A strong back is the foundation of an upright stance, good posture and balance in the human body. While people are obsessed with building muscles by weight training and other forms of exercise, they focus more on building bigger arms, chest and abs, but seldom think about their back muscles as much.

The back is one of the larger muscle groups in the human body. Multiple forms of exercises can help make the back stronger as well as more well-defined, but the basic, most fundamental movements are extremely beneficial for keeping the back healthy and strong.

Much like how push-ups or squats work towards building stronger muscles in the chest and legs respectively, the pull-up does the same for our back muscles. The pull-up can strengthen the entire back, as swiftly moving up and then coming back with a slow movement activates all the muscles. While multiple exercises are needed to work on different muscle groups, this one single compound movement is good enough for such an important part of the body.

You can perform a pull-up in several variations to target the back differently. But first, one must get acquainted with the basic movement.

  1. Benefits of the pull-up
  2. Correct way to do the perfect pull-up
  3. Types of pull-ups
  4. Tips to master the pull-ups
  5. Precautions while performing pull-ups
  6. Takeaways of the pull-up exercise

It takes a lot of time and hard work to build a strong, muscular back. The pull-up trains the major muscles of your back region, right from the back of the neck right down to the lower back, along with the shoulder and arm muscles as well. It is the most effective exercise to target your back.

  • Burns fat: Like any other bodyweight or compound exercise, pull-ups help cut fat from the body and help you achieve an impressive, shapely back, which resembes the shape of a V at its peak. Even to get rid of your love handles, pull-ups can be a great exercise too! Bodyweight exercises tend to burn more calories that allow you to tone your entire body.
  • Builds the torso: Pull-ups are the most effective and efficient exercise to build the upper body. It targets the entire back, shoulders, arms and chest, which makes it a great compound exercise. If you want your wings (the broad part of the upper back) thick and broad with increasing overall stamina, then pull-ups or chin-ups can be of great help.
  • Strength, endurance, stamina and mass gain: Lifting the entire weight of your body with just your arms improves the overall strength, endurance, stamina and helps build muscle mass. According to studies, bodyweight exercises promote strength and stamina throughout the body.
  • Prepares you for advanced training: Pull-ups are some of the toughest exercises that one can perform with their own body weight. It is hard to pull your entire body up with your arms alone. This movement prepares you to train with more advanced exercises such as the deadlift, bent-over rows as well as other intense movements that involve the 'pulling' movement.
  • Improves overall health: Many studies have proven that being active helps combat depression, fatigue, stress and other mental health-related problems. Regular exercise helps you reduce the risks of cardiovascular problems and mental illness. Execpt this, strengthening your back also helps in tackling difficulties in the back.
  • Multiple variations: You can train either your back or biceps with its numerous variations. Other than that, adding complicated movements like leg raises with pull-ups can also help you train your core muscles and back simultaneously.

It is hard to achieve the perfect pull-up movement at first for anyone. If you train hard or perform intense exercises like HIIT and still can’t pull yourself up, you’re not alone. It is one of the toughest and most energy-sapping exercises, and for beginners to perform a full-range pull-up, it can take a long time.

Muscles worked

  • Upper back
  • Upper chest
  • Upper arms

Equipment required

  • A pull-up bar or any place to hang

Intensity

  • Intermediate (Trainee)

Sets and reps

  • 3 sets of 10 reps each

Technique

  1. Hang on a pull-up bar or any common bar with an overhand grip.
  2. The gap between your hands should be shoulder-width apart.
  3. Extend your arms to their full length.
  4. Keep your body aligned and feet above the ground.
  5. Pull yourself above until your chest touches the bar.
  6. Now with a slow movement go back to the starting position. This is one rep.

You have already learned the basic pull-up movement, but to intensify or ease the motion you can try these variations:

