Thursday 17 January 2019


The king of upper body exercises, the pull-up is for the upper body what the squat is for the lower body. Utilising almost every muscle in the upper body to execute and stabilise, there is no better exercise for developing a great upper and mid back whilst doing so in a holistic way. Mastery over your own body with the pull-ups outstrips anything you can achieve with barbell rows and lat pull-downs.

Table of contents

Classification and muscles used

  • Type: Bodyweight
  • Action: Pulling
  • Plane: Close-grip: sagittal; wide-grip: frontal; horizontal: transverse

Most muscles in the upper body and core are utilised in performing pull-ups, even the chest muscles. The position you are in also affects it, such as the starting position or end position and grip width. However, the main muscles that pull-ups target regardless are:

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Primary (greens)
  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Biceps (front of upper arms)
Secondary (blues)
  • Posterior deltoids (back of shoulders)
  • Trapezius (back of neck, upper back)
  • Rectus abdominus (abs)
  • Forearm muscles
  • Smaller upper back muscles - rhomboids and teres major
Other (pinks)
  • Rotator cuff muscles (shoulder joint)
  • Pectoralis major (chest)
  • Coracobrachialis (upper arm)
  • Long-head of the triceps (back of upper arm)

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How to perform

  1. Assume a dead-hang position from the bar, with hands just shoulder width apart, elbows locked out and feet together.
  2. Engage the muscles around your shoulder-joint/arm-pit. This is like a lower shoulder shrug. This aids in maintaining a proper dead-hang position, whilst also protecting your shoulder-joint from over-extension during full range of motion pull-ups.
  3. With a neutral pelvic position brace your core to maintain a straight body from your head to your ankles and to better prevent movement compensation.
  4. Keeping your shoulder-joint and core engaged throughout pull your body towards the bar as far as you can. Breathe out whilst pulling up.
  5. Aim to pull yourself until your collarbone reaches the bar. Once you reach your end range of motion, lower yourself back to the starting position. Breathe in whilst lowering.
  6. Repeat for desired repetitions and keep your breathing rhythmic.
Pull ups pull-ups
A good dead-hang position to start a pull-up from. Note the need for crossed lower legs due to height of the bar. Photo by Charlotte Karlsen on Unsplash.

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Common mistakes

Too many personal trainers are too happy to allow clients to perform pull-ups poorly just so long as they are getting results, but the body always finds a way to compensate to achieve these results and the long-term inter-muscle relationship and joint-mechanic damage this does is harder to correct.

Some common pull-up mistakes are:

  • Only doing partial reps by not performing the full range of motion downwards. It is easier to only do partial reps focusing on the middle and top part of the motion but unless you work the whole range you are creating a weakness and limiting your development.
  • Swinging/using momentum to get yourself up.
  • Kipping. Pretty similar to the previous point and a format CrossFitter's are fond of.
  • Curling your feet and legs back to create better leverage. Unless of course you are restricted by a low bar meaning you need to curl them back.
  • Avoid performing behind the head/neck pull-ups. These cause excessive external rotation in the shoulders.
  • Jurking your head upwards at the top to reach the top. This breaks your neutral spinal alignment/
  • Pulling your chest towards the bar in a diagonal motion. Unless you are specifically intending to do a pull-up/row hybrid then this a mistake.
  • You hold your breath.

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Progression and regression

Ways to regress, or to make this exercise easier to perform:

  • The easiest way to make a pull-up easier is to use a suitable strength mobility band to assist you in the pull-up, providing just enough resistance to help you pull yourself up. As you become stronger you can use a lighter resistance band to make it harder until you can do a pull-up without a band.
  • Another way is to use an assisted dipping/pull-up machine, which allows you to use alter the resistance, to achieve the same.
  • Negatives. If you can't perform one proper pull-up then performing negatives can greatly help. Using an aid to get yourself into the top position simply lower yourself under control and repeat for desired amount of reps. Negatives greatly help build strength especially when done with a slow tempo such as 3 to 4 seconds each rep.

To make the pull-up harder:

  • See variations below.

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Below is a list of some of the many variations of pull-up that can be done:

  • Wide grip: hands placed further apart, places more emphasis on the lats and less on the biceps. It also makes the exercise harder.
  • Narrow grip: hands placed closer together, places more emphasis on the biceps as opposed to the lats. It also make the exercise easier.
  • Reverse/underhand/supine grip: primarily works your biceps muscles with far less emphasis on the lats. A great variation for targeting these muscles instead of doing biceps curls and the like.
  • Weighted pull-ups: using a dipping-dip or the sort, using additional weight to make yourself heavier to pull-up.
  • Archer pull-up: places more emphasis on one side at a time.
  • One-arm pull-up: one of the hardest pull-up variations, requiring great stability, core and lat/bicep strength.
  • Clapping pull-up: primarily used for developing power in the pull-up musculature. A really tough variation.
  • Side-to-side pull-ups: Whilst in the top position you move your body side to side via your upper back musculature.
  • L-sit pull-ups: Having your legs held up straight in front of you. Targets your abs as well as making the pull-up harder as it alters your body position and angle.
  • Ring pull-ups: greatly challenges the stability of the pull-up musculature and body as a whole.

There are many more variations of this exercise that can be performed, however to master the above would be a great achievement on its own.

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Closing thoughts

The pull-up is a staple exercise of most exercise routines that has been used since ancient times to develop stronger lats and upper back muscles. When performed correctly it also hits your core.

Whilst a pull-down machine and the such work great for maximal strength and hypertrophy, they lack the holistic all body impact a perfectly executed pull-up, especially a ring or one-handed pull-up has.

When the harder pull-up variations are implemented, you'll find there is no need to ever pull a weight downwards again unless you really want to. Pull-ups can also be done anywhere wherever you can find a bar or suitable object to dangle from.

Over time I will post more articles showcasing pull-up variations along with videos of their execution. Indeed, when time permits I will add more pictures and videos to this post to further illustrate the points made. Until then if you have any questions feel free to comment below or send me some feedback!

Lyle Richardson,
Gym Pal - Your Friend In Fitness


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