great reps at various amounts of weight.
2. Kipping Pull-Up
- Why Use It: CrossFit and Gymnastics Sport Specificity
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
- Why Use It: CrossFit Sport Specificity
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.
Below are three (3) pull-up alternatives coaches and athletes can use to increase arm strength and muscle hypertrophy.
1. Inverted 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.
2. 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.
3. 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 goals, then the dumbbell row can be an incredibly useful exercise to add for additional pulling volume.
Can beginners do pull-ups?
Yes, absolutely. Beginners can certainly do pull-ups and should start learning the skill early on. More than likely, beginners will need to start with pull-up progression, and some great progressions to try include:
- Banded pull-ups
- Pull-up eccentrics
- Pull-up with pauses
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:
A few secondary muscles the pull-up targets include:
- Serratus anterior
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 2-3 times a week with variations and progressions to increase your strength and work capacity for this movement.
What are the benefits of pull-ups?
There are multiple benefits that come along with performing pull-ups on a regular basis. Some of the biggest benefits include:
- Stronger back
- Back muscle hypertrophy
- Mental accomplishment
- Sport carryover
- Total upper body strength