What Muscles Do Pull Ups Work?

Muscles connecting the upper extremity to the ...
Pullups Work The Latisimus Dorsi Muscles. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Pull Up is actually one of the best exercises to work most of the muscles in your upper body. Most people do pull ups to work the big muscles of the back. Specifically the latissimus dorsi (lats).  But, when you take a look the whole exercise you get a better understanding that it’s not just the lat muscles that are working.

Starting At The Top

Naturally with any exercise where you’re grabbing a bar of any kind, you’re going to get a workout to your forearm flexors (and extensors) or gripping muscles. But the work on the forearms is going to be a little different. That’s because there is going to be more elbow extension (versus wrist flexion with typical lifting) which may work the proximal forearm more completely by elongating the muscles.

Moving up the arm, the biceps are next. But, unlike regular curls, your basically holding your wrist in neurtal. Sort of like the hammer curl position. It won’t give you a peak on your biceps, but, like the forearm muscles previously mentioned, you will get more of an elongation of the muscle at the bottom of the movement.

Now we’re getting up to the shoulder area. The primary muscles at the joint are the rear delts. They’re going to be activated when extending the shoulders when you’re chin is near the bar (it works thru the whole motion but is most contracted when the shoulder is extended).

But, the main shoulder muscles that pull ups work are the scapular stabilizers. The rhomboids and tapezius (lower and middle) muscles. If the scapula isn’t stable, you’re not going to get many reps in.

It’s The Whole Back

A US Marine Doing Pull-ups.
Pull-ups Work Most Back Muscles. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The pull up will actually work the majority of your back muscles. Some directly, like the lats rhomboids. But, when you do the pull up properly, you actually are arching, or more specifically, extending your back. All the paraspinal muscles from your neck to your tail are activated to hold you in the best position to work through the motion efficiently.

And, there’s an added advantage to working on pull ups of distraction of the spine rather than compression. Distraction does a couple of things that are really important for anybody that lives with computers and cars.

Number one, it stretches your muscles and other soft tissue naturally out of the seated position that you’re probably in all day long. It helps to straighten your spine, improve your posture, reduce the potential for back pain and a number of other problems that “sitters” have.

Number two, it also reduces the compression stress on the intervertbral discs in your spine. This is important because, again, most everything that is done during the day actually increases the compression on the discs. And compression on the discs is one of the primary causes of the dreaded “slipped”, “bulging”, “herniated”, “blown”, etc, disc syndrome that leads to a host of unwanted problems and doctors visits.

So, doing pull ups is a good way to get some work into more muscles than just one or two. Hey, back in the day, accompanied by push ups, doing pull ups was considered to be a full upper body workout.

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