Although a well-equipped gym is ideal for building muscle strength and size, several bodyweight exercises are very effective and oftentimes underrated. They also require minimal to no equipment so that you can do them anywhere. One commonly used bodyweight exercise is the pull-up.
Not to be confused with chin-ups, the pull-up exercise involves pulling your chin or chest up to a bar from a dead hang with your palms facing away from you. The pull-up is well-known for increasing upper body strength and size and the only equipment needed is a pull-up bar.
This article will review all of the muscles worked by the pull-up for determining best practice, form and execution to be included in any workout.
Pull-Ups Muscles Worked
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Teres Major
- Rhomboid Major & Minor
- Rear Deltoid
- Bicep Brachii
- Erector Spinae
The latissimus dorsi is the primary muscle group targeted by pull-ups, more commonly known as “lats.” The lats are flat muscles considered to be the largest muscle group in the upper body. They are located along the sides of your lower back and attach to the back side of your upper arm.
The primary actions of the lats include shoulder extension, adduction, and internal rotation. Shoulder extension means bringing your arm down and behind your body. Adduction occurs when you bring your arm to your side. Internal rotation involves rotating your upper arm towards your torso. A great example of shoulder internal rotation and extension is the follow-through of a baseball pitch.
In addition to assisting various upper body movements, the lats also stabilize the shoulders, back, and hips. Strong lats are necessary for progress in movements such as the bench press or deadlift. Weak lats can increase the risk of shoulder and/or back injury
For bodybuilding, bigger lats increase overall back width. More back width creates a V-taper and X-frame. Two of the mandatory poses for competitive bodybuilders are the front and rear lat spread. Pull-ups are a great way to guarantee a wide spread.
Photo Courtesy of TeachMeAnatomy.info
Another back muscle that pull-ups work is the teres major. This muscle is a small rectangular muscle that attaches the scapula to the humerus. The teres major muscle works synergistically with the lats to extend, adduct, and internally rotate the shoulder.
Like the lats, the teres major muscle is involved in various movements, such as the follow-through of a football throw, rowing or climbing. In terms of aesthetics, the teres major is not a very superficial muscle group, but it is important for optimal athletic performance, shoulder stability, and overall posture.
Rhomboid major and minor
Pull-ups activate the rhomboid major and minor muscles because they work together to stabilize the shoulder girdle as you perform the movement. The primary actions of the rhomboids include retraction, elevation, and rotation of the shoulder blades.
Weakness in the rhomboid muscles can lead to a condition called scapular winging, which is when the scapula sticks upwards and outwards. This dysfunctional movement pattern can lead to pain, decreased range of motion, and reduced strength.
The rhomboids are also highly engaged during horizontal rowing because they help pull the shoulder blades back. Although they assist common bodybuilding movements, the rhomboids don’t stand out aesthetically like the lats or traps. However, they are still important for daily function and movement.
The second largest muscle group that pull-ups work is the trapezius muscles, commonly known as the “traps”. Similar to the lats, the traps really stand out when well-developed. The traps have three distinct areas that each perform a different action.
The upper trap fibers assist with shoulder elevation and extension of the neck. The middle trap fibers help with the retraction of the scapula. The lower trap fibers perform depression and downward rotation of the shoulder blades.
Overall, the traps move your shoulders, neck, arms, torso, and head. The traps are also very important to competitive bodybuilding because they are superficial. Pull-ups primarily work the middle and lower trap fibers. Shoulder shrugs and vertical presses are ideal for upper trap development.
The posterior delt, located in the rear shoulder, is one of three deltoid muscles surrounding the shoulder joint. The superficial muscle stabilizes the joint and is one of the shoulder’s primary movers.
The rear delt’s main action is horizontal abduction of the shoulder. It also assists with retraction, so it helps pull the shoulders down and back. The rear delt tends to be underdeveloped compared to the other deltoid muscles, which can harm your posture, performance, and physique.
Many people have overdeveloped front delts causing their shoulders to be pulled forward. Doing more exercises that work the rear delt can create more balance. Furthermore,development of the posterior delt is necessary for three-dimensional shoulder building.
Most people aren’t aware that pull-ups work the infraspinatus, a deeper muscle that’s part of the rotator cuff. The infraspinatus is located on the back side of the shoulder blade and, like the posterior delt, also plays a role in shoulder joint stabilization.
Along with the teres minor, supraspinatus, and subscapularis, the infraspinatus ensures the head of the humerus stays in place against the glenoid fossa of the scapula. Rotator cuff muscles are often injured in shoulder dislocation, because they are the closest to the joint.
The infraspinatus also externally rotates the shoulder. The infraspinatus muscle may be small, but it’s crucial for optimal shoulder health, range of motion, and mobility.
Along with the back muscles, pull-ups work the long and short head of the bicep brachii. The biceps are considered to be the elbow flexors, but they also assist with shoulder flexion and wrist supination. As you perform a pull-up, the biceps help you reach the bar with your chest or chin because they bend your arm.
In terms of daily activity, the biceps are recruited when picking up objects. From an aesthetics standpoint, the biceps are heavily judged in a bodybuilding competition. Sizeable arms are one of the primary goals of most bodybuilding programs.
For more direct targeting of the biceps, chin-ups contract more of the muscle because the wrists are supinated. Nonetheless, fairly good bicep activation can occur from pull-ups alone. This is one of the reasons why the pull-up is considered to be a compound lift, training multiple muscle groups simultaneously.
Pull-ups work the forearm muscles because they perform an isometric contraction the entire time to hold onto the pull-up bar. Doing pull-ups will help improve overall grip strength, which is beneficial for nearly any exercise or task that requires your upper body.
Grip strength plays a role in several daily activities, sports, and other exercises. If grip strength is too weak to hold onto a pull-up bar, consider using chalk or lifting straps. Doing so allows more focus on the back without struggling with grip. Pull-ups are also a good substitute for wrist curls and extensions when building for size.
Erector Spinae muscles
The pull-up also works the erector spinae muscles. The three muscles that comprise the spinal erectors include the spinalis, longissimus, and iliocostalis. The spinal erectors help extend and stabilize the spine.
Like the forearms, the erectors perform an isometric contraction as you perform the pull-up to stabilize your torso, pelvis, hips, and lower body. Strong erectors prevent swinging in a pull-up.
Although not commonly used for abdominal development, the pull-up does recruit core muscles. Like the erector spinae, the core muscles help stabilize your torso and hips as you perform the movement. The core consists of the rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus, external obliques, and internal obliques.
Each core muscle performs a different action. Collectively, they help stabilize the spinal column, whereas specific core muscles are more involved in spinal flexion, rotation, anti-rotation, or lateral flexion.
Frequently Asked Questions
Assisted pull-ups with a band or machine, pullovers, chin-ups, and lat pulldowns are adequate substitutions for targeting the same or similar muscle groups as the pull-up. Moreover, if you lack the skill or strength, assisted pull-ups can help develop the strength over time.
For more information on pull-up alternatives, The 12 Best Pull-Up Alternatives.
The main difference between a pull-up and pulldown is that you bring your body to the bar when performing a pull-up, whereas, with pull-downs, you bring the bar to your body. Both exercises work multiple muscle groups and fall under the vertical pulling movement category.
Pull-ups and pulldowns have varying benefits. Pulldowns are a great alternative for someone lacking the strength for a pull-up, but that doesn’t make them superior.
To increase your back width, which is attributed to the size of your lats, most people perform vertical pulling exercises, such as a pull-up, chin-up, and pulldown. Exercises that are more beneficial for increasing back thickness include horizontal row movements, such as machine rows, barbell rows, and t-bar rows.