When it comes to human strength, the average person’s ability to push is about twice as big as their ability to pull. If that sounds surprising, think about how many push-ups you can do, compared to how many pull-ups. Nearly anyone can do at least one push-up, but personally, I’ve never come anywhere close to being able to perform a full pull-up, no matter how much I’m working out or how strong my body feels. Because our pulling abilities aren’t nearly as developed as our pushing strength, pulling exercises are the perfect way to balance our bodies and enhance their functioning.
What are pulling exercises, what muscles do they work, and how do you do them? To find out, we asked Steve Stonehouse, NASM CPT and Director of Education for STRIDE, and Bethany Stillwaggon, ACSM CPT and Master Coach for Row House.
Meet the Expert
What Are Pulling Exercises, And Why Do We Need Them?
Pulling exercises are movements that utilize all of the muscles needed to perform a pulling action. These are known as our posterior chain, which includes the glutes, hamstrings, erector spinae, and traps. Stonehouse says that “pulling exercises strengthen many of the muscles responsible for good posture, mobility, strength, and flexibility.” Strengthening the muscles needed for good posture is particularly important because of how much time we tend to sit daily, and Stonehouse tells us that so much sitting, if not addressed, “can lead to poor function in the back, neck, hips, and legs.”
Because we are naturally stronger at pushing than pulling, Stillwaggon tells us that “we are weaker and more prone to injuries during pulling movements in life due to this imbalance.” Understandably, she also says that we can help prevent injury and build more muscle recruitment in the “pull” muscles by training them. For day to day activities that we need pulling for, there are many; Stillwaggon says that “lifting the leg up to take your next step, grabbing your backpack and pulling it close to put on your back, and grabbing your seatbelt to put it on” are all pulling activities.
We need pulling exercises to create balance in our strength and prevent injury—both when exercising and when going through everyday life.
Several different exercises use our pulling muscles. You may already be familiar with them but might not be aware that they can help balance our bodies’ strength while decreasing our risk of injury. For pulling exercises, Stillwaggon suggests employing lower weights with higher reps to build muscle rather than higher weights with fewer reps. That’s because higher reps with lower weights are more productive for slowly building muscle while minimizing the chance of injury. Here are some pulling exercises to try.
Stillwaggon considers rowing to be the most effective pulling exercise you can do. Rowing is a full-body activity, and it will engage your lats nearly the entire time. She says that “if you row for about ten minutes, you’ve probably done an arm row movement with a light handlebar almost 300 times.” That’s a lot of repetitions indeed!
For a rowing exercise, you’ll need a rowing machine, unless you have access to a boat. To begin rowing, you’ll sit down on a rowing machine with your legs tucked close to the front and pick up the rowing handles. You’ll start the active part of the exercise by using your legs to push back away from the front of the machine, then once you’ve pushed back with your legs, use your arms to pull the rowing handles towards your chest. For this, you’ll lean back slightly. When you have pulled in a straight line, and there is no further you can pull, allow your arms to extend, relax your legs, so they move forward again toward the front of the machine, and let the seat slide forward. Continue this move, always being sure to lean back slightly when performing the rowing maneuver with your arms.
Dumbbell Bent-Over Rows
Both Stonehouse and Stillwaggon find bent-over rows to be a top pulling exercise. Stillwaggon says that “The bent-over part of the movement is crucial because the low back is working isometrically while the upper back, rear delts, and triceps are being utilized to either row or fly the arms.”
To do bent-over rows, you should stand with your feet hip-width apart, and you’ll hold your dumbbells at your sides, one in each hand. Then, lean forward as far as is comfortable; you’ll want to be angled between forty-five and ninety degrees forward, and your knees should be soft. The dumbbells will naturally move in front of you as you do this. To lift the dumbbells toward your chest, Stillwaggon instructs us to “lead with elbows up to the sky and row the dumbbell towards the lower ribs, pause and slowly release the weight back to under the chest with arms extended.” From there, slowly return to your starting position, then repeat.
It’s not nearly as dangerous as it sounds to do deadlifts, but it is a great way to strengthen your pulling muscles. To do a deadlift, you’ll place either a barbell or dumbbells on the floor in front of you. If using dumbbells, place them hip-width apart. Stand with your toes under the barbell or with them just behind the dumbbells. Bend over at the waist, grab the weights, and then bend your knees until you are in a nearly squatting position; your shins should graze the bar or weights. Lift your chest and straighten your lower back, then carefully stand up with the weights in your hands. Pause at the top, then return the weights to the floor by moving your hips back and bending your legs. Hinging your hips properly while doing this move is key to avoiding injury. If you’re unsure about proper form, you can watch a video so that you have the clearest possible picture in your mind before starting.
Also known as chin-ups, pull-ups are the most difficult of pulling exercises. They’re challenging because they require you to carry your body weight using only your arms and pulling muscles. You’ll start by standing directly under a pull-up bar. Raise your arms and grip the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart and your palms facing forward, away from you. Keeping your back and core engaged, pull your body upwards with your arms until your chin is above the bar. Allow your arms to slowly lower you until you’re back in your starting position, then repeat.
As mentioned, pull-ups are no easy feat, and many people are never able to complete one. If a full pull-up is too challenging for you, Stillwaggon suggests, “there are ways of completing this action without your entire body weight in tow.” She says that one way is to “start with a bar about waist-height,” then “place yourself under the bar with your hands hooked under the bar and the body completely straight with chest facing the bar and feet are out in front of you. The upper body movement will look similar to the bent-over row, except this time you are pulling yourself closer to the bar vs. the bar towards you.”
Another option for those who can’t perform full pull-ups is lat pulls, also known as pull-downs. To do those, Stillwaggon says to “start by hanging with your hands on the bar and feet dangling, lifting through your head.” Then, “Retract your shoulders, and squeeze your lats together.” You can also perform this exercise on a pull-down, or lat pull, machine.
If you find that pulling exercises are harder than you expected, don’t be discouraged! We’re twice as strong at pushing as we are at pulling, so it’s natural that they’ll feel significantly harder. Focus on using light weights to avoid injury, and know that by working to strengthen your pulling muscles, you’re helping your body be balanced and strong in all your daily activities.
Negrete RJ, Hanney WJ, Pabian P, Kolber MJ. Upper Body Push and Pull Strength Ratio in Recreationally Active Adults. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2013;8(2):138-144.