The why and how of pull-ups

By Ryan Carlson, CSCS

The pull-up is an upper body compound pulling exercise. A traditional pull-up relies on upper body strength with no swinging or “kipping” (using a forceful initial movement of the legs to gain momentum).

WhatCarlson_Ryan_MUG_RGB is a Pull-up?

The most popular current meaning refers to a closed chain body weight movement where the body is suspended by the arms, gripping something and pulls up.  As this happens, the wrists remain in a neutral position, the elbows flex and the shoulder adducts and extends to bring the elbows to the torso.  The knees may be bent by choice.  Bending the knees in front slightly may help to reduce swinging. The exercise mostly targets the Latissimus Doris muscle of the back along with other assisting muscles.

Why do pull-ups? (or benefits of pull-ups)

The pull-up exercise is a great movement to help strengthen the back and other assisting muscles.   This can be difficult to perform, but with different grips and variations, anyone has the ability to do it.

Grip Variations

Chin-Ups are similar to the pull-up but hands are placed facing you.  The chin up also uses the Latissimus Dorsi, but puts more emphasis on the biceps.

Neutral grip pull-ups or parallel grip is a grip with your palms facing each other.  This grip is helpful for people who have shoulder issues.  This grip can help people who struggle with pull-ups but are able to do chin-ups.  The neutral grip allows all three-elbow flexors to be engaged, the brachialis, Brachioradialis and biceps.

Movement Variations

There are many different pull-up variations.  Some make the movement more difficult, others can make it easier.

Weighted pull-ups are when you add and external weight while doing the movement.  This can be a weight vest, dip belt, chains or holding a weight in-between your legs or feet.  Weight assisted pull ups can be done with a machine, lifting partner or a rubber band.  Any of these movements can take away an individual’s body weight making the movement easier.

Inverted or reverse pull-ups are done with a TRX band, rings or a bar at an incline height placement.  The placement of the handles can determine the ease of doing this type of modified pull up movement.  The individual can hold his/her body and an angle to change the difficulty of the lift.