What Muscles Do Pull Ups Work?

Pull-ups are one of the hardest bodyweight exercises, so much so that even athletes who are relatively fit and lift weights consistently often struggle to perform bodyweight pull-ups.

Most people performing pull-ups want to know things like: What muscles do pull ups work out and what muscle groups do pull ups work? What muscles do wide grip pull ups work?

Knowing the muscles worked by pull-ups can help you strengthen the muscles for pull-ups so that you can master this challenging bodyweight exercise once and for all.

In this exercise guide, we will discuss how to perform pull-ups, tips for strengthening pull up muscles so that you can conquer pull-ups in your own workouts, and ultimately answer your question, what muscles do pull ups work?

We will cover: 

  • How Do You Do a Pull-Up?
  • What Muscles Do Pull Ups Work?
  • Pull-Up Muscles Worked vs Chin-Up Muscles Worked
  • Other Exercises to Strengthen the Muscles Groups Worked Out By Pull-Ups

Let’s dive in! 

A person doing a pull up.

How Do You Do a Pull-Up?

Before we look at the muscles worked by pull-ups, let’s discuss what the pull-up exercise is and how to perform pull-ups properly.

A pull-up is a bodyweight exercise that involves gripping an overhead pull-up bar with your palms facing away from your body, and then bending your elbows as you lift your body up and raise your chin or chest up above the level of the bar.

Then, with control, you slowly straighten your elbows and lower your body all the way back down until your arms are straight.

To do a pull-up, you will need a sturdy overhead bar that can support your weight.

Here are the steps for how to do a pull-up:

  1. Grab onto a pull-up bar with your hands positioned shoulder-width apart with your palms facing away from your face.
  2. Hang from the bar with your arms fully extended, lifting your feet off the ground. You can bend your knees if you are too tall to clear the floor.
  3. Pull yourself up by engaging your core, contracting your lats, and driving your elbows down toward the floor as you bend them.
  4. Lift your body until your chin is above the bar or the bar approaches chest height. Do not swing your body to gain momentum. Stay stable and use your muscles to raise your body, not momentum.
  5. Slowly lower your body back down in a controlled manner until your arms are fully straight.
  6. Repeat, doing as many repetitions as possible.

What Muscles Do Pull Ups Work?

So, what muscle groups do pull ups work?

Pull-ups are one of the most effective back-strengthening exercises, and as a pulling motion, the pull-up is a perfect counterpart to common pushing exercises like push-ups and bench press, which are often performed much more frequently.

Therefore, pull-ups strengthen almost all of the major muscles in the back, including the latissimus dorsi (the primary muscle worked by pull-ups), trapezius, rhomboids, erector spinae, levator scapulae, and infraspinatus.

However, the primary muscles worked by pull-ups are the latissimus dorsi muscles in the back.

The lats, short for latissimus dorsi muscles, are a pair of large, triangular, or V-shaped muscles on either side of your spine. 

The lats span from the very inside of your upper arm by your shoulder down to the back of the pelvis at your waist, creating a dramatic taper that spans your entire back.

The primary function of the lats is to stabilize the spine while supporting and providing strength to the arms and shoulders. 

A person doing a pull up.

These back muscles allow for bending to the side and keeping the spine straight during rotational movements as well as during more static postures. The lats also help extend, rotate, and move the shoulder. 

For example, the lats are one of the primary muscles involved in any pulling motion, whether pulling back on something in front of you (like opening a car door or heavy refrigerator door) or pulling down on something that is overhead.

This is why the lats are the primary muscles worked in the pull-up exercise since you are pulling your body up from a hanging position.

The lats also help adduct the arms, which is the motion that involves pulling your arms back down to your sides after they have been abducted, or brought out to either side of your body like the letter “T.” 

Other secondary muscles worked by pull-ups include the rhomboids and traps in the mid and upper back, the deltoids and rotator cuff muscles in the shoulders, and the triceps and biceps in the upper arms.

