The pull-up is one my favorite exercises. Mastering it can be one of the more rewarding experiences someone will experience while working out. It is a closed-chain, multijoint exercise that can strength a number of muscles around the shoulder girdle, upper arm, forearm, and hand, as well as work on shoulder stability and power production.
Here are just a sampling on the muscles used during a pull-up, I am not going to list every core and lower extremity that fire to help stabilize throughout the exercise.
- Latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii, middle trapezius, lower trapezius, rhomboids, pectoralis minor, pectoralis major, posterior deltoid, infraspinatus,, teres major, subscapularis, brachialis, brachioradialis, flexor carpi radialis, flexor carpi ulnaris, palmaris longus, flexor digitorum profundus, flexor digitorum superficialis, and flexor pollicis longus
Phases of the pull-up
There are three main phases involved. They include the starting position (or dead hang), the ascending phase, and the descending phase. During the starting position the hands hold the bar overhead while facing away from the body and there are several static contractions around the shoulder girdle to create stability and allow for the ascending phase to begin. During the ascending phase the scapulae are forcibly depressed, retracted, and rotated in a downward position, the glenohumeral joint is adducted, and the elbow, wrist/hand joints are flexed. The combined joint motions and concentric musculature contractions allow the body to be pulled upright in a linear path until the underside of the chin is level with or above the top surface of the bar. Finally, during the descending phase the muscle contract eccentrically and lower the body with the opposite joint motions listed above.
There are variations of the exercise, including starting with a supinated grip (hands facing the body), or with a neutral grip (hands facing towards each other). These variations will create differences in joint motion and muscle activation.
Benefits of the pull-up
The pull-up is an exercise that allows for proximal stability of the shoulder girdle, multiplanar motion, and multiple muscle cocontractions necessary to perform various athletic activities. Performers can increase their muscular strength, muscular endurance, and ability to perform more pull-up repetitions by combining sets of full body weight pull-ups with sets of assisted pull-ups (such as with bands, or with a partner). In addition, full body weight pull-ups can be made more challenging by adding weight (weight belts/vests). Plus the ultimate benefit, a good looking back.
- Ronai P, Scibek E. The Pull-Up. Strength and Conditioning Journal 36:3; 88-90, 2014
- Antinori F, Felici F, Figura F, Marchetti M, Ricci B. Joint moments and work during pull-ups. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 28: 132–137, 1988.