Which Muscles are Used when Doing Pull-Ups?

We all know that certain muscles are used when performing certain exercises. But, do you know which muscles are used for each exercise? For instance, do you know which muscles are used when doing pull-ups? If you are not used to doing pullups, you are probably thinking that they work all of the muscles, because they are so difficult to do. Actually, they do work several muscles, but not all of them.

Obviously, this is an extremely challenging exercise, and one that you likely are not going to be able to do right away. It is going to take some practice. Let’s take a look at the muscles that are used when doing pull-ups, and how the muscles are used. We are also going to take a look at how to avoid making certain mistakes when doing pull-ups.

How are Pull-Ups Done?

We’ve all seen people doing pull-ups, but there is a lot more to it than just grabbing the bag and pulling yourself up. A lot of people think that in order to get the most out of pull-ups that they have to do many, and quickly. Actually, you can benefit a lot more by doing fewer of this exercise, and doing it slowly.

Start out by hanging from the bar. You will then need to use your upper body muscles to bring your body up to the bar. Once you are in this position, slowly begin to lower your body. Doing this exercise, and most other types of exercises, slowly is going to require a lot more muscle control, which is obviously going to give those muscles a better workout. This is an exercise that is going to help tone your entire upper body, particularly your arms. It will also give you that V-shape on your back that is common for swimmers to have.

By perfecting your form before worrying about strapping on weight or your total rep count you will ensure proper engagement of the critical back muscle groups that make up a strong back or “yoked” appearance.

Now let’s talk about the muscles that are used when doing pull-ups.

Are Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups the Same?

Many people mistakenly believe that pull-ups and chin-ups are the same thing. These are actually two completely different exercises, although they do look similar. Both of these exercises do work the back muscles, but they do different things. When doing pull-ups, your palms are facing away from you. You are using a grip that is wider than the width of the shoulders. When doing chin-ups, your palms will be facing toward you, and the grip is just at shoulder level or even closer. Actually, this exercise is also often referred to as a reverse grip pull-up, but technically, it is not a pull-up.

Which is More Difficult, Pull-Ups or Chin-Ups?

Pull-ups are actually the more difficult of the two exercises. Because of the positioning of the biceps, chin-ups are easier to do. The biceps are facing each other, whereas with pull-ups, the biceps are facing away from each other, which means that they are working harder. Also, the wider grip makes the exercise more difficult. The upper and outer back area is worked harder when doing pull-ups, but the middle back is worked harder when doing chin-ups.

Read our guide on hand placement and pull-up variations to incorporate a little variety into your routine to better hit your muscles in different ways to promote new muscle growth.

Have You been Avoiding Adding Pull-Ups to Your Workout?

A lot of people avoid adding pull-ups to their workout routines because they think that they are too difficult. Yes, they are difficult, at least at first. Once you get used to doing pull-ups, they will be a regular part of your workout routine that you won’t even think about. You will just do them. The more you do them, the more you are going to be able to do, and you are going to end up with the back that you have always wanted. There are very few exercises that are going to give you these same results.

You might not believe it right now, but once you get used to doing pull-ups, you will actually start to find them too easy, and you will start adding weight. This is going to give you an even better workout, and the more you do it, the more weight you will end up adding. You are going to have a back that is wide, sexy, and strong.

Sure, you may have difficulties at first, but so does everyone else. You know those guys who look like they were born doing pull-ups? They certainly didn’t master the exercise overnight. They worked at it, and if you work at it too, you are going to make the exercise look easy as well. Now, without further ado, let’s take a look at the main muscles that are used when doing pull-ups.

What Exact Muscle Groups are Targeted?

Once you know how to do a pull-up and the differences between similar excises, it’s good to know what exact muscles get the most benefits from them. As they are a compound exercise, you target quite a few regions.

Latissimus Dorsi

The shoulders are used the most when you do pull-ups, and this action is known as shoulder adduction, or in other words, moving the upper arm bone so it presses into the body. The muscle that causes this to happen is called the latissimus dorsi. This muscle is triangular in shape, with the base of the triangle being the starting point of the muscle, between the middle and lower parts of the spine.

The top part of the muscle represents how the latissimus dorsi stretches out to the upper arm bone. When you are doing a pull-up, this muscle pulls at the arm bone, thereby adducting it into your body, causing the body to rise up to the bar.

Teres Major, Teres Minor, and Infraspinatus

The muscle that goes from the back of your shoulder blade and out to the upper arm bone is known as the infraspinatus. Below this area is the teres, and below that is the teres major. Both start on the shoulder blade, and then work their way out to the upper arm bone. These muscles work together to help the latissimus dorsi do its job with the shoulders adduction while doing pull-ups. Basically, this is the movement that is going to move the upper arm bones closer to the body and lift it up to the bar, thereby helping the latissimus dorsi.

