Pull-up 101: Working the Back

The 2 Week Diet
A pull is basically the opposite movement of a press. In a pulling exercise, resistance is pulled close to the body, while in a press, resistance is pushed away. These exercises usually mimic movements of climbing and rowing. In general, pulling exercises (for the upper-body) engage the Latissimus dorsi (lats, for short), one of the most important back muscles. Among these exercises are pull-ups, pull-downs, pull-overs and rows, which can be performed using machines, free weights, elastic bands, or body-weight.


A pull-up is a tough exercise because it requires a certain amount of strength to perform it. It is a body-weight exercise, in which you hang from a fixed bar and pull your body up until your chin reaches the bar. This exercise can be performed with a wide overhand (palms facing forward) grip or with a close underhand (palms facing your body) grip. The last option, also known as chin-ups, is a little bit easier than the first. This is because when you use an underhand grip, the biceps muscles are engaged more intensively, helping the back muscles to perform the movement.

Even though this is a “hard-core” exercise, there are ways to make this exercise “doable.” As with the push-up exercise, modifications are available so you can enjoy its benefits.

The Movement

Start by holding onto a fixed bar, letting you body hang. Inhale and, using your back and arms muscles, pull your body up until your chin passes the bar. Controlling the movement, lower your body until your arms are somewhat extended. This is one rep. For women, eight repetitions are considered excellent.

But if you don’t believe you could do even one, don’t be discouraged. I have options for you; just keep reading.

Muscles Involved

This exercise engages primary arms (biceps), back (upper and middle regions), posterior part of the shoulders, and chest (pecs). Stabilizing muscles include abdominal group muscles, deep back muscles, deep shoulder muscles (rotator cuff group), and wrist muscles.

Tips for Proper Form

  • Keep your back straight and chest open.
  • Control the movement at all times – avoid momentum.
  • Keep muscles engaged at the bottom of the movement – do not hang on the shoulders.
  • Inhale on the way up.

Variations and Progression

Ok, if a pull-up is out of the question for now, we can start with easier variations to build upper-body strength. First, try hanging from the bar, keeping your upper-body muscles active (not just hanging on your shoulders). Once you can hang for around 30 seconds, you can try doing half-pulls. In this exercise, you use your upper-back muscles to lift your chest a bit and relax. The movement comes from the shoulder blades only. Repeat 12 times and release the bar.

You can also try a negative pull-up, in which you use a bench to position your body on the up-phase of a pull-up, and then use your core strength to lower the body until arms are straight. Release the bar and repeat.

Another way to go is practicing incline pulls. Use a bar low enough so that your feet are touching the floor. Hold the bar and slide forward. Your body should be in a reverse plank, and your arms perpendicular to the floor. Pull yourself up until your chest is close to the bar. Then, return to the initial position. As with incline push-ups, the higher the bar, the easier it is to perform the exercise. Lower the bar for more challenge, or place a bench under your feet for a decline variation.

Some gyms also have assisted weight pull-up machines. These machines, as the name says, make your job easier by lifting part of the weight for you. So, instead of pulling your whole body weight, you can choose to lift only 60 pounds, for example, and the machine will handle the difference. As you build strength, you reduce the machine’s help.