One of the most popular workouts for developing the back and shoulders is the pull-up. It is a mainstay of strength training and a great approach to developing upper-body muscular growth. However, pull-ups are extremely tough to perform, not only for novices but even for more experienced lifters.
A person practicing calisthenics or weight training should incorporate a pull-up regimen of different variations into their workouts. These include inclined pull-ups, behind-the-neck pull-ups, eccentric pull-ups, and archer pull-ups, among others.
The pull-up engages many muscle groups while also improving functional strength and a strong grip. While the squat is superior for building lower-body strength, the pull-up is undoubtedly ahead of the others for developing upper-body strength. Thus it is imperative to learn the mechanics of this exercise and its variations to optimize reaped benefits.
Although cable lat pull-downs allow individuals to lift weights greater than their body weight, cable machines are recognized for motion control and stability, thus limiting joint mobility development and stabilizing muscle engagement.
In addition, pull-ups are somewhat tricky to perform because they demand a lot of synergistic upper-body muscle actions for proper execution and efficient strength utilization. Synergistic movements are coordinated muscular and joint activities that occur when many muscle groups are engaged simultaneously to perform a specific task.
They necessitate the simultaneous development of strength (prime movers), mobility (joint flexibility), and stability (stabilizing muscles). Pull-ups need proper form and technique to use the appropriate muscles at the right moment to make the activity easier and more effective for strength training.
One of the primary muscles used in a pull-up is the latissimus dorsi or lats. They are a pair of muscles that go across the back and sides, from the shoulder blades down, and aid in moving the upper arms downwards. The lats are engaged when the elbows are pulled to the sides of the body, allowing them to lift the torso.
The lats work in tandem with the teres major, a muscle that extends from the shoulder blade to the upper arm. It accomplishes the same by assisting with downward arm movement while bracing the shoulder joints.
To prepare for a pull-up, these muscles can be strengthened with workouts such as bent over or barbell Pendley rows.
The trapezius, or traps, also play a vital role in the pull-up. They are high up in the center of the back, stretching to the shoulders and narrowing towards the neck in a trapezoid form. They work with the lats to support the shoulder blades throughout the pull-up.
The rhomboids are located behind the traps and support the shoulders as they make rotation and other shoulder blade motions more stable. These muscles retract the scapula as the arms are adducted during the pulling-up motion.
When an individual does pull-ups, the biceps, and brachialis function similarly. During a supinated grip pull-up, the biceps are activated more than any other muscle save the lats.
However, the brachialis does most of the lifting with a neutral or pronated grip pull-up. In addition, these muscles are heavily activated during the eccentric portion of the pull-up—they aid in maintaining stability throughout the pull-up.
The pectoral muscles run across the front of the chest and function similarly to those on the rear of the body, supporting shoulder joints and allowing the upper arm to be pulled down to the waist. They don't work as hard as the muscles in the back, but they do play an essential supportive role during the pull-up.
During pull-ups, the abdominal muscles are heavily engaged. They help stabilize the body and legs during a pull-up's eccentric and concentric phases. In addition, when performing a pull-up, the core muscles, which include muscle groups such as the obliques, abdominals, and diaphragm, support the spine and maintain body posture.
Hewit et al. discovered that among the four muscles tested (rectus abdominis (RA), lats, traps, and biceps), the RA was the most active muscular group in all individuals performing a pull-up. The core musculature is highly activated, which is not unexpected given that this muscle group helps to maintain a tight body posture during the pull-up. Previous research has corroborated this idea when monitoring RA activity during various actions that need core stability.
The pull-up is easily the most complex of all the compound exercises. Its biomechanics are also the least understood due to the available variations and techniques to perform it.
There are almost countless ways to execute a pull-up when you combine body orientation (vertical, incline, and horizontal), grip width (narrow, shoulder-width, and wide), hand orientation (supinated, neutral, and pronated), and knee/hip flexion/extension.
Pull-up grip width has three variations:
Although varying the grip width alters the degree of activation of other muscle groups, the engagement of the lats stays almost the same regardless of grip width.
However, different hand orientations like pronated, neutral, or supinated do have varying degrees of effect on lats and biceps activation. For example, a study by Lusk et al. and Leslie et al. found that a pronated grip, regardless of the grip width, elicited the most activity for the lats.
Knee flexion and extension also have varying effects on the biceps brachii during a pull-up. In a study by Azmi et al., their findings showed greater biceps activation during the concentric phase of the pull-up and better overall participant performance when the knee is fully extended compared to a flexed knee.
Hip and knee flexion or extension will affect vertical pulling mechanics and change shoulder joint positioning, thereby also changing the degree of activation of different muscle groups. Pull-ups can also be executed to be band-assisted or resisted exercises.
Start by standing below a pull-up bar. If one can't reach the bar from standing on the floor, place a box or a bench beneath the bar and stand on that. Grab the pull-up bar with a pronated grip with the hands shoulder-width apart. Once the hands are holding onto the bar, let the body hang freely, engage the core, and pull the shoulders back and down. This will become the starting position.