Pectoralis Major and Coracobrachialis

Now let’s look at the muscles that span out into the shape of a fan at a 90-degree angle. The top part of the fan is the beginning of the pectoralis major. This muscle spans the entire length of the breastbone. The bottom part of the fan is the insertion of the pectoralis major, and it stretches to the upper arm bone.

chest hair

Working with this muscle is the coracobrachialis muscle. This muscle starts at the front of the shoulder joint. It stretches to the upper arm bone, and the two muscles work together to help the latissimus dorsi when doing pull-ups. Basically, it is the action that moves your body upwards.


Next we move on to the triceps muscle, which consists of three heads. These heads are referred to as the lateral, long, and medial. All three of these heads are used at the elbow to straighten the arm, going down the arm bone and to the elbow joint. But, the only head that actually starts right at the shoulder blade is the long head, and it is the part that is used when doing pull-ups, and it is used in shoulder adduction. The long head also helps in how the upper arm bone moves into the body, along with the lifting action.

Summing Them All Up

So, now you know that pull-ups are a compound exercise that works several muscles in the upper body. The main muscle this exercise targets is the latissimus dorsi, also referred to as the lats, which determine the width of the back and give you that V shape. If you want to have this shape, one of the only ways that you are going to get it is by doing pull-ups. Other exercises will work different areas in your back, but the only thing that comes close to pull-ups is swimming, which is why you see so many swimmers with that V shape in their backs.

There are also other muscles that are put to work when doing pull-ups, although not nearly as much as the muscles we have already discussed. These additional muscles are the traps, teres major, infraspinatus, erector spinae, pecs, rhomboid, and external oblique muscles. So, you can basically consider pull-ups to be a complete upper body exercise that really focuses on the lats and biceps.

This exercise is also going to make your shoulders look broader, because it helps to widen the back, which lends to the appearance of wider shoulders. In addition to having wider looking shoulders, pull-ups are also going to help you to have stronger biceps and forearms, and this exercise also helps to work the upper back. So, you don’t necessarily have to do a lot of shoulder exercises to get wider shoulders. All you need to do is add pull-ups to your workout routine.

cobra back

Common Mistakes to Avoid

When doing any type of exercise, including pull-ups, it is important to do it properly. If you do not know what you are doing and you aren’t doing the exercises the right way, you could end up doing a lot more harm than good, and you could even end up with an injury.

Unless they are taught how to do pull-ups properly right from the start, most people tend to do them the wrong way. They will hold onto the bar and then use their momentum to lift themselves up, causing the body to swing. There is no control when the exercise is done in this manner, and it isn’t going to do a whole lot of good. Other mistakes to avoid when doing pull-ups include:

  • Not Controlling Downwards Movement – Many people think that you have to do exercises quickly to benefit from them, including pull-ups. Actually, the slower you do this and other exercises, the more the muscles are going to have to work.
  • Doing Kipping Pull-Ups – There is a pull-up variation used in crossfit training known as the kipping pull-up, which is done by swinging the body up and down. Not only is this not very beneficial, it can actually damage your joints.
  • Doing Behind the Neck Movements – You are not going to benefit from doing behind the neck pull-ups, and this can even cause a lot of damage to your shoulders. It might look cool, but all you will be accomplishing is showing off, and possibly an injury.
  • Using too Wide of a Grip – Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you will get wider lats if you use a wider grip. Again, this can lead to shoulder injuries, because it reduces your range of motion. The best grip when doing pull-ups is just slightly wider than the width of your shoulders. It causes the muscles to work harder without injuring them, and it lets you add more weight.


Taking on physical challenges is one of the best way to get your body into great shape, and keep it there. If you really want a challenge, pull-ups are definitely the way to go. This is probably one of the most challenging exercises you can do, and one of the most beneficial once you get the hang of it.

There are so many benefits from doing pull-ups, and you don’t have to spend a lot of money on exercise gear. In fact, you can get a pull-up bar for around $20. This is the idea exercise for anyone who wants to work out at home and avoid paying for expensive gym memberships, because you don’t have to spend a lot of money, and you can use the bar pretty much anywhere.

If you are beginning a new exercise routine with exercises you are not used to doing, such as pull-ups, it is a good idea to discuss it with your doctor prior to starting the new exercises. This is particularly important if you do have any current health issues that you are being treated for. Your doctor may okay this routine, or they may offer other exercises that are going to be safer for you to do instead, such as swimming.


  1. Abi

    5 years ago
    • PUP

      5 years ago

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