What Muscles Do Pull-Ups Work: A Comprehensive Guide 

Pull-ups are an excellent upper-body pulling exercise. But do you know what muscles you’re working when you do a pull-up? Understanding which muscles are working and how they function during the lift can help you plan your training, train more efficiently, and result in better outcomes targeting strength, robustness, or muscle growth. 

What muscles do pull-ups work? 

The main muscles worked during pull-ups are the back muscles, more specifically: 

  • The lats
  • The Rhomboids

Pull-ups also work the teres major, teres minor, infraspinatus, forearms, and core, but to a lesser extent than the muscles above.

Labelled diagram of the main muscles worked during a pull-up
Labelled diagram of the main muscles worked during the pull-up

In-depth analysis: how each muscle works during the pull-up 

The lats

The star of the show in pull-ups is the lats or latissimus dorsi, the large muscles in your back that give you that “V-shape.”

During the pull-up, your lats help bring your shoulder blades closer together (adduction), straighten your shoulder joint when lowering (extension), and turn your shoulders slightly inward as you pull yourself up (medial rotation). 

The rhomboids

The rhomboids are a set of muscles that stretch from the upper back to the middle of your underarms. 

They have the job of providing support and stability to your shoulder blades and preventing them from protruding outwards (or winging) as you perform the pull-ups. 

Teres major, teres minor and infraspinatus 

These muscles contribute to the stability and controlled movement of the shoulder and scapula during the pull-up. 

Forearms 

When you grip the bar during a pull-up, you engage a variety of smaller muscles in your forearms, wrists, and hands. This will develop yourr grip strength as a by-product of the exercise.

Core

Your core muscles, including the rectus abdominals, transverse abdominals, obliques (as well as the erector spinae and hip flexors, although not core muscles) are activated to stabalize your torso and pelvis during the pull-up.

This allows you to perform pull-ups with control and prevent excessive swinging or arching of the back. to help maintain the correct form. 

How to perform a pull-up: a step-by-step guide

Performing the pull-up correctly is essential for maximizing muscle engagement and minimizing the risk of injury. Below are detailed steps to guide you through the process:

  1. Grip the bar: Stand underneath the bar and reach up to grip it with your palms facing away from you (overhand grip) and your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  1. Hang from the bar: Hang from the bar with your arms fully extended, shoulder blades retracted and pulled down. Engage your core muscles to stabilize your body. 
  1. Initiate the pull: Begin pulling your body upward by bending your elbows and bringing your chest towards the bar. Focus on using your back muscles to perform the movement. 
  1. Chin above the bar: Continue pulling until your chin is above the bar, or as high as you can comfortably go.
  1. Control back down: Lower yourself back down with control to where you started. Fully extend your arms as you control the descent. 
  1. Rest and Repeat: Perform the prescribed number of repetitions, aiming for the full range of motion in each repetition and rest as needed between sets.

Pull Up variations and their effects: a deeper look

Pull-ups are far from a one-size-fits-all exercise, and variations in grip, hand placement and approach can significantly affect which muscles are emphasized during the workout. Here’s a more nuanced look at how different pull-up variations can target specific muscle groups.

Wide-grip pull-ups

Wide-grip pull-ups are often performed with a grip that’s wider than shoulder width. This variation places greater emphasis on the latissimus dorsi and the upper part of the back, including the teres major and the posterior deltoids. 

Close (narrow) grip pull-ups

In close (narrow) grip pull-ups, your hands are positioned closer together, typically closer than shoulder width, on the pull-up compared to the wider grip used in traditional pull-ups. 

The close grip pull-ups primarily work the biceps and the inner part of the lats to a greater extent than the traditional pull-up. 

Underhand grip pull-ups (chin-ups)

Underhand pull-ups, or more widely known as chin-ups, involve your palms facing towards your body, with a supinated (understand) grip on the pull-up far. This hand placement is closer than the wider grip used in traditional pull-ups. They are often considered an easier variation for beginners. 

Chin-ups primarily target the biceps and lower part of the lats and also work the shoulder muscles.

Assisted machine pull-ups

Machine-based pull-ups use a specialized machine that assists you by counterbalancing a portion of your body weight, making it easier to perform the pull-up on the way up. This variation is useful for athletes who are working towards their first unassisted pull-up or looking to increase the number of repetitions they can perform. 

While machine-based pull-ups primarily target the same muscles as traditional pull-ups, assistance from the machine makes the movement easier, so it may reduce the level of engagement of these muscles.

Negative pull-ups

Negative or eccentric pull-ups involve focusing on the lowering phase of the pull-up exercise, rather than the lifting phase. You jump or use a platform to start in the top position with your chin above the bar, and then you slowly lower yourself down (e.g., over 3-5 seconds) to a fully extended position. 

Negative pull-ups primarily engage the same muscles as the traditional pull-ups, including the latissimus dorsi and rhomboids. However, the emphasis is on the eccentric (lengthening) contraction of these muscles, which can lead to muscle growth and strength gains.  

Banded pull-ups

Banded pull-ups involve using resistance bands that are attached to the pull-up bar and then looped around your feet or knees. The bands provide assistance by reducing the amount of body weight you have to lift, making it easier to perform pull-ups, especially for those working towards their first unassisted pull-up. 

