We all know that pull-ups are great for the back and biceps. But have you ever asked yourself, “Do pull ups work chest?”
If so, you’re in luck because we’ll be answering this very question today. More importantly, we’ll examine what makes pull-ups so unique and what other exercises you might do for your chest.
Let’s dive in.
What Muscles do Pull-Ups Work?
The primary muscle that works during pull-ups is the latissimus dorsi, which covers a large percentage of the mid and upper back. Our lats are the largest muscle in the upper body and contribute to the overall back width and thickness. (1)
Our biceps, brachialis, and forearms also play a role during pull-ups, mainly to produce elbow flexion (arm bending) as we start pulling ourselves up. (2)
The midsection musculature contributes during pull-ups, primarily to offer torso stability.
Do Pull-Ups Work The Chest?
The chest, also known as the pectoralis major, is a large muscle that covers the upper front portion of your torso. It originates from the clavicle, sternum, and the bottom six costal cartilages. The muscle’s areas narrow into the tip of a triangle, which inserts into the humerus––the upper arm bone. (3)
Our chest muscles serve numerous arm-related motions, the most notable of which is arm adduction, the movement of bringing your arm in from the side, such as when hugging someone.
The chest has very little involvement in performing a pull up. The only chest muscle engagement when performing a pull up is the pectoralis minor. This muscle is a small, thin, triangular muscle located on the underside of your pectoralis major. It connects to the top of the shoulder blade. Developing this muscle does not add size or definition to your chest, but is only important for function of the shoulder.
Muscles Worked Performing Pull Ups (graphic above)
- Dark Red (Primary): Back, Lats (back width)
- Light Red (Secondary): Shoulders, Biceps
What Makes Pull-Ups So Beneficial?
Despite not being a great chest exercise, pull-ups are fantastic because they are simple, offer an excellent overloading potential, and develop several major muscles in the upper body.
Aside from that, pull-ups improve your athleticism and make you more functional. As such, your sports performance improves, everyday tasks become easier, and you’re at a lower risk of an injury.
It’s one of the top bodyweight workouts that you can perform.
What If I Can’t Do A Single Pull-Up Repetition?
A common issue with the pull-up is that many people can’t perform even one repetition, which begs the question:
“How can I do the exercise if I can’t perform even one repetition?”
There are numerous tactics for making that happen, but perhaps one of the most effective options is to leverage negative (eccentric) pull-ups. The objective is to reach the top position by jumping up or stepping on something to get to the up position, and then controlling yourself on the way down.
Doing so teaches you proper technique and how to engage the large muscles in your back. Aside from that, eccentrics develop the necessary strength you will need for the full pull-up once you build these muscles.
One option is to perform multiple slow descends of 3 to 5 seconds. Alternatively, each set can consist of a single lowering phase where you descend as slowly as possible. Most people can do their first pull-up when they can lower themselves for 45 to 50 seconds and fully control this motion.
Bodyweight Exercises That Work The Chest Better
Now that we’ve gone over the main question and what makes pull-ups great, let’s take a look at a quick list of bodyweight movements that work the chest:
- Push-ups (classic, decline, incline, plyometric, diamond, single-arm, weighted, and more)
- Star plank (4)
Here is a great home chest workout without equipment that will really build and strengthen your chest. By the end of this workout, your chest will be spent and you’ll have no question about the power of this workout!
Click to see more bodyweight exercise.
- Back muscles: Anatomy and function of Upper, Middle & Lower Back. Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.). https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/21632-back-muscles#:~:text=Latissimus%20dorsi%20(lats)%2C%20the,lower%20part%20of%20your%20back.
- MSc, N. G. (2022, June 21). Brachialis muscle. Kenhub. https://www.kenhub.com/en/library/anatomy/brachialis-muscle
- Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., Korol, O., Johnson, J. E., Womble, M., & DeSaix, P. (2013, March 6). The thoracic cage. Anatomy and Physiology. https://opentextbc.ca/anatomyandphysiologyopenstax/chapter/the-thoracic-cage/
Men’s Health. (2018, November 22). Star Plank. Men’s Health. https://www.menshealth.com/uk/fitness/a752880/star-plank/#