A third of one of the most popular training programs in modern gym culture, the term pull day refers to a workout session where the lifter only performs exercises that make use of a pulling motion.
This splits the musculature of the upper body in a rather unique fashion, allowing the exerciser to target certain muscle groups with such a simple rule.
Despite the simplicity of the rule, what characteristics make an exercise a valid pull day lift is somewhat more complicated than simply involving a pulling motion - with specific muscle activation also being a major factor as well.
A pull day is a kind of workout session most often featured in the famous push/pull/legs training split, wherein the exerciser specifically trains the muscles of the biceps, back and posterior deltoids through the use of pulling exercises.
When performing a pull day workout session, the exerciser will generally avoid training any other muscles than the previously mentioned ones, as these other muscle groups are better left unfatigued for when a push or legs workout session is used instead.
And though push/pull/legs or PPL is the most common training program to utilize the concept of a pull day workout, there are a number of other athletically-focused training regimes that also boast a similar method of exercise splitting.
For an exercise to be suitable for addition to a pull day workout, it must train the biceps brachii, the latissimus dorsi, the rhomboids, the trapezius or any other combination of muscles relating to the biceps and back musculature.
This usually involves such biomechanics as arm adduction, scapular retraction, a pronated hand grip and flexion of the elbow joint - all of which are characterized by recruitment of the aforementioned muscle groups.
Perhaps one of the most noteworthy exercises of all; the deadlift recruits practically every muscle group in the entire body - seeming to make it unsuitable for a pull day.
However, this is not entirely true if the lifter is subscribing to the push/pull/legs split routine, as it is in the pull day where the deadlift is most often programmed due to the presence of heavy squat sets during the leg day workout session.
Seeing as the deadlift trains the entirety of the back in a single movement, the deadlift is most often used during a pull day workout as a method of activating all muscle groups prior to a more targeted number of isolation exercises.
When performing the deadlift in your pull day workout, it is best to place it at the absolute top of your exercise order - making it one of the first lifts you perform during the workout.
Also referred to as bent-over rows, barbell rows are among one of the most effective mass and strength builders of the upper back and biceps muscles - recruiting the latissimus dorsi, posterior deltoid head, rhomboids and mid-trapezius to a significant level.
Barbell rows are one of the most essential exercises in any pull day, with its horizontal pull mechanics sharing an equal amount of importance with vertical pulls.
Furthermore - without the deadlift in your pull day, it is likely that barbell rows will be the sole source of spinal erector muscle training stimulus, a vitally important aspect of back training that is often overlooked.
Much like the deadlift or other heavy compound exercises, barbell rows are meant to be among one of the first exercises performed within the pull way workout session, ensuring that the exerciser adheres to correct form with muscles that are fresh and yet to be tired out.
A classic bodyweight exercise often incorporated into pull day workouts for its vertical pulling mechanics, the pull up is usually paired with barbell rows or a horizontal pulling exercise so as to maximize back muscle recruitment.
In particular, pull ups place a significant amount of training stimulus on the latissimus dorsi and biceps brachii - especially when performed with a double overhand grip.
This can pair quite well with other frequently included exercises in a pull day workout, like the barbell shrug or rear deltoid flys.
For more advanced lifters that find ordinary bodyweight pull ups to be insufficient in terms of difficulty, there is always the option of performing weighted pull ups instead, thereby allowing the exerciser to continue progressive overload.
A machine-based exercise that replicates the mechanics of a pull up but with a variable level of resistance, lat pulldowns are also frequently included in pull day workouts as a secondary compound exercise meant to reinforce latissimus dorsi hypertrophy.
Due to its role as a secondary or accessory compound exercise, lat pulldowns are often performed with a higher amount of volume and low to moderate levels of resistance despite their compound muscular activation set.
When incorporating lat pulldowns into your pull day, it is advisable to perform it near the end of your workout so as to ensure that you are getting the absolute maximum development out of your workout.
For development of the trapezius muscles atop the shoulders, there are few exercises capable of placing as much resistance on such a muscle as the shrug exercise.
This particular pull day exercise is favored as a secondary compound exercise alongside the barbell row or similar row variations, thereby providing a complete activation of the trapezius muscle in its entirety.
When performing the barbell shrug or any of its variations, the majority of workout sessions will place such exercises around the middle of the order of exercises - just after the heavier compound exercises that recruit more muscle groups, but prior to the lighter isolation exercises.
One method of training the spinal stabilizer muscles during a pull day workout is the use of back hyperextension exercises - an erector spinae-targeting group of exercises that make use of lower back extension in order to recruit these muscles in a manner that does not directly involve the larger muscle groups.
Though also performed with weights, back hyperextensions will usually only make use of the exerciser’s own bodyweight alongside a hyperextension machine, making it rather low impact in regards to the delicate tissues of the lower back.
Much like other isolation exercises, back hyperextensions are meant to be performed near the end of the workout session so as to avoid any premature fatiguing of these rather small muscles.
The placement of back hyperextensions within the order of exercises is especially important, as weakened erector spinae muscles can easily lead to serious back injuries if physical stress is applied.
No pull day is complete without some sort of biceps brachii isolation exercise, with the bicep curl or similar curl variations being the most efficient way of training the biceps in a highly targeted manner.
The biggest benefit to bicep curls or similar exercises is in the simplicity with which they are performed, often only making use of the elbow flexion biomechanic and nothing else.
This low level of complexity allows the exerciser to place significant emphasis on their biceps brachii without worry of injury, as very little weight is actually required to induce hypertrophy in such a muscle group.
When programming bicep curls, a low to moderate amount of weight and higher volumes of repetitions is the most advisable approach - as well as placing the exercise around the end of the workout so as to maximize any results that can be achieved.
Though the deltoids are most often involved in push day exercises, it is the posterior or rear section of the deltoid muscles that is meant to receive direct training stimulus during a pull day workout.
This is simply because of the fact that the posterior deltoid head is involved in most pulling exercises, being of particular importance during rowing movements.
As such, the addition of certain isolation exercises targeting this particular part of the deltoid muscles are a common addition to many pull day workouts, with flyes being the most frequently seen kind.
Whether it be rear delt dumbbell flys, cable flys performed with the exerciser stepped forward or the pec dec machine being performed in reverse - isolating the posterior deltoid head is best left as one of the last exercises in the workout session, as the deltoids are used in practically any exercise involving the upper body.
Now that we’ve gone over the most common isolation exercises and the most effective compound movements found in pull day workouts, you can easily go about structuring your own push/pull/legs training split.
However, keep in mind that not every pull day exercise has been listed in this article, and there are doubtless quite a few more available exercises that fit within the criteria of a pull day exercise.
As always, it is important to ensure that proper training programming is followed, and that you seek out the advice of a qualified exercise professional if you are unsure of what you’re doing.
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2. Lorenzetti, Silvio, Romain Dayer, Michael Plüss, and Renate List. 2017. "Pulling Exercises for Strength Training and Rehabilitation: Movements and Loading Conditions" Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology 2, no. 3: 33. https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk2030033
3. T Bompa “Periodization Theory and Methodology of Training” (Jan 2009) Bompa T (2009) Periodization Theory and Methodology of Training (5 th ed.). Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics, USA.