Pull-ups are a universal marker of fitness. If you can do a pull-up with good form, you’ve got to be doing something right in the gym. It takes a lot of energy to pull your body through the air in a controlled manner.
With that being said, pull-ups aren’t just an impressive way to show off your fitness skills. They’re also highly beneficial as far as your health. Pull-ups have a ton of health benefits that can help you in many areas of your life.
10 Benefits of pull-ups
1. Work multiple muscles at once
Do you know why full-body workouts have gotten so popular? It’s because they’re effective. Now, I’m not saying a pull-up is a full-body movement because it’s not. However, it’s pretty close, or at least halfway there!
When you do a pull-up correctly it activates your whole upper body musculature. That means with one movement you’re exercising half of your body! According to research, compound movements are better for improving your overall performance.
So whether you’re trying to change your body composition, get stronger, increase your overall fitness or just improve your exercise performance, pull-ups can benefit you immensely.
It also doesn’t hurt that there are myriad variations so you can change up the main muscles targeted, intensity and even decrease joint wear and tear depending on the variation you choose to practice.
2. Great for weight loss
Calisthenics, or bodyweight exercises, are just as effective at encouraging weight loss as weight lifting, provided you apply progressive overload.
Progressive overload is where you increase the intensity as your body adapts. You can do this by doing more repetitions per set, decreasing your rest time, or advancing to a more difficult movement.
If you want to lose weight, or more specifically, lose fat then adding pull-ups to your routine can be extremely beneficial. They’re so effective, in fact, that all you have to do is practice trying to do pull-ups and you’ll burn plenty of calories.
It’s a very challenging upper body exercise that forces you to recruit multiple muscles at once, which means you’ll burn more calories in the process.
3. Build a bigger back
Pull-ups are one of the best back-builders out there. With so many variations to go through, you can hit every muscle in your upper body!
Yes, you read that right. Every muscle!
It takes a lot of strength to pull your body up to a bar, which is why doing a pull-up is such a great exercise for building muscle. When your body requires you to exert large amounts of energy to work against resistance, in this case, the resistance would be gravity, the result is to adapt by increasing muscle fiber size and strength.
When your muscle fibers grow, your metabolism increases, your muscles get bigger, and your body fat percentage decreases giving you a more defined appearance. Plus, pull-ups target one of the major muscles in your back, your latissimus dorsi which contributes to making your back wider.
4. Stronger back muscles and transferable strength
Pull-ups are one of the best overall upper body strength training exercises that you can do. Mainly because you have to recruit most of the muscles in your upper body to execute them properly.
As you may have already deduced, pull-ups are a pulling movement, which is one of the main movement patterns required in everyday life and for functional strength in general. Therefore it stands to reason that as you incorporate pull-ups into your training, you’ll build a stronger back and enhance the efficiency of that movement pattern.
Since doing a pull-up requires most of your upper body torso, it creates a measure of strength that is transferable to other activities such as a lot of the big lifts like deadlifts, squats, overhead press, and even the bench press.
5. Better posture
During pulling movements one of the most common cues is to depress and retract your shoulder blades or pull your shoulders down and back like you’re squeezing a vertical pencil with your back muscles. Pulling your shoulders down and back in itself will help you to have better posture.
Now, you can’t just go around depressing and retracting your shoulders all day. Well, you could but it wouldn’t be very comfortable or realistic. Which is why doing pull-ups can be so beneficial for correcting and maintaining good posture.
When you do a pull-up and continue to do them regularly, you’re training your muscles to get used to pulling your shoulders back and down. That way as you progress and improve your performance during the pull-up, you’re also improving your awareness of which muscles are tightening and preventing your shoulders from rounding forward.
Often times we don’t realize how our posture changes with the activities we do. Such as sitting at a computer for 8 hours a day at work. This can affect your posture and create tight neck and chest muscles that make it difficult to pull your shoulders down and back and keep them there.
6. Improve pulling mechanics
There are fundamental movements that are a part of our everyday lives, such as pushing, pulling and squatting to name a few. By training to get more efficient at these patterns it can lessen the wear and tear on your joints over time and reduce common aches and pains.
