How to Do a Pull-Up for a Strong Upper Body

How to do a pull up
POPSUGAR Photography | Maria del Rio
POPSUGAR Photography | Maria del Rio

Fitness goals often vary from person to person; a newfound cardio enthusiast may have their sights set on running a 10k, while a beginner weightlifter might dream of deadlifting 100 pounds. But no matter the workout passion, one exercise seems to be at the top of every newbie's ambition list: the pull-up.

So how do you get there? Follow this expert-approved guide to the pull-up exercise, which includes tips on how to do pull-up a pull up, details on the main pull-up benefits, ideas for pull-up variations, and answers to the question, "What muscles do pull-ups work?"

What Do Pull-Ups Work?

Pull-ups will put your upper-body muscles through the wringer. Specifically, the move calls upon the lats (aka latissimus dorsi, which drive the movement), biceps (which help with bending the elbow), traps (which support the movement of the shoulder blades), and forearm muscles (which support your grip), says Anne Reuss, a NASM-certified personal trainer and inclusive training expert. Your rhomboids and rotator cuff muscles are also involved, adds Laura Su, CSCS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Seattle.

When performed correctly, pull-ups also work your core, specifically your abdominals and obliques, which provide stability, says Reuss. "From a distance, it appears straightforward, almost effortless," she explains. "But when you take inventory of all the muscles engaged and the sheer demands, it's an extraordinary feat — and it's a challenge representing strength, coordination, and determination!"

Pull-Up Benefits

1. They Improve Posture

Keeping your upper back and core muscles strong is essential to maintaining good posture and preventing pain in other parts of your body, says Su. "A lot of us spend a lot of time sitting down at desks, so those back muscles tend to get weak," she explains. "If the upper back starts to get bent over, it becomes harder on your low back and your hip flexors." However, training those muscles, such as by performing pull-ups, can help counteract the postural impacts of your desk job. Plus, pull-ups enhance shoulder mobility and improve scapular range of motion, which play an important role in healthy posture, she adds.

2. They Support Daily Functioning

Your lats are a huge muscle — they extend from your humerus (your upper arm bone) all the way down your back, so they're involved in many of your everyday movements, says Su. In turn, practicing lat-building pull-ups can make actions like pulling open a heavy door or lifting a box brimming with holiday decorations off the floor less taxing.

In addition to strength, pull-ups improve shoulder stability, which plays a key role in injury prevention when you're maneuvering heavy objects overhead (e.g., when you're grabbing your luggage out of an airplane's overhead compartment), says Su.

3. They Challenge You Mentally

"Pull-ups aren't just an exercise, they are a declaration of your strength and defiance against gravity!" says Reuss. "When you grip that bar and hoist yourself up, you've got those wings. You recognize a relentless spirit in yourself, even if you're starting or in [the] middle of your pull-up journey. It's mental as much as physical."

Essentially, successfully performing a pull-up is no easy feat, so when you finally nail the movement, expect to feel like a million bucks. "I think people just feel really badass and very accomplished doing pull-ups — that's a big [benefit]," says Su.

How to Do a Pull-Up

Before you give the exercise a try, follow this step-by-step guide on how to do a pull-up for beginners with perfect form.

  1. Place both of your hands on a pull-up bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Your palms should be facing forward.
  2. Engage your core by bracing your stomach as if someone is about to punch you in the gut. Then, hang your body from the bar with your arms fully straightened and legs extended. Squeeze your legs together as if you're hugging someone with your legs. If you need a tactile cue, try crossing your legs or putting a towel between your thighs. Allow your feet to hang slightly in front of your body.
  3. Keep tension throughout your body. Then, on an exhale, pull your shoulder blades down and bend your elbows to pull your chest up to the bar. Keep your elbows tucked in by imagining yourself pulling your elbows down and back toward you (think: you're elbowing a friend behind you).
  4. Continue pulling until your chin is hovering above the bar. Try not to swing your body or stretch your neck over the bar.
  5. Pause at the top. Then on an inhale, slowly extend your elbows to fully straighten your arms and lower your body back to the starting position.

Pull-Up Form Tips and Common Mistakes

One of the biggest technique mistakes Su sees is when people pull their bodies up to the bar with just their biceps. "While they are able to do the motion, they aren't necessarily recruiting muscle groups or strengthening the right muscle groups," she says.

Instead, initiate the movement by engaging your scapula (shoulder blades), dropping them down your back, then pulling through the arms, Su advises. Try imagining that your hands are hooks and focus on driving your elbows down toward your hips. "That [cue] helps a lot of people drop the shoulders down away from their ears and create space so their traps and biceps don't get too involved and they're able to pull with their lats a little bit better," she explains. As you pull up, avoid flaring your elbows out to the sides, which will put unnecessary stress on the shoulders, adds Reuss.

