What Muscles Do Pull-Ups Work?: Plus Variations, Sets and Reps
Updated: Jun 7
The pull-up is arguably one of the best upper body exercises around. In this short guide, we're going to look at...
Let's jump right in...
What Muscles Do Pull-ups Work?
Fundamentally, pull-ups are a back exercise, so the main muscle groups that you'll be hitting are your lats and rhomboids.
So if you want to build a big, strong back, then pull-ups are a great choice of exercise for you.
You'll also (to a lesser degree) be using other muscles to support and assist the movement, these include...
Teres Major, Teres Minor and Infraspinatus - which support your shoulder and scapular positions.
Forearms - Because you have to physically grip and hang onto the pull-up bar
Pull Up Vs Chin Up
Generally speaking, pull-ups use an overhand (pronated) grip, whilst chin-ups use an underhand (supinated grip)
From coaching and training experience, I've found that most people find chin-ups slightly easier than pull-ups.
I've also found that chin-ups tend to also involve your biceps more.
How to Perform a Pull-Up
I've attached a great video above which goes over technical details for performing pull-ups in depth. However, if you want the essential steps, here they are...
1) Start with outstretched arms holding the bar
2) Slightly retract your shoulder blades and pull them a bit down too - this primes your body for good pull-ups.
3) Pull your elbows down and in until your chin is above the bar
4) Control back down to where you started
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The programme is evidence-based and is designed with 3 distinct blocks of training that use different set and rep schemes, as well as different exercises, to maximise your muscle building.
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Assisted Machine Pull-Ups: A great option that allows you to get more repetitions done per set. The more weight you use on the machine the more assistance you get on the way up, and so the easier the movement is.
Negative Pull-Ups: These are pull-ups in which you pull to the top as normal, but then come down as slowly as possible. They're great for helping you really feel your lats working. These can also be used by beginners who can't do full pull-ups yet; simply jump up to the top, then control down slowly.
Banded Pull-ups: Honestly, these aren't the best variation, because the band set-up can be a little awkward and the assistance that the band provides is inconsistent throughout the movement. However, if you don't have access to an assisted pull-up machine they're a decent option to build some back strength.
Here's a full list of back exercises you might also want to try.
How to Increase Your Pull-Up Reps
"Like any exercise, progression takes a bit of time and work, but is essentially all about small, consistent increases over time."
If you do 3 sets of 5 reps one week, then aim to do 3 sets of 6 reps the next.
if you can't add reps each week, consider adding extra sets, so you do 4 sets of 5 or even 5 sets of 5. Then retry for more reps in a few weeks time.
How many reps and sets of pull-ups should you do?
The number of reps and sets you should do largely depends on your current ability level...
If you can't do a pull-up yet, your workout might look like 3 sets of 3 negative pull-ups, plus 2 sets of 8-10 reps assisted pull-ups.
If you can perform an unassisted pull-up, but only 1 or 2 reps, then your workouts might look something like 8 sets of 1-2 reps, with 30-60s between sets.
If you can perform multiple reps of pull-ups (5+) then your workouts might look like 3-5 sets of 5-10 reps. Or perhaps even a few sets of max reps.
Frequently Asked Questions About Pull-Ups
How many pull-ups is good?
Honestly, this totally depends on your size. When I was a skinny 68kg runner I could blast out sets of 15 no problem. Now as a 94kg weightlifter I find sets of 6-12 reps challenging.
I've coached big rugby players who can bench press 150kg + (330lb+) but who struggle to do sets of 3-5 reps.
Just do the best that YOU can do, and aim to improve that over time.
Do pull-ups work shoulders and do pull-ups work chest?
Not really. They do play a very small role, but you'd seriously struggle to really develop those muscles with pull-ups alone. A much better way would be to add in a selection of pressing movements to hit your chest and shoulders. Here are some exercise suggestions for a well-rounded programme
Alright, that's enough reading for today, time for action...
1) Get in the gym and start repping out those pull-ups. Those lats and rhomboids aren't going to grow themselves.
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
3) And if you're looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching you can find more information about my services here.
'Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex's experience includes 7+ years within strength & conditioning, including supporting 2 major universities, 2 national talent pathways and a selection of international level athletes.
He is also a tutor and educator for British Weightlifting, and Assistant Lecturer at the University of Hull, UK.