Push ups vs pull ups – What’s the difference & which is best?

Push-ups and pull-ups are two of the most common upper body exercises that you’ll see in a gym or training programme. The main difference between them? We’ll cover that, plus what muscles they work and common questions about both exercises in this article. 

Push ups vs pull ups

The two main differences between the push up and pull up are (1) the type of movement pattern and (2) the muscles you work. 

The push up is a horizontal pressing movement, which targets the chest, shoulders and tricep muscles. The pull up, is a vertical pulling movement, which targets the lats, upper back and bicep muscles. 

Both exercises can be effective in a training programme, depending on what physical qualities you want to develop, we’ll explain how and why during this article. 

Joints worked and ranges of motion

In order to truly understand the differences of each exercise, we must first understand what joints and muscles are being used.

JointPull Ups ROMPush Ups ROM
ShoulderLargeModerate
ElbowModerate-LargeLarge
WristSmallModerate-Large

Pull Ups Muscles Worked

The main muscles worked during the pull up, are the lats (latissimus dorsi), but the teres major, traps (trapezius), pecs (mectoralis major), rhomboids, biceps, upper back, forearms and abdominals are also worked. The muscles worked during the pull up may vary slightly depending on the hand width position. 

Push Ups Muscles Worked

The main muscles worked during the press up are the pectorals (pecs – upper/ lower chest) muscles, but the triceps, anterior deltoids, serratus anterior and abdominals are also worked. If the depth or the variety of press up is altered, other muscles may be worked.  

When should I choose pull ups or push ups?

You don’t necessarily have to choose between pull ups or push ups, these exercises can complement each other in a programme. This is because one is a pulling movement and the other is a pushing movement, so including them both provides a well-balanced upper body programme.  

Are push ups or pull ups harder?

Pull ups are typically considered to be harder than push ups, this is due to three reasons, which include (1) the amount of weight you must lift (2) grip strength (3) and range of motion.

(1) Amount of weight you must lift 

Studies have suggested that during a pull up, you lift around 90+ % of your own bodyweight whereas in the push up, you will be lifting around 60% of your bodyweight. This means due to the relatively greater amount of weight you have to lift during the pull up, it makes it harder when compared to the push up.

(2) Grip strength

During the press up, your hands are placed on the floor and act as stabilisers whereas in the pull up, you must hang from the bar for up to 30 seconds, which is demanding on the grip and can make the pull up harder. 

(3) Range of motion 

During the pull up, you must work through a greater range of motion, which can contribute to the increased difficulty.  

Can you build muscle mass with push ups and pull ups?

If your goal is to build muscle, push ups and pull ups will definitely add to your muscle mass if you do enough of them. Firstly, you must make sure that your technique is competent enough in order to perform a couple of strict reps.Focusing on progressively overloading them each week is the best way to gain mass, however, simply adding one rep each week may be difficult.

Below are a few techniques to help gain muscle mass and strength in both:

Eccentric focus: This focuses on the lower phase of the exercise then assists on the concentric. For example, jumping up to the top of the pull up bar then slowly lowering yourself to the bottom for 3-5 seconds before jumping back up again and repeating during the pull up. For the press up, you could slowly lower yourself down over seconds of the press up and use your knees to go back to the top position of the press up. This could be programmed like

Week 1: 3 sets x 2 reps + 2 reps that focus on the eccentric

Week 2: 3 sets x 2 reps + 3 reps that focus on the eccentric

Week 3: 3 sets x 3 reps + 1 rep that focuses on the eccentric

Week 4: 3 sets x 3 reps + 2 reps that focus on the eccentric

Banded Assistance: Using resistance bands can help improve the concentric part of the exercise and help you perform more. For example, looping a band around the top of the pull up bar and placing one knee in it before performing pull ups can help improve the pulling aspect of the lift. You can also place a band on the rack above you and place it around your chest to assist you on the downwards phase of the press up. This can help improve the number of total reps you can do. This could be programmed like

Example (Max pull ups = 8 reps)

Week 1: 2 sets x 10-15 banded assisted pull ups / press up

Week 2: 2 sets x 10-15 banded assisted pull ups / press up

Week 3: 3 sets x 10-15 banded assisted pull ups / press up

Week 4: 3 sets x 10-15 banded assisted pull ups / press up

Weight Assistance: Added additional weight on top of bodyweight can help overload the body in order to increase strength and improve your maxes. For example, this could be as simple as adding a 5kg weight on your back during a push up or 5kg on belt during the pull up. This could be programmed like

AMRAP = As many reps as possible. RIR = Reps in reserve.

Week 1: 2 sets x BW AMRAP (2RIR)

Week 2: 2 sets x 5kg AMRAP (2RIR)

Week 3: 3 sets x 5kg AMRAP (2RIR)

Week 4: 2 sets x 7.5kg AMRAP (2RIR)

Which is more beneficial?

Training for strength and building muscle mass may vary slightly in methods but both require progressively overload! Both push ups and pull ups are great exercises for beginners/novices, athletes or the general population who are looking to improve their health and quality of life, as long as they perform them with great technique.

­Science has shown that muscle mass can be built between reps of 4-20+. However, you must consider the reps/sets set up when trying to improve strength or hypertrophy:

Strength: Keep reps below less than 6 and sets increase week by week. Focus on adding more weight (weight assistance) via weight vest or other method.

Hypertrophy: Focus on rep range 6-20 with aims of adding more weight or rep’s week by week. Eccentric focus or weight assistance are a good method of adding a different variation!

Further reading

Summary

Push ups are a horizontal pressing movement that works the chest whereas the pull up is a vertical pulling movement which works the back…both are great exercises for improving upper body strength and muscle mass.

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