How to Do a Pull-up (7 Variations)

Pull-ups and Chin-ups: Everything You Need To Know, including How To Correctly Perform Them Safely
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The pull-up is a compound upper body exercise that primarily targets your latissimus dorsi (lats) and rhomboids, as well as your biceps, shoulders and chest. You generally perform a pull-up using your own body weight, pulling yourself up on a bar until your chin is above the bar.

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Pull-ups are a challenging exercise and there's many variations to increase or decrease the difficultly level, or to focus on different areas of your back.

In this guide, we'll cover the standard pull-up, as well as chin-ups, wide grip pull-ups, close grip pull-ups, weight pull-ups, commando pull-ups and L-sit pull-ups.

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Pull-ups as an upper body exercise

Pull-ups are one of the popular upper body exercises. Many people use pull-ups to work their back, shoulders and arms as part of their back day or back and biceps workout routine.

But why should you choose pull-ups rather than lat pull-downs or bent-over rows, for example? These exercises hit similar muscle groups, targeting your lats and rhomboids. But pull-ups and chin-ups have certain advantages that's worth considering...

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Better range of motion

On the face of it, lat pulldowns work similar muscles to the pull-up, with most of the emphasis on your lats. The key difference is that lat pulldowns are machine-based, whereas pull-ups use your own body weight as the resistance.

photo - Man performs a pull-up at an outdoor gym

Being a machine-based exercise, lat pulldowns do not engage your stabilizer muscles much. This is because you are sitting down during the movement, which isolates your lats and other upper back muscles.

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Pull-ups, on the other hand, allow for a more natural and functional range of motion. The exercise engages your stabilizer muscles, engaging your core and lower body to some extent.

Accessible exercise

Other compound exercises need access to gym equipment, whether that's a lat pulldown machine or barbells or dumbbells for bent over rows. If you are doing exercise at-home or on the go, you might not always have access to gym equipment.

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photo - Door frame with a pull-up bar attached.

Pull-ups only need a pull-up bar, which can be easily fitted to a doorframe at home. It's also common equipment in outdoor gyms. This makes the pull-up a more accessible exercise.

Muscles worked

Latissimus dorsi (lats)

Your latissimus dorsi (lats) are large muscles that run along the sides of your middle-to-lower back. This is the largest muscle in your back and gives your back its distinctive V-shape.

diagram - Upper back muscles, showing the traps, rhomboids and lats.

Lats play a key role in pulling your arms down when extended above your head. Strong lats help with everyday activities and exercises like swimming and pull-ups.

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Being the largest muscle in your back, it’s important that your training puts a lot of emphasis on your lats. During pull-ups, your lats are the primary muscle engaged as you pull your body up and lower it back down.

Rhomboids

Your rhomboids are muscles in your upper back that sit between your shoulder blades. Your rhomboids are crucial for upper back stability and posture, and allow you to pull your shoulder blades together.

Diagram of Rhomboid muscles

The rhomboids are made up of two muscles – the rhomboid major and rhomboid minor. Together, these muscles form the ‘rhomboid’ shape. The rhomboid major is the larger muscle, and sits below the rhomboid minor.

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Rhomboids are much smaller than other muscles in your back. Your lats, for example, are the biggest muscles in your back and are much more powerful than your rhomboids. But while your rhomboids might be smaller, they play a critical role in stabilizing your shoulder blades.

When performing a pull-up, your rhomboids are engaged to retract your scapula. This makes your rhomboids a primary muscle of pull-ups, alongside your lats.

Trapezius (traps)

Your trapezius (traps) muscles are the large triangular-shaped muscles that extend all the way over the back of your neck and deltoids, extending right down to the upper middle part of the back. It is divided into three parts called the upper, middle and lower traps.

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diagram - Of upper back, showing the location of your trapezius muscles.

Your traps are responsible for moving your shoulders and assisting in the movement of your arms out to the side. Your middle and lower traps also help to retract and depress your shoulder blades. These movements contribute to the pulling motion of the pull-up.

Biceps and brachialis

Your biceps are the large muscles on the front of your upper arms. Although your biceps is a single muscle, it is made up of two heads – called the long and short heads. Together, they play a key role in forearm flexion and rotation and strong biceps are beneficial for everyday activities and exercises.

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diagram - Showing location of biceps brachii in the upper arms.

In addition to your biceps, pull-ups particularly engage your brachialis, which is a small muscle beneath the bicep muscles. This much is an elbow flexor, meaning it contracts to bend your elbow and lift up your body during the pull-up movement.

diagram - Showing location of the brachialis in the upper arms.

Standard pull-up

diagram - Showing how to perform the pull-up exercise.

The primarily benefit of a pull-up is that it is a compound exercise, meaning it will work multiple muscle groups at the same time. As part of your workout routine, it's a great exercise to target your back, shoulders and arms.

Pull-ups are suitable for intermediate to advanced trainees, because they need a certain amount of upper body strength to perform correctly.

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How to do

  1. Reach up to the pull-up bar and grab with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you). Your hands should be shoulder-width apart on the bar.
  2. Exhale and slowly pull your body off the ground until your chin is just above the bar. Lead with your chest and keep your shoulders back to ensure maximum engagement of your lats.
  3. Squeeze at the top of the movement, contracting your back and biceps muscles for a second or two.
  4. Slowly lower your body back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
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Sets and reps

The number of sets and reps to perform will depend on your fitness level and your broader workout routine. As part of a back day routine, 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps is a good target as a compound exercise towards the start of your workout.

If your focus is on building strength, aim for fewer reps, potentially with a weighted vest.

Chin-ups

diagram - How to perform a chin-up

The main difference between chin-ups and pull-ups is your grip position. With a chin-up, you perform the exercise using an underhand grip - meaning your palms are facing towards you.