Also key: Perform your reps slowly and with full-body tension, and utilize the full range of motion that's available to you, according to the experts. "Turning off" muscles throughout your body will reduce stability and decrease the efficiency of the pull-up path, says Reuss. Su encourages her clients to extend their elbows fully at the bottom of the movement and to relax their muscles a bit to stretch the lat muscles. "You essentially want, at the bottom, to be in a full overhead position, with your arms straight above your head," she adds. "And then you're pulling yourself up until at least your chin is over the bar."

Kipping — a pull-up technique that involves swinging your body and slightly lifting your feet up toward the bar — is popular among CrossFit athletes, but Su recommends avoiding the practice until you're a pro. This type of pull-up is advanced and performed at a quick speed, so you need a high level of shoulder strength and stability and the ability to control your body well, she explains. "If you're not strong, that's when you're going to get shoulder injuries and hurt yourself," Su says.

"Overall, mishaps affect the efficiency (which slows down progress) and can cause stress on the neck, shoulders, or elbows," says Reuss. "And that leads to frustration — it'll definitely affect the mental game!"

Pull-Up Variations to Try

Quality is way more important than quantity when it comes to pull-ups, so don't be afraid to tweak the exercise as you need. For a modified pull-up variation, try feet-assisted pull-ups; place the pull-up bar about mid-height, high enough that you're still able to complete the full pulling motion but low enough that your feet can gently rest on the ground throughout the movement. "Your feet can assist you, but stay mindful of pulling with your shoulder blades and back muscles rather than cheating by depending on your feet," says Reuss.

Reuss also suggests eccentric pull-ups (skipping the "pulling up" motion and instead just slowly lowering yourself from the top of the bar) and quarter or mini pull-ups (performing just the first quarter of the rep).

Band-assisted pull-ups are another common variation for the challenging exercise; the movement is the same as a classic pull-up, but you'll have the support of a resistance band that's attached to the bar and wrapped around your feet, Su says.

That said, there are some drawbacks. While banded pull-ups can help you understand and feel what a complete, start to finish pull-up feels like, they can also encourage poor form.

"Banded pull-ups should look like twinsies to a regular, band-free pull-up. If you start to rely on them, you will rely on them until you break out of the habit, so let's not make it into a habit," Reuss says.

Once you've mastered a traditional pull-up, consider amping up the difficulty by adding weight (such as by wearing a weight belt or holding a dumbbell in between your feet) or switching up your tempo (think: pulling up at a normal speed, then lowering slowly), suggests Su. You can also routinely test how many pull-ups you can do in a row to see how you're progressing, she adds.

How to Add Pull-Ups to Your Routine

You may not nail a pull-up on your very first try, and that's okay. Instead of feeling defeated, set the exercise as a goal and work on building strength with other movements.

Consider prioritizing rows and lat pull-downs in your resistance training routine to strengthen your lat muscles. You'll also want to practice bodyweight pulling motions, such as inverted rows with a TRX system or racked barbell, Su suggests.

Core exercises such as dead bugs and hollow-body holds also support your progress toward a pull-up, Reuss adds. "Dead bugs train the torso, spine, and hips to stay stable like a 'core canister' or a 'tree trunk,'" she explains. "Hollow holds also strengthen core stability, helping the body move as one during a pull-up. I call it 'dead bug on steroids.'" Perform this intentional pull-up work two to three times a week, Reuss advises.

As you improve your strength and pulling technique, progress to scapular pull-ups, which teach you how to properly call upon your shoulder blades and avoid overusing your arms and traps, says Reuss. Then, try various pull-up holds to build your grip strength: dead hangs (hold the bar with straight arms), pull-ups with a hollow-body hold, and isometric pull-up holds (hold the top of the pull-up with your chin over the bar for three to five seconds, slowly building up your endurance), Reuss suggests. There are a ton of variations that you can use to help you strengthen your body to graduate to doing an actual pull-up, says Su.

Whether you choose a modified variation, a classic pull-up, or an advanced option, Su suggests placing pull-ups at the beginning of your workout, when your muscles aren't fatigued and you're able to perform your reps with good form. During your reps, work at an 8 out of 10 RPE (rating of perceived exertion), adds Reuss; that might mean you perform three sets of eight to 12 inverted rows but only three sets of one to three reps of full-range pull-ups.

Lastly, and one of the most important aspects of accomplishing a pull-up, is your attitude. No matter where you're at in your journey, don't be afraid to attempt the exercise and start reaping those pull-up benefits. "As I like to tell my clients, strength is available to you, a choice waiting for you to seize it," says Reuss. "The potential is already there. Reach out, grab, and pull with all your might — and it's a power move to ask for a little bit of professional help, too!"