What Muscles Do Pull Ups Work?

What muscles do pull ups work? Nicely sculpted arms are definitely on the list of body parts that women tend to notice. You can’t go wrong with a pair of good biceps. Although you also don’t want to overdo it, when a woman notices you, you don’t want her look of intrigue going to disgust when she notices your disproportionate arms. (We all know the joke about leg days)

But you might be wondering “exactly what muscles do pull ups work?”. The main muscles that pull ups work includepull-ups:

  • Trunk (latissimus dorsi)
  • Arms (brachialis and brachioradialis)
  • Shoulders (teres major)
  • Abdominal muscles
  • Pelvic floor
  • Hands and forearms

What is a pull up?

This exercise has the knack of working more muscles than you would expect. It’s not just your biceps that gets hammered while you pull yourself up on that bar. Your back muscles, shoulders and arms all get to work together to fight gravity.

A pull-up is classified as a compound exercise because it targets more than one muscle group. You could even work on that six pack of yours while you’re busy, a strong core will help you to pull yourself up more easily, as well as effectively.

How do you do a pull up?

To elaborate on the question “what muscles do pull ups work”, there are a few variations you could try out, each targeting a different area of muscles. They all involve dangling from a sturdy bar and grunting while you try to drag your body upwards. It’s all about the way you grip the bar. By changing your grip, you will be activating different muscles in the process.

I’m sure you understand the basic concept of it – find a bar in the gym or install one at home, grab the bar firmly with both your hands while standing and when you feel ready, start pulling yourself upwards until your feet are dangling and your face turns red from the exertion.

To start off, make sure you get the distance between your hands on the bar right. It should be roughly the same distance as your shoulder width. In the beginning you will find that you need to find the sweet spot that’s most comfortable for your fitness level, whether that’s hands closer together or further apart. Don’t try to push yourself too much in the beginning, you will end up straining your muscles and causing unnecessary damage.

If you’re new to the pull up world, don’t attempt to pull yourself all the way up on the first try. Start by simply hanging on the bar with your feet off the ground. This is called a dead hang and it’s a very effective way to increase your shoulder stability as well as your grip strength. Eventually when your shoulders and other upper body muscles are strong enough, you will be able to pull yourself up all the way, your chest will nearly touch the bar and your chin will be over it.

Random facts:

The heaviest weighted pull-up was 402 lbs. by Steven Proto from America on the 28th of April 2011

The most pull-ups with a 45 lbs. plate was 18 by Damien Longley from America on the 28th of March 2011

Types of pull ups

If you want to focus on your lats, instead of just your biceps, a Wide-Grip Pull Up is perfect for you. It’s a basic variation of a regular pull up. For this one your shoulder strength has to be in tiptop shape, because you will be increasing the grip distance between your hands to twice the width of your shoulders. You should use an overhand grip for the best results and try to engage your core muscles to assist you.

The opposite is the Close-Grip Pull-Up, which will focus on your lower lats. Again, the hand grip variations should be approached with care, don’t over-exert your muscles. Your hands should be about six to eight inches apart. The overhand grip is also recommended for this one. Focus on contracting your lats with the ascent and make sure you are not swinging your body or leaning too far backwards.

For killer biceps, try an Underhand-Grip Pull Up. It’s also called a chin-up or simply a chin. Reverse your grip on the bar, with the palms of your hands facing towards you. Your hands need to be about six to eight inches apart. Focus on tightening your biceps, lats and back muscles while you pull yourself up.

If you want to take it to the next level, turn the chin-up into a Gorilla Chin or Crunch. This one targets your biceps and abs. Start by bending your knees at a 90-degree angle and your hands need to be roughly twelve inches apart. Basically you will be combining a pull up and a crunch. While you pull yourself up, push your knees up towards your chest.

Pronated vs. supinated


Credit: crossfit1080.com

Two big fancy words meaning overhand grip vs. underhand grip. With pronated grip, push your elbows down and back while you are pulling up and with the supinated grip, push your elbows back and out as you pull.

Why does your grip matter so much? Depending on the grip you choose, you will be targeting different back muscles and varying the force exerted on your muscle fibers. The pronated grip creates a max force with a midrange stimulus on your back muscles, especially the latissimus dorsi and rhomboids.

You should do your pronated pull ups at the beginning of your back workout because it engages more of your muscle fibers than for instance isolation-oriented training. Your supinated pull ups should be kept for the end of your back workout because it puts more of an isolated or contracted-position stimulus on your back muscles.

Random fact:
The most pull ups without dismounting was 232 in 36 minutes by Jan Kareš from the Czech Republic on the 19th of June 2010 and Irina Rudometkina from Russia did 48 pull ups in the same time on the 18th of December 2014.

Crazy pull up variations

If you are still wondering what muscles do pull ups work, here are a few next level pull up techniques you could try to target as many muscles as possible. Just make sure you feel comfortable while doing these, it’s good to challenge your body but just plain stupid to strain your muscles to prove a point of how macho you are.

The first one is not extremely difficult, but it’s a nice variation on a regular pull up. Using a Mixed Grip, so that’s one hand in the overhand grip and one in the underhand grip, targets different muscles at the same time. Just remember to swop your hands around after a few pull ups, you don’t want uneven biceps, that’s not so sexy.

commando-pull-upThe Commando Pull Up or cliffhanger is when you turn your body sideways to the bar with your hands right next to each other placing the one hand in the pronated grip (overhand) and the other in the supinated grip (underhand) on the bar. You need to lift your body up as far as you can, the goal to get your shoulder to touch the bar.

one-arm-pull-upThe One Arm Pull Up is for those really hardcore guys who are strong enough keep up their entire body with just one arm. Again, remember to vary your arms when doing this one, you don’t want your dominant arm to have a monster bicep and the other one just an average one. You can decide which grip is most comfortable for you when doing this one.

To build yourself up to the amazing ability of pulling yourself up with just one arm, you can use the One Hand Pull Up. You’re still clinging on for dear life with just one hand on the bar, but the other hand helps just a little bit by gripping your hanging arm just below the wrist.

Tips for pull ups

Depending on how much you weigh and how strong you are in general, pull ups can be quite tricky to master. And you can seriously injure yourself if you are not careful to perfect your technique.

A few pointers to keep in mind:
– keep your body straight while pulling up
– resist arching your back
– don’t swing your legs to build momentum
– find a comfortable position for your legs; bend your knees, cross your feet or keep them straight
– when hanging, don’t relax your muscles too much, this will put too much stress on your shoulders joints.

Add a little bit of oomph to your pull

Your bodyweight determines the intensity of your pull up session. At some point your strength level might surpass the level of resistance you experience from pulling up your own weight. If you want to increase the resistance, you could consider purchasing a dipping belt.  The weight plates fit around your waist. This way you can hook on as many plates as you feel comfortable with and steadily increase your resistance level.

Take away some of the oomph

The flipside scenario is that your strength level is not high enough yet to pull up your own weight. You could use pulldowns to strengthen your shoulders. Spend some time on the Lat Pulldown Machine before tackling the pull up bar again.

You will get the same workout intensity as with a pull up, the difference being that you can adjust the weight on the machine instead of cursing yourself for those beers you had over the weekend. The machine will strengthen your arms and your shoulders. On the machine you can also adjust your grip to target different muscle groups.

Wrapping Up – what muscles do pull ups work?

And there you have it, now you can offer an informed opinion when your gym buddy asks you “what muscles do pull ups work?” Which pull up style is your favorite?


Hey! I am Andries and I am the owner and curator of this blog.

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