Take a deep breath and breathe out slowly while pulling the body up using shoulder extension and elbow flexion. During the motion to the top, maintain the elbows' position, preventing them from moving laterally to the body.
Hold the position for a second at the top of the movement when the chin is above the bar, or the elbows are at least at a 90° angle of flexion. Then, slowly breathe in when lowering the body by flexing the shoulders and extending the elbows. At the bottom of the movement, do not disengage the shoulders. Always maintain scapular retraction. Repeat the action for the desired number of repetitions.
Using the standard pull-up instructions as a guide, one may add variations by changing the grip width, hand orientation, and hip/knee flexion/extension. Furthermore, more variations can be added if leg raises are incorporated into pull-ups. Finally, one may also perform a band-assisted or resisted pull-up.
The inverted row can help eliminate muscular strength imbalances between the front and back muscles while helping develop posture and stability. It's an excellent workout for novices or those who still need to build the upper-body strength required for a pull-up.
Inverted rows can be done in an inclined posture; the more inclined the body, the less resistance there is. It can also be performed with the body parallel to the floor by bending the knees at a 90° angle or the feet placed on a bench for greater resistance. Similar to a standard pull-up, variations can be added by changing grip width, hand, and body orientation.
Position the body underneath a dip bar, parallel bar, or bench rack and grab it with a pronated shoulder-width grip. Place the feet in front of the body, knees bent, and thighs parallel to the ground. Retract the scapula and engage the core. Exhale and pull the body towards the bar until the chest is almost touching the bar. Inhale and lower the body back to the starting position, arms fully extended.
This pull-up variation necessitates extensive shoulder mobility and, in certain situations, can lead to injury due to shoulder impingement.
The head being forced forward in front of the bar and the neck making contact with the bar while pulling the body up puts the shoulder joints in a precarious position. Consult a trainer for the proper execution of this exercise.
Begin with an overhand grip and hands several inches wider than shoulder width apart. Pull the body up and forward until the bar reaches the back of your neck. Return to the bottom position with the arms straight, then repeat for the desired number of reps.
An eccentric pull-up slows down the negative descent portion of the pull-up, putting more strain on the muscles. It prevents the muscles from extending and rips more muscle fibers than the positive phase of a pull-up.
Pull up to the bar with the preferred pull-up grip until the chin is above the bar, then gently lower the body down as slowly as possible (5 to 8 seconds would be ideal). Then, pull the body back up to the bar and repeat until failure.
This variation requires pulling the body up toward one hand, across the bar to the other hand, and back to the starting position. This exercise puts more strain on each arm than the standard pull-ups.
Begin with a pronated grip and hands several inches wider than shoulder width apart. Pull the body up towards the left hand, go sideways across the bar to the right hand, then back down to the starting position. Repeat the movement but reverse the direction of the pull, towards the right hand, across the bar to the left hand, and back to the bottom.
Using a supinated or pronated grip, grab the bar with one hand. Grasp the wrist of the hand holding the bar with the other hand. Pull the body up until the chin is over the bar, then return to the starting position.
As you gain strength, you may increase the difficulty of this exercise by grabbing deeper down the arm of the hand holding the bar.
This variation's movement is similar to that of an archer firing a bow and arrow. This activity is a natural progression for the one-arm pull-up and will help the body get used to single-arm upper-body pulling.
Using a wide overhand grip, pull the body up to the bar, then bring the body across the bar to the left hand while sliding the right hand over the top of the bar and extending it straight. Reverse the action by bringing the body to the right hand and extending the left hand straight over the bar. Finally, return the body to the bar's center and lower back to the starting position. Repeat movement for the desired number of repetitions.
It may be a difficult struggle to perform a pull-up but practice helps to gradually develop the correct form. It takes strength to lift the entire body weight from a dead hang. Once accomplished, and able to perform the pull-up flawlessly rep after rep, these variations can be utilized to push yourself even harder.
1. Hewit JK, Jaffe DA, Crowder T. A comparison of muscle activation during the pull-up and three alternative pulling exercises. J. Phys. Fitness, Med. Treat. Sport. 2018;5(4):1-7.
2. Leslie KL, Comfort P. The effect of grip width and hand orientation on muscle activity during pull-ups and the lat pull-down. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 2013 Feb 1;35(1):75-8.
3. Lusk SJ, Hale BD, Russell DM. Grip width and forearm orientation effects on muscle activity during the lat pull-down. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2010 Jul 1;24(7):1895-900.
4. Azmi AM, Shafiee MS, Abd Malek NF, Tan K, Vasanthi RK, Ab Malik Z, Nadzalan AM. The effects of knee flexion on muscle activation and performance during chin-up exercise. Pedagogy of Physical Culture and Sports. 2022;26(3):158-64.