Pull ups are one of the most rewarding and beneficial exercises to do. They are also one of the most physically and mentally challenging exercises. Think about it, you have to pull your entire body weight up by using a set of upper body muscles, without the help of your legs, which are usually what carry your body weight.
Beginners who don’t yet have enough upper body strength struggle with pull ups and some even give up trying altogether. In a gym setting, it can be daunting to watch more experienced people do, what looks like, hundreds of them.
But, don’t worry, not everyone can bang these exercises out one after the other like that. You’ll be surprised to know that even some of the most well-defined and strong-looking people in the gym can’t do a single repetition. That’s because pullups can be very difficult in the beginning. In fact, they are challenging enough that some bodybuilders and athletes can't do them.
If it’s that difficult, is it really worth it?
There’s a good reason why so many major exercise programs include pull ups in some form. Whether it’s part of a hardcore military drill workout, a CrossFit session, or going back to the basics Arnold Schwarzenegger style, pullups have stood the test of time and for good reason. They are one of the few exercises that work every single muscle in the back all at once. They can also be done just about anywhere, as long as you have something to hold on to and pull yourself up with.
Did you know that Schwarzenegger started his fitness journey doing pull ups on a tree branch next to a lake in Austria? The pull up is a foundational upper body exercise. It’s also a milestone movement – ask anybody who does strength training and they’ll tell you, it’s one of the best feelings in the world to achieve your very first pull up.
Muscles worked by pull ups
Without getting too technical, let’s take a look at what muscles do most of the work when you’re doing pullups. The pull up muscle groups mainly used are the large back muscles, upper back muscles, the biceps, and the forearms.
The big back muscles are called latissimus dorsi and rhomboids. If you work hard on these muscles you get a strong, wide V-shaped back, one of the main goals of people who regularly hit the gym. By widening your back, this exercise will also make your shoulders look bigger.
The smaller upper back muscles are called teres spinatus, posterior deltoids, and infraspinatus. And that’s not all, every time you do a pull up, you also work your inner upper arm muscles, lower arm muscles and chest muscles (i.e. biceps), brachioradialis, and pectorals.
In short, just about every part of your upper body gets a workout every time you do a repetition.
Benefits of pull ups
Besides the obvious benefits like getting stronger and building muscle, there are many other reasons why this is one of the most popular exercises to incorporate into a workout program. Here are some of them:
It’s a versatile exercise
Once you get the hang of doing a standard pull up, you can begin experimenting with variations. You could change your grip which will target muscles from different angles. A wider grip will build the middle back more and a narrower grip will target the outer back muscles and biceps. Keeping your legs extended during the exercise will engage more of your lower back and midsection.
It saves time
If each of the muscles used in pull ups is individually trained with isolation exercises, it would take a lot longer to get the job done.
Minimal equipment is required
All you need is something sturdy that can hold up your body weight. There are a wide range of bars available for home use. This means you can do pull ups every day, even when you don’t feel like going to the gym. You could even save on a gym membership if you use this exercise as part of a home strength training program.
It’s easy on the joints
Not many exercises are joint and tendon-friendly. Because it’s performed in the air, there’s no traction required to keep the body in place. This means that the stabilizers in your lower back, knees, and midsection don’t wear down from the movement.
Even though it seems impossible for some people to do even a single pull up, once you begin doing them regularly, you’ll notice how quickly you progress. Eventually, you’ll not only be able to perform multiple repetitions, but you may also start adding more weight by holding a dumbbell between your knees, strapping a plate onto a belt, or by wearing a weighted backpack.
How to do pull ups
If you’ve never tried doing a pull up, the only way to begin is to try. As with every exercise, doing it with the correct form is crucial. You will not only get the most benefits from the exercise but also be more likely to avoid injury. This is how you should do pullups:
• Reach up, use an elevated step or jump up so you can grab hold of the bar. Grip it with your hands over the bar. They should be placed a little wider than shoulder-width apart.
• Engage your core muscles and keep them that way throughout the exercise – this will stabilize your torso. Pull your shoulder blades, also called scapula, back and down. This should also stay this way throughout the exercise.
• As you hang from the bar, make sure your feet are lifted off the floor by slightly bending your knees if needed.
• Breathe in, and as you breathe out, pull your elbows down to your sides towards the ground. This will bring your body up to the bar.
• You’ll know that you’ve completed a repetition when your chin is level to the bar.
• Lower your body down to where you started. Remember to do this slowly and to keep your core engaged and your shoulder blades back and down, even as you lower yourself down again.
• Once you’re hanging with your arms straight up again, you’re ready for the next repetition.
Can’t do a pullup?
Yes, you can! Even complete beginners can do an assisted pull up using an assisted pull up machine, a partner, or an assist band.
The machine uses a lever system used with your knees or feet to counterbalance some of your weight. This makes it easier to pull yourself up.
If your gym doesn't have a machine like this, ask a gym buddy to be your pull up partner, you could even take turns. To do a partner-assisted pull up, have your partner stand next to you and help lift you by the knees as you pull yourself up. Make sure your buddy squats and uses their legs as they take on part of your weight to help get you up.
Or get a resistance band to help! A pull up assist band is a rubber or fabric and latex band that offsets your bodyweight so you can do pull ups, even when you’re not yet strong enough to do in on your own. Resistance bands come in sets with different levels of tension so it caters to every ability. This nifty piece of equipment is simple to use and can really help you to accelerate your pullups game.
Anyone can do a pull up with a band
Obviously, an assist band works wonders for beginners as it can offset their weight, but it can also be useful for the seasoned athlete who loves pull ups and wants to up their game.
Have you ever wished you could keep going but your muscles just give up on you after a few repetitions? Using a band will help you to get more repetitions in which will help you to get stronger faster, even when your back and arms fatigue. And as you progress, you can vary the tension. By getting a pull up assist band set, you’ll have a variety of options to help you every step of the way. Just remember, especially if you’re a beginner, it is easy to get injured and there are a few things you should avoid when doing pull ups.
Potential mistakes, and tips to avoid making them:
• Using momentum. Most beginners, and even some more advanced people, grab the bar, swing their bodies back and forth and use this momentum to do a pull up. This is not the correct way and you could risk injury.
• Not controlling the release. It’s important to control the movement as you go up and down. Don’t lower yourself too fast.
• Kipping. Unless you’re a CrossFit athlete, don’t kip, which is vigorously using momentum to do the exercise. This could be harmful to your joints.
• Behind the neck. Even if you see people at the gym pulling themselves up so the bar reaches the back of the neck instead of the chin, it’s not a good idea. This puts your shoulders at risk. Rotator cuff injuries are some of the worst to deal with and can take years to heal.
• Using an extremely wide grip. A slightly wider grip targets the outer back muscles, but taking it to the extreme will reduce the range of motion while increasing the risk of a shoulder injury.
Don't forget to work your other muscles
Once you start doing pull ups, it can be super exciting, especially if you're making fast gains. But, don't forget your other muscles like your shoulders, core, hips, and legs. Make sure you get a full-body strength training workout at least twice a week. This could include push-ups, crunches, planks, glute bridges, deadlifts, and lunges. There are many variations to all of the exercises and they're all worth looking into.