Banded pull-ups target the same muscle groups as traditional pull-ups, including the latissimus dorsi and rhomboids. The band provides assistance during the upward phase (concentric) while still engaging these muscles. 

Pull Up alternatives 

Pull-ups serve as a great upper-body pulling exercise, but they aren’t for everyone. We’ll delve into a couple of alternative exercises that are also upper-body pulling exercises. 

Lat Pulldowns  

Lat pull-downs involve sitting down and using a bar or handle attachment to pull a weighted cable down toward your upper chest. 

Lat pull-downs primarily work the lats and also engage other upper body muscles including the teres major, posterior deltoid, traps, rhomboids, and biceps. 

Inverted Row

The inverted row is a horizontal pulling movement, performed using the TRX, where you lean back while holding onto the handles, and you pull your chest up towards the straps, making sure your body stays in a straight line from head to hip. 

Inverted rows primarily target the muscles in your upper back, including the rhomboids and lats. They also engage the biceps, shoulders, and core muscles to stabilize your body and assist in the pulling motion. 

Common pull-up mistakes to avoid

  • Limited range of motion – To maximize the exercise’s effectiveness, make sure to go all the way down and pull high enough, avoiding incomplete ranges of motion. 
  • Using momentum – Perform the pull-up with controlled movements, without relying on momentum, such as “kipping” or swinging, when aiming to go above the bar. 
  • Flaring elbows – To protect your shoulder joint from unnecessary stress, maintain proper elbow positioning and avoid letting your elbows flair during the pull-up. 

Sets and reps: tailoring your pull-ups for specific goals

The number of sets and repetitions you perform during your pull-up can dramatically affect your training outcomes. However, your approach also varies based on your current ability. Here’s how to adjust your pull-up approach to align with your goals and current level:

  • If your working towards your first pull-up – a great place to start is by performing negative (or eccentric) pull ups, where you lower for 5 seconds, completing 3-4 sets of 3-5 repetitions, which you can progress to loading by a belt. 
  • If you can perform a pull-up you could perform pull-ups in cluster sets. In this approach, you perform 1 or 2 repetitions, rest for 10-15 seconds, and then perform another 1 or 2 repetitions. You can aim to complete 3-5 of these cluster sets. 
  • If you can perform multiple pull-ups – you can do multiple pull-ups, you have options. You can focus on building muscular endurance by doing 3-4 sets with as many repetitions as you can manage. Alternatively, to develop strength, consider completing 3-5 sets of 2-6 repetitions with added resistance. If your goal is to increase muscle sie (hypertrophy), aim for 3-6 sets of 6-12 repetitions.  

What muscles do pull-ups work: frequently asked questions

What muscles do pull-ups work on?

Pull-ups work the muscles in your back, with a key focus on the latisimus dorsi and rhomboids. 

How many pull-ups are good?

The number of pull-ups considered “good” varies depending on individual fitness levels, goals and sport. Strive to perform as many as you can with proper form, and gradually work to increase your strength and endurance over time. 

Do pull-ups actually build muscle?

Yes, pull-ups are an effective exercise for building muscle, particularly in the upper body. Consistent training that includes progressive overload and adequate protein intake, sleep etc., should result in muscle hypertrophy over time. 

Why are pull-ups so hard?

Pull ups are hard because they require you to lift your whole body up by using only your back and arm muscles.

Do pull-ups ever get easy?

If you train consistently, your body will adapt and pull-ups will become easier as your strength and/or endurance improve. However, progressive overload is important by adding weight or increase your volume so that you can continue to see ongoing progress. 

What are pull ups good for?

Pull-ups are effective for developing upper body strength, especially in the back. This strength is crucial for various sports that involve throwing, pushing or lifting.

Chin ups vs pull-ups muscles worked

Chin-ups and pull-ups work similar muscle groups, but chin-ups place more emphasis on the biceps whereas pull-ups engage the back and lats more. 

How many pull-ups a day should I do?

The number of pull-ups an athlete should perform each day depends on the their fitness level and goals. However, doing pull-ups every day may increase the risk of injury and overtraining, as you aren’t getting encough recovery. It’s advisable to incorporate at least one or two days of rest between pull-up sessions to ensure adequate recovery and allow your body to feel refreshed.

Do pull-ups work forearms?

Yes, pull-ups engage the forearm muscles, especially during the gripping and hanging phases of the exercise, which helps improve grip strength.

Do pull-ups work the chest?

Pull-ups target the back muscles, so they do not directly work the chest muscles. 

Do pull-ups work abs?

Pull-ups engage the core muscles to stabalize the body during the exercise, but they are not a primary ab exercise. 

Summary

Pull-ups are effective for developing upper body strength, especially in the back. This strength is crucial for various sports that involve throwing, pushing or lifting.

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Emily, co-founder of Sport Science Insider, graduated from the University of Leeds in 2020 and went on to become an accredited S&C coach with the UKSCA in 2022. A former athlete herself, Emily has since gone on to deliver S&C coaching for the Southern Academy of Sport, GB Rowing, GB Taekwondo and works currently as a full-time S&C coach at the University of Leeds.

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Will is a sport scientist and golf professional who specialises in motor control and motor learning. Will lecturers part-time in motor control and biomechanics, runs Golf Insider UK and consults elite athletes who are interested in optimising their training and performance.