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Using an underhand grip changes the emphasis on your muscles, with this variation engaging your biceps more than with a pull-up.

Both pull-ups and chin-ups are good exercises for working your lats and rhomboids in your back.

How to do

  1. Reach up to the pull-up bar and grab with an underhand grip (palms facing towards you). Your hands should be slightly closer than shoulder-width apart on the bar.
  2. Exhale and slowly pull your body off the ground until your chin is just above the bar. Lead with your chest and keep your shoulders back to ensure maximum engagement of your lats.
  3. Squeeze at the top of the movement, contracting your back and biceps muscles for a second or two.
  4. Slowly lower your body back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
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Wide grip pull-up

diagram - How to do a wide-grip pull-up

In this variation of the pull-up, your hands are placed wider than shoulder-width apart on the pull-up bar. A wider grip puts more emphasis on your lats and less emphasis on your biceps.

If your goal is to develop a wide and thick back, the wide grip pull-up is a great compound exercise to add to your routine.

How to do

  1. Reach up to the pull-up bar and grab with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you). Your hands should be a bit wider than shoulder-width apart on the bar.
  2. Exhale and slowly pull your body off the ground until your chin is just above the bar. Lead with your chest and keep your shoulders back to ensure maximum engagement of your lats.
  3. Squeeze at the top of the movement, contracting your back and biceps muscles for a second or two.
  4. Slowly lower your body back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
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Close grip pull-up

diagram - How to do a close grip pull-up

This pull-up variation sees you place your hands closer than shoulder-width apart on the bar. This puts less emphasis on your lats and more emphasis onto your arms and shoulders.

The close grip pull-up is a good exercise to strengthen and tone your back and arm muscles. It can also help improve your posture and enhance your performance in other workouts needing upper body strength.

How to do

  1. Reach up to the pull-up bar and grab with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you). Your hands should be a bit closer than shoulder-width apart on the bar.
  2. Exhale and slowly pull your body off the ground until your chin is just above the bar. Lead with your chest and keep your shoulders back to ensure maximum engagement of your lats.
  3. Squeeze at the top of the movement, contracting your back and biceps muscles for a second or two.
  4. Slowly lower your body back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
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Weighted pull-up

diagram - How to do a weighted vest pull-up

The weighted vest pull-up is performed in the same way, except you wear a weighted vest. The additional weight increases the intensity of the exercise, adding an additional challenge to your lats and biceps.

If you are an advanced trainee looking for a more intense workout, adding a weighted vest might be a good option for you. This can help you progress and build further upper body strength.

How to do

  1. Start by wearing a weight belt or weight vest, with an appropriate amount of weight for the exercise and your experience level.
  2. Reach up to the pull-up bar and grab with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you). Your hands should be shoulder-width apart on the bar.
  3. Exhale and slowly pull your body off the ground until your chin is just above the bar. Lead with your chest and keep your shoulders back to ensure maximum engagement of your lats.
  4. Squeeze at the top of the movement, contracting your back and biceps muscles for a second or two.
  5. Slowly lower your body back to the starting position.
  6. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
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Commando pull-up

diagram - How to do a Commando pull-up

Commando pull-ups see you grip the bar with your hands facing each other, with your body perpendicular to the bar. This variation of the pull-up places greater emphasis on your brachialis and brachioradialis muscles.

Commando pull-ups help strengthen and tone your upper body, particularly your back, arms and shoulders. It's also a good way to improve your grip strength.

How to do

  1. Reach up to the pull-up bar and grab with both hands. Your body should be perpendicular to the bar, with your hands facing each other.
  2. Exhale and slowly pull your body off the ground until your chin is just above the bar (to one side of the bar).
  3. Squeeze at the top of the movement, contracting your back and biceps muscles for a second or two.
  4. Slowly lower your body back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
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L-sit pull-up

L-sit pull-ups add extra difficultly by engaging your core muscles. In this variation, your legs are raised and help in position parallel to the ground. This forms the "L shape" with your torso and legs.

If you are looking to build upper body strength AND improve your core strength and stability, this might be a good variation to go for.

How to do

  1. Reach up to the pull-up bar and grab with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you). Your hands should be shoulder-width apart on the bar.
  2. Engage your core and raise your legs until they are parallel to the floor, forming the "L shape" with your torso.
  3. Exhale and slowly pull your body off the ground until your chin is just above the bar. Lead with your chest and keep your shoulders back to ensure maximum engagement of your lats.
  4. Squeeze at the top of the movement, contracting your back and biceps muscles for a second or two.
  5. Slowly lower your body back to the starting position, keeping your legs raised through the entire movement.
  6. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
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Tips

Using a resistance band

If you find pull-ups challenging, you might consider using a resistance band or a pull-up machine to help you perform the exercise.

A resistance band can be fitted around the bar and your foot, to reduce the weight you are lifting during the exercise. It can also help you control the movement through the range of motion.

With an assisted pull-up machine, you rest your knees on a moving support pad. This allows to precisely select the resistance of the exercise, rather than relying on your own body weight.

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Engage your core

Keep your core engaged through the entire exercise. Having an engaged core helps stabilize your body, preventing unnecessary swinging or momentum.

This will mean you are fully engaging your lats, rhomboids and traps in your back. Not only does this enhance the effectiveness of the pull-up, it also reduces the injury risk from engaging the wrong muscles.

Avoid overextending your arms

When you lower your body from the bar, avoid fully extending your arms. Instead, keep a slight bend in your elbows.

Overextending your arms can cause unnecessary strain on your elbows and may lead to injury. A slight bent maintains tension in your muscles, promoting better muscle activation in your back and arms.

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