Pull Up vs Push Up: What's the Difference?

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 13, 2022

Two classic bodyweight exercises are that of the pull up and the push up - of which cannot be more different from the other, despite the similarity in their names and source of resistance.

This difference between the two opposing bodyweight staples can in fact make them complement the other when performed within the same training program, producing a more well-rounded and functional physique for the exerciser.

To summarize these differences, the pull up involves training the muscles of the back and biceps by suspending oneself from a bar, whereas the push up involves training the muscles of the chest and triceps by pressing the bodyweight away from the ground while in a plank position.

What is the Pull Up?

The pull up is a compound bodyweight exercise that involves an individual suspending themselves from an overhead handle as they essentially row their entire bodyweight in a vertical direction. 

pull up

It is most frequently encountered in bodybuilding programs or calisthenic workouts that require some level of back muscle activation take place, especially in the case of calisthenics training wherein the pull up will most often act as the main source of back muscle training stimulus.

Pull ups are considered to be an intermediate level bodyweight exercise due to the difficulty involved in performing the exercise correctly, and will generally have certain variations added to higher level workout programs so as to modify certain aspects.

Advantages of the Pull Up

Apart from the obvious muscular development of the back and bicep muscle groups, pull ups are capable of reinforcing the grip strength and endurance of the exerciser - something that is a direct result of one suspending themselves from a bar throughout the entirety of the movement.

Furthermore, the range of motion of a pull up is quite beneficial for the osseous and connective tissues of the body, reducing vertical spinal column pressure and improving shoulder mobility as a by-product of the exercise.

Disadvantages of the Pull Up

The main disadvantage of pull ups has to do with the difficulty in which the exercise presents, making it difficult for even experienced weightlifters to perform high volume sets consecutively. 

This can, in turn, affect muscular hypertrophy and otherwise limit the extent to which a calisthenics back workout can induce progress.

Apart from the difficulty involved, pull ups are also known to be rather incompatible with certain types of injuries or conditions, especially those concerning the wrist and shoulder joints as these two areas receive the greatest strain throughout a pull up repetition.

How-to to a Pull Up

To begin performing a pull up, the exerciser will grip an overhead bar with both hands wider than shoulder-width apart. 

Though the pronated grip is the most common (and standard) variation of the pull up, individuals who find this uncomfortable can opt for a neutral grip instead. Note that this will draw resistance away from the biceps brachii and result in greater recruitment of the brachioradialis muscles instead.

pull up

Once the exerciser has secured their grip around the bar, they will push the chest forward and upward as they pull from their back, pulling the elbows to their sides as they do so. If performed correctly, muscular contraction should be felt along the sides of the back as well as the biceps.

The apex of the repetition is considered reached once the bar has cleared the chin of the exerciser, or otherwise come close to the clavicles.

Then, once this point has been reached, the exerciser will slowly lower themselves back to the dead hang position, thereby completing the repetition.

Subsequent repetitions do not require the exerciser to release the bar once more, and may be immediately performed once the exerciser has returned to a dead hang.

What is Push Up?

The push up is a classic bodyweight compound exercise that involves an individual lying in a plank position and pushing themselves away from the ground so as to recruit the muscles of the chest, shoulders and triceps.

push up

The push up is most frequently seen as a high-volume upper body exercise in calisthenic training programs, with certain kinds of push up variations meant to reduce this need for high repetition volume by increasing tension or resistance that is placed on the muscles of the upper body.

Advantages of the Push Up

The main benefit of push ups is its capacity to act as a compound movement despite allowing for very high volume sets to be performed, making it uniquely effective for building arm and chest muscular endurance in a relatively short time frame.

Furthermore, this high capacity for volume equates to a high caloric expenditure as well, hence the inclusion of push ups in many home-based fat burning workouts.

Besides the capacity to be performed with many repetitions, push ups are also one of the most basic methods of achieving muscular recruitment of the triceps, pectorals and deltoid muscle groups - requiring no equipment or advanced exercise knowledge whatsoever.

Even in cases where the exerciser has reached a point where progressive overload of the push up is impractical, making simple changes to the form of the exercise can easily result in greater resistance and tension without the need for further equipment.

Disadvantages of the Push Up

Push ups present several disadvantages, with a general lack of resistance being the main reason for such drawbacks. 

First is the length of time in which a single set of push ups can consume, with more advanced lifters being capable of performing repetitions in the triple digits before achieving any sort of fatigue in their muscles. This can lead to inefficient and time-consuming workout sessions unless the push up is substituted for a different exercise.

Apart from general inefficiency due to a lack of resistance, push ups are also limited by the weakest muscle in the upper body - be it the triceps or the deltoid muscles, whichever muscle group is fatigued first will ultimately limit how many repetitions are possible.

This connects further into the programming difficulties of push ups, with the aforementioned muscle group limitation clashing with the fact that the push up will also directly affect other exercises within the workout if performed first.

How-to do a Push Up

To begin performing a set of push ups, the exerciser will lie on the floor in a plank position with their hands and toes flat on the ground.

push up

Flexing the core and ensuring that the hands are facing forward, the exerciser will then slowly lower their body downwards until nearly in contact with the ground. 

Then, squeezing from the chest, the exerciser will push away from the floor until full elbow extension is reached.

This completes a single repetition of the push up, with subsequent repetitions simply repeating the motion while maintaining said plank position.

Muscles Worked by the Pull Up and the Push Up

As a general guideline, it can be said that the push up is primarily a chest exercise, whereas the pull up is a latissimus dorsi exercise respectively.

While there are other muscle groups recruited by these exercises, it is these muscles (the chest and the lats) that are the largest in relative size, and play the most significant role throughout the movements of the exercises.

