The single best upper body exercise is the pull up or chin up. It works your back, arms, shoulders, core and even your chest. It has enough variations that you can focus on different muscle groups while making progress in both strength and hypertrophy. If you want that famous V-shaped back that bodybuilders strive for, do pull ups. Pull ups are also a great corrective exercise for those with poor posture. If you are only going to do a single upper body exercise, do pull ups. The above picture is that of someone whose workout consist almost entirely of weighted pull ups.
A Pull-Up Workout
If you are still uncertain about the value of pull ups look at this before and after photo: This is a man whose whole workout routine revolves around weighted pull ups and chin ups. That’s it. He is doing “5 reps in sets of 8, with an added weight of 47kg (103lbs), three times a week”. He made a post on reddit about his diet and routine. It’s pretty amazing that with the proper diet and simply doing weighted pull ups he was able to achieve such a great transformation. Notice the V shape? The back, shoulders and arms? All look great and all are a result of a pull up workout.
Pull Up Muscles
The main muscles used in the pull up are the lats. These are the large muscles in your upper back which span from your shoulders down to your waist. These are the muscles which create that sexy V-shape that muscular men are known for. They also help with keeping an upright posture. Weak back muscles can lead to slouching and other unattractive and unhealthy posture problems. Wide lats on the other hand provide a toned outline for the rest of the body.
Your arms are also doing a large amount of work when doing pull ups, and even more so when doing chin ups. Biceps and forearm muscles are used to help pull your head over the bar. Chin ups and pull ups are a compound movement, meaning they use multiple different sets of muscle. Unlike isolation exercises which target a single muscle, chin ups will work many muscles at once. This includes multiple arm muscles. Some bros will sit in the gym doing curls all day long growing their biceps, but chin ups will do just as much for your arms while also working your back and core and other muscle groups. Make your workout as efficient as possible by doing exercises which target multiple muscles at once.
Everyone wants a great set of abs. Great abs are made in the kitchen. In other words, the best way to have a great looking stomach is to lose the fat which covers your abdominal muscles. The muscles are probably already there, they just aren’t visible due to being covered by a layer of fat. That being said, the stronger your abdominals are the more visible they will be. Sit ups are not very good for your back and should largely be avoided. Pull ups and even pull downs on the other hand are great for your abs and the rest of your core muscles. These muscles are forced to flex when you are hanging or pulling yourself up. Similar to how a plank is a great core exercise, pull ups keep your back in a healthy neutral position while forcing you to flex and grow the muscles which support your back and internal organs. These stabilizing muscles will help give you a flat great looking torso.
Shoulders are also a key ingredient in pulling your body up. Many of the muscles connected to your shoulder blades get a good workout when doing pull ups. These include the teres major, rhomboids and levator scalpulae. Again, strong shoulders not only look great, they also help with an attractive posture. Have you ever seen military members stand up straight in attention? Well, one of the main exercises someone does in military training is the pull up. Do pull ups and you will have some nice powerful shoulders.
What surprises many pull up beginners is that pull ups and especially chin ups also use the pectoralis major. That’s right, even your chest gets a work out when doing chin ups.
There are other muscles used during pull ups. Forearms are one. Doing pull ups will increase your grip strength. But that is the nature of a compound lift. Many different muscles are used.
What Is The Best Type Of Pull Up
A basic pull up has palms facing forward, the same directions your toes point. This brings more focus on your back than on your arms and chest. Because your lats are fairly large, you can focus on developing your lower lats versus your upper lats. To focus more on the lower lats you want a more narrow grip. You may want to switch over the chin ups or hammer grip pull ups because these allow a more narrow grip. If you want to focus on your upper back do wide grip pull ups.
Chin ups have palms facing your back. With pull ups you should be looking at the back of your hands, with chin ups your palms should be facing you. Chin ups tend to increase the amount of arm muscle used in the exercise, so if you are looking to increase your arm size, do chin ups rather than pull ups. Your back and other muscles are still worked a lot, so do not think that doing chin ups will not work your back. It will.
Chin ups are often recommended in many strength training programs. Unlike hypertrophy or bodybuilding programs, strength programs do not focus on the biceps as much. Chin ups provide a good, compound exercise that hits the biceps.
Hammer grip or neutral grip pull ups have your palms facing one another and your thumbs are in a position to point behind you. This grip is actually the best for targeting your lats. It also tend to be easiest on your joints, to if you ever feel shoulder or elbow discomfort from doing pull ups, try switching to hammer grips.
Pull downs are a great exercise for those who are unable to do a full proper pull up. These are just what they sound like. Rather than pulling yourself up to the bar you start at the top of the bar (using a step or chair) and in a slow and controlled manner pull yourself down to a hang. This works the same muscles a pull up works.
Assisted pull ups are another option for those who are not able to complete a full pull up. This is where a large rubber band is tied around the pull up bar and you stand on the band while doing the pull up. This way some of your weight is held by the band and you are pulling less than your full body weight.
Once you are able to do a sufficient number of proper bodyweight pull ups (over 12 for example) in a single set, you may want to invest in a weight belt which will allow you to add weights to your pull ups, increasing strength and size. Once you start being able to do more than 12 reps per set you are focusing more on endurance than strength or size.
Behind the pack pull ups and one armed pull ups should be avoided due to risk of injury.
How to do a Proper Pull Up
Grab the pull up bar with whatever width and hand position you feel is best for your goals. I recommend switching around the grip and width from time to time to make sure you are targeting as many muscles as possible. If you are standing on anything, lift your legs by bending at the knees so you are at a dead hang. Stick your chest out and shoulders back. Pull your body up until your chest reaches the bar. Some people will stop when their eyes or chin reaches the bar, but this is not a full range of motion. Your goal should be to lift your body up the point of your chest reaching the bar. Slowly bring your body back down to a hanging position. Be sure to come all the way down to a dead hang again. If you are not at a full dead hang then you are cheating.
If you want to improve your pull ups without actually doing pull ups or pull downs or assisted pull ups, the next best thing would be to do bent over rows. These also target your lats and arms in a similar fashion to pull ups. You can also do curls to help increase arm strength. But really, a pull up/pull down is the best thing to do if you want to improve your pull ups.
A Good Pull Up Bar
You don’t necessarily need a proper pull up bar to do a pull up workout. All you need is something to hang from which will support your body weight. I actually used to do pull ups from a tree branch for a few months when I was unable to use a proper pull up bar. That being said, it is really nice to have your own pull up bar in your house. I know some people who keep their’s in their kitchen and every time they walk by to get a snack they do a few pull ups. It adds up pretty quick.
A good pull up bar should have multiple grip and width options. I own this one and am perfectly happy with it. It attaches to a door frame and can be taken down whenever you want.
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