Pull ups are one of the most admired and intimidating exercises out there. Most people would love to do them, but few overcome their anxiety and start learning how to pull themselves up.
But if you’re looking to strengthen and sculpt your back, then they should definitely be in your workout wheelhouse. They’re a top bodyweight exercise that works a range of muscle groups.
However, they are not easy to perform! Most adults have a hard time doing one, much less an entire pull-up workout. But we have some solutions for that below, and things to get you over the hump.
Today’s post will go over what the pull up is, what benefits it offers, how to perform it, and what you should do if you can’t do a single repetition.
Table of Contents
What Are Pull Ups?
Pull ups are one of the best bodyweight exercises you can do. First, the exercise is incredibly versatile because you only need a pull-up bar. You can do pull ups at home, the gym, the park, etc.
Second, pull ups offer an excellent overloading potential, and you can use the movement to build strength and muscle for many years. One option is to do more reps as you get stronger. You can also attach an external weight to yourself (via a special belt or weight vest) to keep challenging yourself.
How to Perform Pull Ups
- Stand under a pull up bar.
- Reach up and grab the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing forward). Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Engage your abs and lift your feet off the floor to suspend yourself in the air.
- Bring your shoulders back and inhale.
- Pull yourself up in one fluid motion, moving as high as possible––ideally, until your chin is over the bar.
- Hold for a moment and lower yourself slowly as you exhale. Go down until your arms are straight.
- Inhale again and repeat.
What Muscles Do Pull Ups Work?
The primary muscle that works during pull ups is the latissimus dorsi––a large muscle that makes up a significant portion of the back. Other back muscles, including the rhomboids, trapezius, infraspinatus, and erector spinae, also contribute. (1, 2)
Another muscle group that works is the biceps. The muscle’s primary function is elbow flexion, which occurs as you pull yourself up.
Pull ups are also beneficial for your core musculature: the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, glutes, and other muscles. These muscles flex isometrically to provide stability and prevent you from swinging back and forth. (3)
A wider grip emphasizes your lats, but spreading your hands too much can put more tension on your shoulders. An underhand grip (palms facing you), such as during a chin up, is slightly more beneficial for your biceps, whereas an overhand grip (hands facing forward) leads to better lat activation.
Primary Muscles Worked 💪
- Lats (Back Width)
Secondary Muscles Worked 💪
- Trapezius (Traps)
- Core (stabilization)
But What If You Can’t Do a Single Pull Up?
People who can’t do a single pull up can benefit from eccentrics. The objective is to get yourself to the top by jumping or stepping on something and controlling yourself on the way down.
One option is to perform multiple reps where you lower yourself for 2 to 5 seconds. Alternatively, each set can be one big repetition where you descend as slowly as possible. It could be only a few seconds at first, but you will work up to 10, 20, or even 60-second descends.
Performing eccentrics strengthens the muscles involved in pull ups. The more you do these, the easier it will be to perform regular pull ups.
Safety Tips and Recommendations
The most crucial safety tip for pull ups is to ensure the bar is sturdy and can support your weight. A sudden detachment can hurt you, so it’s best to hang from the bar for a bit to see if it remains stable.
Second, always warm up well before doing pull ups. Start with light cardio to get your blood flowing, and continue with dynamic stretching before doing your first set.
Check also some other great bodyweight exercises:
- Close-grip Pull-ups
- Bodyweight Shoulder Exercises
- Bodyweight Hamstring Exercises
- How to Do Burpees
- What Do Push-ups Work
- Calisthenics Workout
- Latissimus Dorsi Muscle. Physiopedia. (n.d.).
- The superficial back muscles. TeachMeAnatomy. (n.d.).
Davidson, K. (2016, December 19). Transverse abdominal exercises. Healthline.