Pull-Ups are considered to be one of the best upper-body strength exercises and, although they seem quite straightforward, they do require a lot of practice (and a pull-up bar!).
To perform a pull-up, the body is suspended in the air by the hands and is pulled up by flexing the elbows, which consequently find themselves next to the torso, to then return to the original position, making this exercise a closed-chain movement, as the hands remain in the same place throughout.
What muscles do pull-ups work?
The muscles used to perform a pull-up efficiently are numerous but, as this is an upper body exercise, this article will focus on two major ones: the latissimus dorsi and the biceps brachii.
The Latissimus Dorsi is a flat muscle that goes from the back to the side and behind the arm, one on each side of the body; the translation from Latin literally means the biggest (referring to muscle) of the back. These muscles are commonly known as laterals or ‘lats’ and, as said before, it is the largest muscle in the upper body.
The Biceps Brachii is another large muscle that is located in the upper body and it extends from the front of the upper arms, between the shoulders, and to the elbow; this is most commonly referred to as the bicep.
Grips: pull-up alternatives
Different grips give pull-ups different names; when doing a pull up with a supinated grip, one will be performing a chin-up, with a neutral grip a hammer grip pull-up and with a pronated grip, the classic pull-up.
There are not only different gripping positions to perform a pull-up, but also widths (shoulder-width, wider than shoulders or narrower than them), which may make the exercise more difficult and widths different than shoulder-width may as well limit the range of movements one can perform during the routine.
What are the different variations of Pull-Ups?
Find below some of the most commonly performed variations:
- Standard: After selecting the chosen grip, lift your body until your chin clears the bar, then lower your body back again, all the way until your shoulders and both arms are completely extended.
- Weighted Pull-Ups: The aim of the weighted version is the same as the standard, with the addition of weight, to increase the difficulty of it; the weight may be added by using a dipping belt, by holding on to weights with legs and feet, or with weighted vests or shorts.
- Behind the neck: This exercise aims to have the back of the neck touch the bar; this is achieved by tilting the head forward before starting the routine.
- Mixed grip: Each hand uses a different grip to hold on to the bar and the exercise is performed.
- One arm: This exercise requires the whole body to be lifted by one arm only, always ensuring the chin clears the bar and then returning to the starting position.
- Sternum Chins: This exercise requires a larger motion of movement, with the highest point being the sternum touching the bar, to then return to the starting position.
- Jumping Pull-Ups: This exercise is a traditional pull-up, that instead of starting with the arms lifting the whole body, starts with a jump, which helps the puller lift the chest all the way to the bar. This exercise involves not only the upper body muscles but also the lower body muscles and the core. It is important that while descending, the arms do not reduce the speed of the fall, but rather allow the body to follow gravity and land on the two directly under the bar, exactly where they would have been at the beginning of the jumping pull-up.
What are the benefits of pull-ups?
Pull-ups are one of the best compound exercises (they use multiple groups of muscles at the same time to achieve the result), using most of the upper body muscles. Being able to complete one or multiple pull-ups demonstrates upper body strength and will improve overall back posture, grip strength, and arm and shoulder strength. Like any form of exercise, the benefits of working out are not only physical but also mental, as the body produces endorphins, which are a mood elevator.
The pull-up bar is the only essential equipment necessary to perform a pull-up and there are multiple options available, that can be self-standing, doorway fitted, suitable for outdoors, and part of a bigger machine that offers the option to perform multiple exercises. When choosing a pull-up bar, it is important to select one that not only is suitable for the space it needs to be used in, but also safe; different brands and makes come at different budgets and their cost can vary by hundreds of dollars.
What exercises help improve pull-ups?
Multiple exercises can help better pull-up performance; here are some:
- Hanging Hollow Hold: holding the bar overhead, one engages the core while tucking the tailbone in and holding the position for a set amount of seconds times x amount of repetitions.
- Hollow Hold: This is the same exercise as the hanging hollow hold, but on the floor; lying down on the floor, with the legs straight and the arms stretched upwards on the sides of the ears, one lifts the legs and the arms from the floor at the same time to form a half-moon shape, engaging the core.
- Scapular Depression Hold: holding the bar overhead, one pulls the shoulders down while the shoulder blades come closer together and the chest slightly pulls upwards; this is done for a certain number of repetitions.
- Hammer Curls: this is a classic exercise, that is performed not only to improve pull-up performance. To fully benefit from this thou, one should hold the weights with the arms down the side of the body, with the palms facing forward so that while curling the wrists do not need to turn.
- Bent-Over Row: one starts in a lounging position, with the left leg forward and the right leg backward; holding a weight in the right hand and resting the left elbow and arm on the left leg, one pulls the weight up to the chest forming a 90 degrees angle with the elbow. It is important to engage the core throughout the exercise to maintain stability.
- Assisted Pull-Up: Looping a resistance bar around a pull-up bar, one puts the feet in the elastic to assist with lifting the weight up.
What is the difference between chin-ups vs pull-ups?
The first main difference is the position of the hands while gripping the bar; while for chin-ups the palms of the hands face you, during pull-ups the face away from you. When looking at the muscles development, chin-ups look to develop the muscles on the front part of the body, such as the chest, while pull-ups develop more back and shoulder muscles.
This is one of the most beneficial exercises to develop upper body mass and, to no surprise, performing pull ups stimulates the production of the Human Growth Hormone (HGH).
Pull Up are a great way of building upper body strength and there are multiple ways to perform them or to better oneself to be able to perform them. These are considered one of the most ancient exercises and it is no surprise they still are amongst the favorite ones to develop the biceps and core muscles. Performing pull up the wrong way, like engaging the chest muscles rather than the biceps and lats, may lead to injuries so it is important that one either seeks the assistance of professionals, such as a personal trainer or starting by developing the muscles necessary before engaging in the full pull up. Should one suffer from any previous injuries or have any current ones, it is better to consult a doctor, physiotherapist, or personal trainer.