When you use proper form, pull-ups also strengthen your abs, including the superficial rectus abdominis (“six-pack” muscle) and obliques, as well as the deep transverse abdominis, which is critical for supporting the entire core and stabilizing the spine.

A person doing a pull up.

Additional pull-ups muscles include the muscles in your forearms and some involvement of the pectoralis major and minor muscles in your chest.

In fact, because pull-ups strengthen your grip strength muscles (brachioradialis and the other wrist flexors and extensors as well as the finger flexors), including pull-ups in your workout routine is one of the best ways to improve grip strength.

A lot of people under-value the importance of grip strength, but grip strength has been shown to improve functional independence and longevity in the elderly.

Additionally, having inadequate grip strength can be a limiting factor in how much weight you can lift.

Even if you are arms, shoulders, chest, and upper back are theoretically strong enough to handle heavier loads, if you have comparatively weak grip strength muscles, you won’t be able to achieve your maximum potential on your lifts.

Pull-ups are one of the best exercises to improve grip strength and strengthen the forearms and extrinsic and intrinsic muscles in the hand and wrist that support your grip.

Therefore, one of the benefits of doing pull-ups regularly is that by increasing your hand and grip strength, you will potentially be able to lift more weight in other exercises like barbell curls, bench presses, deadlifts, or squats, where poor grip strength may have been a limiting factor in the maximum load you could use.

A person doing a pull up.

Pull-Up Muscles Worked vs Chin-Up Muscles Worked

Pull-ups and chin-ups are similar bodyweight exercises that both involve hanging from a pull-up bar and then using your muscles to lift your body up.

As such, many people ask: “Are the muscles worked by pull-ups the same as the muscles worked by chin-ups?”

With a pull-up, your palms should be facing away from your body so that your hands are in a pronated grip.

This is the opposite of the hand position used in the chin-up, in which you use a supinated grip on the bar so that your palms are turned towards your face.

The pronated pull-up grip engages your lats and muscles in the back more than your biceps, which is targeted more with the chin-up grip.

One study that compared EMG activation of the chin-up and pull-up muscle groups found that the pectoralis major and biceps brachii were more active during the chin-up vs pull-up, whereas the lower trapezius was significantly more active during the pull-up vs chin-up.

A person doing a pull up.

In addition to questions like, “What muscles do pull ups work out?”, people often ask if different hand spacing for pull-ups changes the muscles strengthened with pull-ups.

  • So, what muscles do wide grip pull ups work?
  • What muscles do narrow grip pull ups work?

Essentially, if you vary the distance of your grip when performing pull-ups, you can target different muscle fibers within the lats, but the overall muscles worked by wide grip vs regular pull-ups won’t be vastly different.

A wide-grip pull-up will target the lateral portions of your lats whereas a narrow-grip pull-up will involve more of your triceps, traps, and shoulders alongside your lats.

Other Exercises to Strengthen the Muscles Groups Worked Out By Pull-Ups

Because pull-ups are so challenging, it can be helpful to do other exercises to strengthen the muscles worked by pull-ups to prepare.

If you have yet to master regular pull-ups, you can do negative pull-ups, which involve starting at the top position with your chin above the bar and then slowly lowering your body, working on the eccentric contraction of the lats. 

A person doing a pull up.

As you get stronger, you can start to incorporate the concentric phase of the pull up.

Here are a few other exercises that strengthen the muscles worked by pull ups that you can add into your workouts:

  • Chin ups
  • Lat pull downs
  • Rows of all types 
  • Dead hangs
  • Deadlifts
  • Straight-arm pull backs
  • Face pulls
  • Shrugs
  • Reverse flyes 

Want a good pull-up workout program to master the pull-up exercise once and for all? 

Try our pull-up workout plan for beginners and work your way up to being able to do full pull-ups.

A person doing a pull up.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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