Since the main movement pattern trained during a pull-up is pulling, it’s a beneficial tool for counteracting some of the excessive forward motion we are normally exerting. Generally, in our daily tasks, we’re concerned more with what’s happening in front of us.
For example, when you’re on your phone, checking your email or working on a computer, cooking, driving, etc.
All of these movements mostly emphasize the muscles on the front of our bodies, so it can be helpful to make sure you’re balancing your activity and muscle activation by also focusing on back movements like pull-ups.
7. Better grip strength
Grip strength has been shown to be more than just an indicator of overall strength. Recent studies have demonstrated that grip strength is also a marker for heart health and longevity.
This is an important factor in adding pull-ups to your routine if they aren’t already a part of it. Training to get better at pull-ups will progressively improve your hand and grip strength while also strengthening your back, chest, arms, and core.
It’s important to make sure you have a good grip on the bar as you’re doing a pull-up. This includes wrapping your thumb around the bar in order to improve your shoulder mechanics and generate more power and stability. Using a thumb grip will also help to strengthen your forearms.
If your palms are overly sweaty though, it may be difficult to hold on to the bar for long as it’ll get slippery quickly. Be sure to use chalk to avoid it.
8. Balanced muscles
Bodyweight training is a great way to balance your muscles. When you lift weights, your body is going to do whatever it can to get the weight to where you’re trying to put it. Even if it means recruiting muscles that shouldn’t be targeted during that movement.
This may not always be the case, especially if your form is phenomenal. It’s just that most people don’t have perfect form and/or technique.
When you practice calisthenics you’re increasing your awareness of how movements should feel, in addition to using your muscles synergistically. If you lift weights without ever focusing on proprioception, body awareness and without varying your routine to hit all of your muscles, then you can actually throw your body out of alignment and lock in dysfunctional movement patterns.
The pull-up is one of the best upper body strength exercises you can do because it hits all of the muscles in your upper body, ultimately making sure that no muscle gets left behind.
9. Burn more calories
Calisthenics has been shown to increase strength and build muscle when progressive overload is applied. Which basically means, if you continue to challenge yourself then your body will adapt and get stronger in order to perform more efficiently the next time.
Since muscle is more metabolically active than fat, it takes more calories to sustain muscle mass. So, if you have more muscle, you can eat more calories without gaining weight. This is directly tied to your metabolic health. As you gain muscle, your metabolism gets more efficient and needs more calories to keep it happy.
Therefore, doing pull-ups, a calisthenics exercise can actually help you to improve your metabolism because you’ll build more muscle, burn more calories, and ultimately be able to consume more calories as well.
10. Create the illusion of a smaller waist
The main muscle targeted during the correct execution of a pull-up is the latissimus dorsi or the muscle that looks like “wings”. If you want a smaller waist, one of the most effective ways of creating that illusion is by working on your “v or x taper” which is where your torso gradually narrows from your shoulders downward.
The pull-up also works your shoulders, so when done properly and enough, you can build your shoulders and back muscles to make them wider than your waist. This will create the illusion of having a smaller waist.
What muscles do pull-ups work?
The main muscle targeted during the proper execution of a traditional pull-up is the latissimus dorsi, also known as the lats. Your lats get the most activation because they’re responsible for shoulder adduction, or pulling your arms closer to your body.
Your teres major and rear delts are supporting muscles because they assist your lats. The teres major sits along the border of your shoulder blade and is responsible for helping the lats during shoulder adduction. Your rear deltoid is the back of your shoulder and helps the lats to extend your shoulders.
The biceps would also be considered a supporting muscle in that they’re also responsible for pulling movements and are activated a lot during pull-ups.
Since a pull-up works most of the muscles in your torso, you may be wondering what the other muscles are doing? Since they aren’t the focus of the movement, they’re in the background contributing by stabilizing your shoulders and core.
