What muscles do pull ups work?

Pull ups! They are something many of us would love to be able to do. Most find them very hard to achieve and usually give up before they manage to do them. On the one hand, this has a lot to do with a lack of upper body strength which comes from having a sedentary lifestyle. Another major reason is that most people don’t train correctly to improve their pullup performance. To do this we must first look at the question “What muscles do pull ups work?”

Mastering the perfect pull up

First up let’s clear something up right away. A lot of people say “oh yeah, I can do like 10 pullups easy”. While there are of course people who can, most of the time this is not true. You might have seen these people in the gym. They jump up onto the pull up bar and then lower themselves maybe half way down and then fire themselves up again.

Everyone has to start somewhere so that’s fair enough. But don’t get hung up on hearing that these people can do so many reps. What they are doing are not actually proper pull ups and are certainly not the perfect pull up in terms of form.

When you first start out your goal should be plain and simple. To be able to do one single pull up the right way hanging from an actual pull up bar. That’s it! Nothing complicated about it. Start small and go from there.

With this in mind, you will want to start including the right training in your workouts to improve your pull up form and strength. So let’s take a look.

What muscles do pull ups work?

I’m sure you already guessed that pull ups work the back and more specifically the upper back. But what muscles do pull ups work specifically?

Well, the target muscle group is the lats or to give them the proper name “latissimus dorsi”. These muscles are responsible for the width of your back amongst other things.

what muscles do pull ups work

For guys pull ups are the key to achieving the much desired V-shaped back. That means your back and shoulder area is wider and more muscular than your lower back and waist area.

One great thing about pull ups is that in addition to working the lats they also work a lot of other muscles. These include your traps (trapezius), Infraspinatus, Pecs (Pectoralis major), Erector spinae, Biceps, External obliques and more besides.

So it’s not hard to see how mastering the perfect pull up can really go a long way to improving your overall upper body strength.

When you start out though, don’t get too caught up in remembering all of these muscles. The main ones are the lats and the biceps. Once you get your form right you will be working all of these muscles anyway.

Are pull ups for the ladies too?

They absolutely are period! Anyone who says otherwise is talking nonsense. I’m going to put together another guide specifically for Women as there are some fundamental differences in training. This does not mean you shouldn’t take note of the info here. It just means the training approach can be slightly different due to genetic differences between the sexes.

This does not mean you shouldn’t take note of the info here. It just means the training approach can be slightly different due to genetic differences between the sexes.

When it comes to pull ups they have huge benefits for men and women. You will feel stronger, better and healthier. Improve posture and additional improvement in other exercises and strength come as a bonus too.

I’m just getting started, how do I target these muscles?

For a lot of people trying to master the perfect pull up the training plan looks a little like this:

  1. Day one: Try a full pull up. Struggle, blow out all your energy, fail.
  2. Day two: Try the exact same thing and fail again.
  3. Day three: Give it one last go, fail, decide it’s impossible and stop trying.

Is it obvious what is wrong with this system yet?

You guessed it. It’s not a system.

Pull ups are hard when you are just starting out. You may need to build up some additional strength first with some other exercises. It does help to have a pull up bar though.

One last thing before we look at the perfect pull up plan

There is a lot of confusion around when it comes to the difference between a pull up and a chin up. A lot of people think these are just two different words for the same exercise. While there are similarities they are not, in fact, the same at all.

Pull ups

The pull up is what we have been looking at so far is this guide. You hang with your palms facing away from you and as we already discussed you work a lot of muscles with the focus on your upper back and biceps.

Chin ups

The chin up is a simpler exercise in terms of muscles. You again hang from a pull up bar but this time your palms are facing you. This shifts the focus almost entirely onto your biceps. It does, of course, work your back and other muscles too but it really hits the biceps hard.

Both exercises are great and they both have there uses. If you just want to pump up massive biceps then chin ups are for you.

Once you get going with your training I would suggest including both in your program. They will both add strength and shape to your body.

If you want to look at some additional detail on the differences between the two and the benefits you can check out this detailed study from the Journal of Strength & Conditioning research.

Here is a simple plan to follow to get you moving towards your first perfect pull up:

The first exercise is a seated close grip pulldown. Check out this video:

If you really want to push yourself then try to release the weight as slowly as possible on the way back up.

Next up is exercise two the standing overhead dumbbell press:

What you will need to do is combine these two exercises into supersets. If you are not familiar with supersets this just means that you perform one set of exercise one (pull down). Quickly followed by one set of exercise two (shoulder press).

The breakdown:

So the session looks a little like this:

10 close grip pull downs

1o standing shoulder press

repeat the whole thing X 6

When you select a weight it needs to be something you can carry out the full tens reps with. You should struggle on reps 9 and 10 but you should be able to get close to the end of the last set and complete most reps.

If you cannot complete the sets and reps lower the weight. If its too easy add more.

This might seem very simple and it is, but that’s one of the great things about it. This will help you to accelerate your training and get to that perfect pull up faster.

After including this session in your training 3 times a week for 3-4 weeks its time to hit the pull ups.

Starting your pull ups

Hopefully, by now you have built up some strength and should notice an improvement in your back and shoulders. Next up you will want to try assisted pull ups and/or using a pull up band.

Here is a quick video to explain:

You may also want to try and add some negative pull ups. These are a little like the close grip pull downs we looked at earlier but help to get you started. Again a quick video will help here:

Everyone will adjust a little differently here so try out these options and see what works for you. Over time you will improve and find what you prefer and what gets you the best results.

Once you have mastered the pull up and can execute multiple reps with proper form you can try variations or add weight. But that’s for another day. Let’s get the basics down first.

Now it’s your turn. Give it a go and come back and tell us how you did in the comments.