  • Chin-ups: This is a great exercise to target your biceps. Hold the bar with an underhand grip instead (palms facing your body). The gap between your arms should be the collar bone's width apart. Pull yourself up with a similar motion.
  • Wide-grip: In this movement, hold the bar with an overhand grip wider than your shoulders.
  • Close-grip: Hold the bar with an underhand grip. The space between your hands should be collar bone's width apart. Pull yourself up until your chin reaches above the bar.
  • Commando pull-ups: Grasp the bar positioning your palms facing each other with a narrow gap, pull your body up until your shoulder touches the bar and your head clears to the right side. Lower your body and repeat to the opposite side. Keep your body perpendicular to the bar.
  • Neutral grip pull-ups: Grab onto a parallel extension on the pull-up bar and follow the same movement.
  • Behind the neck pull-ups: Grasp the bar with an overhand grip. The space between your arms should be slightly wider than your shoulders, and pull yourself up until the bar comes behind you rather than in front.
  • Dead hang pull-ups: Hang on the bar with an underhand grip, keep your arms straight and leave your body relaxed, pull your way up with a very slow movement. 
  • Crossfit pull-ups:  Primarily called kipping, position yourself like you would during the basic pull-up. Push your chest forward and spontaneously pull your back in the reverse direction. Swing your body 2-3 times and then pull yourself above the bar. Extend your arms to the starting position. This is a constant move that requires you to continue swinging yourself up and down the bar without getting off it or stopping anywhere between the motion.
  • Muscle-ups: A gymnastic-level performance in this movement requires you to pull your entire upper body above the bar.
  • Weighted pull-ups: The basic pull-up but with weights to make it more interesting. Either tie ankle weights or if you so wish, put a dumbbell between your feet, use a belt to add weighted plates or hold a heavy bag on your back.
  • Machine pull-ups: The easiest variation for a beginner, it allows you to understand the movement and gain strength without straining yourself. The machine allows you to rest your knees on the pad, and lift yourself up with the help of resistance, or a set of weights that is 'enabling' you to pull yourself up.

If you can’t do a pull-up at once you are not alone. As a beginner, it is hard to accomplish a full pull-up without practice. To master a pull-up exercise, it can take weeks. So, if you’re unable to accomplish a pull-up, begin your journey with the help of the following exercises:

  • Chair pull-ups: Perform a pull-up while putting your feet on an elevated surface or on the ground.
  • Seated pull-ups: Seated pull-ups can be helpful to learn the correct movement. TRX apparatus are commonly available in gyms; you can use the ones hanging from a bar in each hand while almost parallel to the ground, pull your body upwards in a similar movement to stand up.
  • Inverted rows: Practice inverted rows by holding a bar placed in the squat rack. Repeat until you learn the movement.
  • Negative pull-ups: This movement requires you to stand level with the pull-up bar and slowly drop back down while resisting the movement to build strength.
  • Dead hang or flexed arms: Hanging can strengthen your arms and stretch your entire body.
  • Half pull-ups: It is advisable to lift your body up as much as you can in the beginning, and with time increase the motion as you build strength.

Once you grab the pull-up bar, it becomes a natural movement for your body to pull yourself upward. Still, many people injure themselves due to some common factors like:

  • Lifting heavy: In weighted pull-ups, a person uses a piece of equipment to increase the intensity, but for doing it is always advisable to lift as much as your body will allow.
  • Cheating: Strict motion means extending your arms fully while hanging and going up all the way from the lowest position. To compensate for lack of strength, many opt to forego the full movement on the way down.
  • Bending back: People usually bend backwards to decrease the motion of the exercise. Bending your back can cause back pain, muscle strain, disc herniation or shoulder pain. To avoid workout injuries keep your back straight throughout the movement.

Pull-ups are a great bodyweight exercise that can train multiple muscle groups in just one motion. It can be performed anywhere like at the gym, park, or even at home, provided you have access to a parallel bar or a pull-up apparatus. To build strength and stamina, pull-ups are great with its numerous variations, and can train any body part with some modifications.

References

  1. Edelburg HR. ELECTROMYOGRAPHIC ANALYSIS OF THE BACK DURING VARIOUS BACK EXERCISES ELECTROMYOGRAPHIC ANALYSIS OF THE BACK DURING VARIOUS BACK EXERCISES 2017;Dec
  2. Doma K. et al Kinematic and electromyographic comparisons between chin-ups and lat-pull down exercises. Sports Biomech. 2013 Sep;12(3):302-13. PMID: 24245055
  3. Youdas JW. et al Surface electromyographic activation patterns and elbow joint motion during a pull-up, chin-up, or perfect-pullup™ rotational exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Dec;24(12):3404-14. PMID: 21068680
  4. Snarr RL. et al Electromyographical Comparison of a Traditional, Suspension Device, and Towel Pull-Up J Hum Kinet. 2017 Sep; 58: 5–13.PMID: 28828073
  5. Youdas JW. et al Activation of Spinal Stabilizers and Shoulder Complex Muscles During an Inverted Row Using a Portable Pull-up Device and Body Weight Resistance. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jul;30(7):1933-41 PMID: 26422610
  6. Dickie JA. et al Electromyographic analysis of muscle activation during pull-up variations. J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2017 Feb;32:30-36.Epub 2016 Nov 28 PMID: 28011412
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