Primary targeted muscle
- Latissimus dorsi – shoulder adduction
- Teres major – assists shoulder adduction, assists lats
- Rear delts
- Biceps brachii
- Trapezius – lower-middle fibers
- Levator scapulae
- Rhomboids – depresses and retracts your shoulder blades
- Pec major
- Pectoralis minor – stabilizes your shoulder
- Rotator cuff – stabilizes your shoulder
- Erector spinae – stabilizes your core/torso and keep you from swinging
- Obliques – works with erector spinae to stabilize your core/torso
- Transverse abdominis – stabilizes your spine
- Lumbar multifidus – stabilizes your spine
- Thoracolumbar fascia – stabilizes your spine
Pull-ups vs chin-ups
Pull-ups and chin-ups may sometimes be used synonymously but they are two different variations of a pulling exercise. While they both work your back, forearms, and biceps, the different grips used change the purpose and muscular activation targets. Both exercises also improve grip strength.
- Over-hand grip, pronated
- Target lats, biceps, pecs and middle back
- Great for building strength and mass
- Help to create a wider back and more definition
- Targets lower traps (mid back) and lats the most
- More difficult because the focus is on the upper back instead of the biceps
- Less emphasis on pecs so they can’t help as much
- More internal rotation, which can cause shoulder impingement
- Underhand grip, supinated
- Help you to improve your upper arm definition
- Emphasis is more on biceps than rear delts
- Build more back definition
- More external rotation in the shoulders, which is helpful in reducing the risk of shoulder injuries
Pull-ups variations and grips
There are 3 main variations for pull-ups and they are achieved through the following grips.
1. Narrow grip
When you place your hands closer together, or right outside of your shoulders, you’re allowing your chest to help you more during the movement which translates to greater pec activation.
2. Wide grip
A wider grip, about 5 in. or more from the shoulders targets your back more and helps your upper lats to develop. In this position, it’s a lot more difficult for your pecs to get involved. Unfortunately, this position also makes it harder to retract and depress your shoulder blades.
It’s a challenging position that may put unnecessary stress on the shoulders.
3. Hammer grip
The hammer grip variation, also known as parallel grip, is when your palms are facing each other in a neutral position with your hands in front of your shoulders. This is a good exercise for people with shoulder injuries, as it puts less strain on the shoulders.
Another benefit of the hammer grip is that it cuts down on the pressure applied to your wrists by putting them into a safer position. This grip variation places more of an emphasis on the biceps, by targeting the brachialis, which can make your biceps look bigger when well-defined.
How many pull-ups should I do?
The first step in figuring out how many pull-ups you should be doing (as far as sets and reps) is to see how many pull-ups you can do. If you can’t do any then you’ll want to practice band or machine-assisted pull-ups and negatives.
To do a negative pull-up you’ll need something to stand on so you can get to the top of the pull-up position with your chin above the bar and then lower yourself slowly. Aim for a 4-5 second descent. The amount you’re able to do will determine how many reps and sets you should do.
If you can’t do a single pull-up then start with the assisted or negative variations and do 3 sets of a few less reps than your max. It’s fine to try to do your max amount, but just not every workout. Keep that type of training limited to maybe once per week so that you don’t get ridiculously sore and prevent healing.
If you can do a few pull-ups already then you’ll want to focus on getting stronger so that you can do more while maintaining good form. The strength rep range is generally about 8-12 reps.
If you’re not quite there yet, then do 3-4 sets of 3-6 reps as you work your way up. When you can do about 8 clean reps, then you should be doing about 3 sets until you can get to 12 reps.
Pull-ups are an exercise that responds well to volume training, so if your body can handle it without being excruciatingly sore, then feel free to do multiple sets of lower reps. You’ll want to rest for about 90 seconds up to 3 minutes in between sets to make sure you’ve got the energy to push yourself.
Should I do weighted pull-ups?
Weighted pull-ups are a good way to increase the intensity of this bodyweight exercise. You’ll want to make sure you can maintain good form through the full range of motion without any weight first.
Once you can do about 12-15 pull-ups with just your body weight, it’s safe to add some resistance.
How to do pull-ups at home?
You don’t need a gym to practice pull-ups or add them to your training. All you need is a pull-up bar, which you can generally find pretty easily online or a sports store. They vary in price so just shop around and see which product is the best fit for you.
As you get better at doing pull-ups you’ll need to increase the intensity to keep progressing. You can do this by slowing down the movement, resting less, doing more sets and reps, and adding external resistance. You also may want to consider getting a weighted vest or a weight belt that you can attach weight too in order to add some resistance.