7 Benefits of Pull-Ups: The Best Back Exercise For Mass & Strength
And to think we used to hate them!
I remember as if it was yesterday...
It was back in 2014 and for some reason, we’d made the choice of going to our local park and start to train.
Little did my friends and I know the benefits of pull-ups back then...
We just got under the bar and decided to do 70 repetitions in as many sets as it would take.
Our ambition was commendable...
After 36 pull-ups my body was done for and I gave up.
Our bodies might have been shattered, but in that cold December day a new passion was born.
As we’ve started doing more and more pull-ups I’ve started reaping the benefits.
We were more confident, stronger, had better posture, and our overall fitness increased.
This, of course, was over a period of time following a calisthenics workout. However, now I love every single pull-up I do.
If you can't do pull-ups or you simply want to get better at it, check this article.
In this article however, we’re talking benefits.
Benefits of pull-ups
As previously stated, we were more confident, stronger and had a better posture.
But why is that?
How did one exercise bring about all these changes?
Let's talk about the benefits of pull-ups and see.
1. Complete upper body engagement
Doing pull-ups will recruit muscles throughout your entire upper body.
Because pull-ups are compound exercises, meaning that multiple muscle groups and joints are engaged to complete the movement.
The areas that work are:
However, the primary movers are the latissimus dorsi - lats or wings, back muscles, and biceps.
In other words, if you do this exercise your back will get bigger, the biceps will increase in size, and you will develop the coveted V-taper.
Favor the development of the biceps or lats by changing the grip you are using:
- an underhand - supinated - grip will allow more biceps activation
- a pronated grip will favor the activation of the latissimus dorsi
One of the main functions of the biceps muscle is forearm supination.
Therefore, whenever the forearm is supinated, the biceps is in what is called a technical advantage.
On the other hand, if the forearm is pronated the biceps is in a technical disadvantage.
Hence, the latissimus dorsi will have to activate more to compensate for the decreased support of the biceps.
2. Improved posture
Good posture is the one most important thing anybody can do now to look better.
Helen Gurley Brown
Most people have imbalances between the pushing and pulling muscles.
These come as a result of too much sitting or improper training.
The pushing muscles get tight, while the pulling muscles stretch and weaken.
This is a recipe for disaster...
And by disaster we mean a hunched back.
One of the greatest benefits of pull-ups is their ability to develop the whole musculature of the back, fixing all the imbalances.
It’s been scientifically proven that a better posture leads to confidence.
That is why we started feeling better about ourselves after getting better with pull-ups.
Pull-ups are a vertical pulling movement pattern. They are outstanding for fixing imbalances between pushing and pulling muscles if and when they are coupled with horizontal pulling exercises.
Horizontal pulling exercises are all rowing exercises, such as:
- Inverted rows
- Front lever progressions
- Barbell rows
If you fail to complement the two planes - horizontal and vertical - you will find yourself subject to injury.
For every vertical pulling exercise make do two horizontal exercises.
Due to their simplistic nature, pull-ups can be done literally anywhere.
You only need a surface to hang onto.
We’re talking beams, branches, monkey bars – even a set of stairs.
You can buy a doorway pull-up bar and have your own home workout equipment for less than $100.
The possibilities are endless.
Another good example is using gymnastics rings.
If you want a reliable pull-up "bar" that can be carried virtually anywhere, then gymnastics rings should be a great addition to your equipment. They easy to carry around, and can be tied to pretty much any horizontal object.
4. Straightforward progression
There are lots of different ways to do pull-ups.
They are truly suitable for any level of strength and can be easily changed.
Anything works; from hand placement on the bar, to progressions, to adding weight. Your imagination is the limit.
This is one of the best ways to progress and one of the major benefits of pull-ups.
There are so many progressions to work towards, so many goals to attain, that you won’t actually grow bored of this exercise.
To name a few of the best progressions, in order of difficulty, we have:
- High pulls - chest to bar, sternum to bar, hip to bar
- L-Sit pulls
- Muscle-up (which is a combination of a high pull up and a straight bar dip)
- Typewriter pulls
- Archer pulls
- One arm pulls/one arm chin-ups
This is just scratching the surface.
As I said, the possibilities are endless.
Changing the width of your grip is another good way to progress with pull-ups.
If you are used to a shoulder-width grip, making it either narrower or wider will increase the difficulty, simply because you are working the exercise in a slightly different manner than what you are used.
There is a common misconception that the wider the grip, the more you will engage the latissimus dorsi. According to a study done in the United Kingdom, grip width does not affect the activation of the latissimus dorsi.
Lehman found no significant difference in the muscle activation of the biceps and the latissimus dorsi between the narrow supinated grip and wide pronated grip. Interestingly, they did identify that the highest level of latissimus dorsi activity is reached when performing the seated row with the shoulders retracted.
Paul Comfort, Directorate of Sport, Exercise and Physiotherapy, School of Health and Social Care, University of Salford, Manchester, UK
An extra-wide grip will cause more harm than good.
Our shoulders are not meant to exert strength in that range of motion.
For optimal lat activation we recommend a grip slightly wider than shoulder-width.
5. Maximized fat burning
A compound exercise is an exercise in which more than one joint is used to perform a movement.
Since more than one joint is used, then several muscles are used as well.
We already know that.
But how is this a benefit?
The more muscles you use in a movement, the more calories you will burn with that exercise.
Not only that but your heart rate will increase as well.
Therefore, not only will you burn just a slight bit more fat than you usually would, but you also get a workout for your heart with it.
Have you noticed how most people training bodyweight fitness are ripped?
Most bodyweight exercises are compound.
Therefore, trainees using them get a metabolic effect that helps them burn fat efficiently.
Because there is no such thing as targeted fat loss, any bodyweight exercise helps them in getting and maintaining their physique.
6. Increased grip strength
Grip strength is essential in most sports.
We’re not about to tell you that all you have to do for grip strength is do pull-ups every day.
That’s not how it works.
If you want to reach advanced levels in anything, you need specificity; in this case, specific grip training.
That being said, we can guarantee from personal experience that one of the most useful benefits of pull-ups is that they will lay a nice foundation on which to build your grip strength.
Imagine how you forearms tense during a pull-up.
Whenever you are doing a rep or dead hanging on the bar, your grip strength increases by just a tiny bit.
With time it builds up.
You can train your grip strength by dead hanging on the bar. As you progress, start doing it weighted or only using one arm.
7. Increased functional strength
The term functional strength is used to refer to strength demands of our day to day life.
But how can pull-ups help you increase your functional strength?
First of all, and the most important factor in our opinion, is the demand on your scapulas.
The scapulas are part of the shoulder girdle. Shoulders are to your upper body what the hips are to your lower body.
You can't afford to injure them.
The muscles around the scapula are being used on a day to day basis, whether you notice or not.
So one of the benefits of pull-ups is the increase of strength in the scapular area.
Secondly, most exercises recruit lots of muscles for stabilization.
Therefore, your muscles become better at safely and more effectively engaging in conjunction with smaller – often times opposed – muscles.
Increased synergy between muscles results in decreased chance of injury.
If you’ve been on the fence on whether or not you should start doing this exercise, I really hope this article broadened your horizons.
Realistically, this is one of the few compound exercises that actually has no potential harm attached to it.
Right now you have two choices…
Keep avoiding the father of all the pulling exercises or jump right in and enjoy the benefits of pull-ups.
Over to you.
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Tips to start training to achieve your first pull-up