The Ultimate Guide To Pull-Ups

Here is everything you ever wanted to know about pull-ups: what pull-ups are and how to get started on them, what to do when you don’t have a bar and how to get better at pull-ups when you are stuck.

What Do Pull-Ups Do?

The target muscle of pull-ups is the latissimus dorsi, the widest and broadest muscle of the back. It starts at your front between shoulder and chest and then fans out toward the spine. Developing this muscle makes your back look broader and works toward getting a  “v-taper.”

diagram of back muscles

Just some of the muscles trained by doing pull-ups.

But what makes pull-ups really great is that the latissimus is not the only muscle that benefits, a lot more are working along and share the goodness: your shoulders, the middle and upper back, the neck, biceps and forearms.

Is There A Difference Between Chin-Ups And Pull-Ups?

Yes, there is. A chin-up is when your hands are facing you when you pull yourself up.

Man doing chin-up

The chin-up position.

During a pull-up the hands are facing away from you. The chin-up involves more biceps, making them easier.

Man doing pull-up

The pull-up position.

How Do I Start Doing Pull-Ups?

First of all test out if you are able to do six or more pull-ups (not chin-ups!). If you are, scroll down and check the section about how to get better at them. If you can’t, follow this basic pull-up training program:

You should do this 2 – 3 times per week, preferably as part of a complete workout like this one. A broad back with a chicken breast on the other side always looks a bit ridiculous.

Okay, I Want To, But I Don’t Have A Bar!

That really is no problem, because a pull-up bar simply is something horizontal you can grab and solid enough to handle your weight. A lot of the equipment on playgrounds, for example, can replace a real bar:

man doing pull-ups on playground

Playground swings are usually built really sturdy.

The old cloth line in the yard is another possible pull-up bar substitute:

man doing pull-ups on cloth line

Grandma used to put clothes on these, you don’t.

These are just two examples of pull-up bar substitutes. Check here for many, many more.

Nah, Too Uncomfortable, I Want A Real Bar! Which One?

There are three types you can install at home. From left to right these are the corner-mounted pull-up bar, the one mounted on a door frame and the type you wedge into the frame:

Each has its unique advantages and disadvantages and you should carefully weigh what will work best for you.

The first you can install in a corner and isn’t in the way when it’s not needed, but  you can’t install it on drywalls and such. The second type allows for a wide grip, but takes up an awful lot of room to store, while the third needs a minimum of space when put away, yet doesn’t allow for a wide grip and may also damage the frame.

Er, “Wide Grip”? Is That Important?

Well, you normally do pull-ups with a grip that is about shoulder-width, maybe a little more.

Some people, however, believe that a wider grip activates the latissimi more, although I never saw any proof for that. To me, a wide grip simply narrows the possible range of motion, but if you want to find out how the different grip widths work for you, you need a bar that allows them.

man doing wide pull-ups

The wide pull-up. You’ll barely get your head over the bar.

I’m Stuck At Four, Five Or Six Pull-Ups!

When you are stuck at the same number for a while, you should for a time change the way you do pull-ups. There are three techniques that work very well for that:

I Got The Opposite Problem: I Got Too Good!

When you can do 12 to 15 pull-ups in each of three sets and you continue doing what you are doing, you won’t be training muscle size, but muscle endurance. That won’t make your back muscles bigger, so it’s time to make pull-ups a bit more difficult (which also lets us revisit our friend, the wide pull-up):

Got Something To Add?

Does this guide miss something? Do you want to share your experiences with doing pull-ups? Go ahead and let me know in the comments!

Anatomical image courtesy of Wikimedia, pull-up replacement demonstrations courtesy of Hjortur, second and third pull-up bar pictures courtesy of Drew Stephens and Eric Schmuttenmaer.

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  1. With Pullups, using false grip, that is, thumb below bar promotes external rotation and puts shoulder in better position along with squeezing glutes and abs. Keeping legs straight with pointed toes is also desirable.

      • Some people use thumbless grip, I used to it too in the beginning. With thumb below bar I can retract and depress much, much better.

        It’s pretty hard on thick bar, but that’s why thin bar feels like a breeze.

        • Just to add. Kelly Starrett’s “Becoming a Supple Leopard” is fantastic book for pullup form and for form of pretty much all major exercises done.

          I learned that trick from him. My recommendation for next fitness book buy.

  2. I’ve done reviews of several pieces of exercise equipment. A few years ago I reviewed the Perfect Pullup (then $100, now I’ve seen it for $25. Of all the stuff I’ve reviewed, I use this more than any other, several times a week.

    I agree, it’s a great exercise!

    I was once locked out of my home and did a “perfect pull up” to the second floor balcony to “break in.” lol! Functional fitness 🙂