In actuality, the pull up and push up work the exact opposite muscle groups of the other - meaning that they in fact complement each other, and may be performed within the same workout with the sole limiting factor being general systemic fatigue.

Pull Up Associated Musculature

The pull up primarily targets the latissimus dorsi muscle group, though it also recruits the majority of the muscles of the back such as the trapezius, rhomboids, posterior deltoid head and erector spinae to a certain degree.

Furthermore, depending on the position of the wrists relative to the shoulders, the biceps brachii and brachioradialis muscles are also targeted by the pull ups - though exercises should be careful not to depend on these muscles too much, as it can quickly break proper form.

Push Up Associated Musculature

The push up mainly recruits the pectoral muscle group that makes up the chest while simultaneously also targeting the triceps brachii and the deltoid muscles that make up the shoulders - though the posterior deltoid head plays a lesser role in comparison to the anterior head.

Furthermore, push ups are one of the few exercises capable of recruiting the serratus in a dynamic fashion, making the exercise excellent for developing general core stability as the plank position involved will also stimulate the abdominal muscles as well.

Volume of Repetition Differences of the Pull Up and the Push Up

While maximum volume will vary between individuals of different training levels and body weights, it can generally be assumed that the volume of a push up set will be greater than that of a pull up due to the greater intensity and resistance of the latter exercise.

Though volume is only one factor among many that lead to muscular development, it is clinically established to be quite important for improving muscle mass via muscular hypertrophy, meaning that calisthenic athletes wishing to widen their back may instead choose to opt for a lower-resistance back exercise.

Conversely, the push up excels at this particular aspect - so much so that the returns begin to diminish after a certain point, with excessive volume failing to induce hypertrophy instead.

Difficulty and Intensity Differences of the Pull Up and the Push Up

As was mentioned in the previous section of this article, the main difference in volume between the pull up and the push up has to do with the level of resistance and intensity involved in a single repetition of either exercise - generally with the pull up being considered far more intense than the push up when compared at a one to one scale.

This is because of the pull up leveraging the entire body weight from a vertical angle in a manner that is somewhat disadvantageous and limiting to certain muscle groups, thereby translating to a higher level of intensity.

On the other side is the push up, which will allow a large portion of the exerciser’s weight to be supported by the legs due to their plank position on the ground, presenting a lesser level of resistance to the muscle groups being trained alongside the added advantage of being in a highly advantageous position for the pectoral and triceps muscle groups.

Difficulty and Complexity

Though the pull up and push up differ quite drastically in terms of exercise intensity, the difficulty and complexity of their form or mechanics are actually quite similar - both are considered to be somewhat basic in the grand scheme of calisthenic exercises and are otherwise quite easy to learn, even for individuals without an understanding of exercise fundamentals or biomechanics.

In general, “kipping” or otherwise performing these exercises in an uncontrolled and rapid manner is the largest and most common mistake that many exercisers will make, and is easily avoided by simply controlling the repetition and the speed with which it is completed.

Workout Programming of the Pull Up and the Push Up

In terms of programming, pull ups are generally easier to include into an already established workout routine due to the equal manner in which they fatigue the muscles, as well as the relatively lower amount of volume needed to reach full exhaustion.

Comparatively, push ups are somewhat more difficult to include into a workout, and are only either used as the first and primary compound exercise in a chest workout or as a “finishing” exercise at the end of a workout that involves higher intensity push exercises.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Are Push Exercises Better Than Pull?

Push and pull exercises are simply broad terms that reflect the direction of opposing force the muscles of the body will exert when performing either kind of exercise.

Among the most common of these are the bench press, a push exercise - and the row, a pulling exercise.

These different types of exercises target entirely different muscle groups and will generally feature different biomechanics and intensities, meaning that comparing push exercises to pull exercises is a null comparison, and generally impossible in most contexts.

Can You Get "Ripped" From Push-Ups and Pull-Ups?

It is entirely possible to develop impressive muscle mass and low body fat composition with push ups and pull ups alone, though doing so may take longer in comparison to free weight training programs or other types of resistance training.

So long as you are consistent with your workouts and support muscular recovery with sufficient protein intake and rest, there is no doubt that your muscles will grow larger.

Can You Get a Six Pack From Just Push-Ups?

While push ups do indeed recruit the muscles of the core in an isometric fashion, they are unlikely to result in the coveted six pack abs for one simple reason - developing visible abdominal muscles is a matter of body fat percentage, rather than muscle mass.

What this means is that unless an exerciser’s diet is inducing a caloric deficit, no amount of push ups will make your six pack visible beneath a layer of abdominal body fat.

It is technically possible for push ups to expend enough calories to eventually result in the visibility of abs, but doing so is inefficient and generally unreliable - requiring that exercisers instead keep track of their diet and eat in a purposeful manner.

Final Thoughts

And there you have it, all the differences between pull ups and push ups at a larger scale. 

Remember that these two exercises are entirely different and generally incomparable within most contexts, meaning that choosing which exercise to perform is not the right question - rather it should be when to perform such exercises instead.

References

1. Dhahbi, Wissem & Chaabene, Helmi & Chaouachi, Anis & Padulo, Johnny & Behm, David & Cochrane Wilkie, Jodie & Burnett, Angus & Chamari, Karim. (2018). Kinetic analysis of push-up exercises: a systematic review with practical recommendations. Sports Biomechanics. 21. 10.1080/14763141.2018.1512149.

2. Snarr RL, Hallmark AV, Casey JC, Esco MR. Electromyographical Comparison of a Traditional, Suspension Device, and Towel Pull-Up. J Hum Kinet. 2017 Aug 1;58:5-13. doi: 10.1515/hukin-2017-0068. PMID: 28828073; PMCID: PMC5548150.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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