How to Master Pull-Ups, Straight From the Pros

In most workouts, you'll run into a few hard exercises, but you can get your way through them. Pull-ups, however, can be a different story—no matter how much you want to lift your body weight to the bar, you may not be able to, at least not immediately. But by building up strength and focusing on your form, you can work your way up to mastering that elusive pull-up. Here, two experts detail exactly what muscles are used during pull-ups, how to do a proper one, and how to modify the exercise to your needs.

Meet the Expert

What Are Pull-Ups? 

Pull-ups are upper body strength exercises that involve hanging from a bar and pulling your entire body up. Pull-ups are great functional exercises, says Prentiss Rhodes, NASM Master Trainer, because the muscular development and coordination gained from doing them can carry over into activities such as climbing.

What Muscles Do Pull-Ups Use?

Pull-ups obviously require your arms, but they use various muscles at all once (which is what also makes them challenging to do). The main muscles used, explains Rhodes, include:

  • The Latissimus Dorsi (Lats): This is a big muscle that runs from the lower back to the front of the shoulder. One of its main functions is to move the upper arm to the side of the body when doing a pull-up.
  • The teres major: This muscle runs from the lateral and lower part of the shoulder blade to the front of the shoulder and has a similar function to the lat but is a smaller muscle.
  • The Biceps: The main function of the bicep is to bend the elbow.
  • The Trapezius (Traps) The trapezius is that big diamond-shaped muscle that runs from the neck to the lower part of the thoracic spine. In a pull-up, it helps with the movement of the shoulder blades.
  • The deltoids: The posterior/rear fibers of this shoulder muscle work with the lat to extend the upper arm or to bring the arm behind the body.
  • The pectorals (pecs): Depending on the grip used for the pull-up, the pecs hold the arms into the sides of the body while the other main movers of the pull-up are working.
  • Core Muscles: The obliques and “deep” core muscles stabilize the trunk during the pull-up.

What Are the Benefits of Pull-Ups?

“A major benefit of doing pull-ups in your training program is that it is a multi-joint/compound closed chain exercise,” says Rhodes. In other words, you can train many different muscles as opposed to doing single-joint isolation exercises.

In doing pull-ups, you also get traction of the spine, core muscle engagement, increased proprioception and coordination, enhanced grip strength (think about carrying those grocery bags for that upcoming summer barbecue), confidence, and better posture, says Bradford Rahmlow, CPT and trainer at Rumble Boxing.

And since they’re a bodyweight exercise, “you have the benefit of getting more engagement from your stabilizing muscles as opposed to training on machines that may train some of the prime mover muscle groups,” says Rhodes.

Pull-Ups vs. Chin-Ups

The main difference between a pull-up and a chin-up is how you position your hands. With the pull-up, your palms are facing away from you, and with the chin-up, your palms are facing you. Even though pull-ups and chin-ups train the same muscles, the amount of muscle activation differs slightly based on how your hands are positioned, says Rhodes.

Both work the upper body and core, adds Rahmlow, but chin-ups work the biceps and chest more, and pull-ups target the back muscles more.

How Do You Do a Basic Pull-Up?

Pull-up

Bradford Rahmlow / Design by Tiana Crispino

  • Using a step or riser, step up to a pull-up bar.
  • Grip the bar with the hands shoulder-width apart, the shoulders pulled away from the ears (anti-shrug), and the abs braced.
  • In one smooth movement, pull the body up until the collar bones touch the bar. Keep the head, shoulders, hips, and feet in alignment. 
  • Lower the body under control until the elbows are straight. Repeat.

There are a few things to keep in mind when you’re training to do a pull-up. Make sure you’re maintaining good posture and keep the core and glutes tight. “Like the push-up, the pull-up is also a moving plank,” says Rhodes. In addition, take the time to build up adequate strength and avoid training this movement to failure.

Another key factor in working on your pull-ups is your grip strength, says Rahmlow. You can find a bar and hang. Once you've worked on your grip strength and just hanging for a little bit, you can play around with elevating and depressing your shoulders while you’ve got your bodyweight connected to your grip.

Pull-Up Variations

Beginner: 

Reverse Crunch Progressions

  • Anchor a straight bar to heavy bands or weights. Make sure that the weight can support your body weight.
  • With your hands shoulder-width apart, elbows straight, and shoulders pulled away from the ears, grab the bar with palms facing up.
  • Bend the hips and knees ninety degrees and brace the abs.
  • Lift the hips off the ground, lower them under control, and repeat.

Note it's important that you have enough core strength and endurance before attempting your first pull-up. It is also important to keep pulling with straight arms for the duration of the exercise.

Band Assisted Pull-Up 

  • Attach/loop a band that is strong enough to support your body weight around a pull-up bar.
  • Grip the pull-up bar and place one foot in the loop.
  • Perform the pull-up as suggested in the condition (Reverse Crunch Progressions) outlined above. 

Flexed Arm Hang 

  • Grip the pull-up bar and assume the top range of the pull-up position with the bar touching the collar bones (note: you may use a step or get partner assistance). 
  • Hold for five to 15 seconds and lower the body under control.

Intermediate:

Pull-Up (Focus on the Negative) 

  • Get into the top of the pull-up position as with the flexed-arm hang. 
  • Lower the body under control for three to five seconds.  
  • Repeat. 

Pull-up (Partial negative, Partial positive, Full Negative): 

  • Get into the top of the pull-up position as with the flexed-arm hang
  • Lower the body halfway, or until the elbow is at 90 degrees, and then pull yourself up. 
  • Lower the body now for a full negative under control for three to five seconds. 
  • Repeat.

Advanced:

The Pull-Up

  • See above—yes, the standard pull-up is an advanced move!

The Archer Chin-Up

  • Grab the pull-up bar with one arm at shoulder width and the opposite arm wider than shoulder-width (Note: the wider arm is not actively pulling but is used for support). 
  • Pull up until your collar bone is touching the bar and your elbow is at the side of the body.

In this progression, you're working up to a single-arm pull-up, so you should have already spent time building up adequate strength and endurance.

Is There Anyone Who Shouldn’t Do Pull-Ups?

Pull-ups start with a strong core, says Rahmlow. “If you don’t have the ability to engage the core to connect the upper and lower body, it will be very difficult to control your momentum when you start to hang.” In addition, if you have any existing injuries (e.g., shoulder or rotator cuff) or special considerations, consult your doctor before trying a new training modality. 

The Takeaway

Pull-ups are a great arm, core, and back exercise that require a seemingly simple movement, but doing one can be harder than it looks. The good news is that potentially anyone who builds up the necessary strength can do a pull-up. If at first, you don’t succeed, keep trying, says Rahmlow. “The unassisted pull-up without a band is tough to achieve. Work on your plank if you are struggling. Work on your hang. Work on your shoulder mobility. Get the bands involved. Don't be discouraged if it doesn't happen right away. Patience and persistence will help you achieve anything you desire inside and outside of the gym."

Related Stories