By Dr. Mercola
Pullups are one of the most straightforward exercises — pull your body up to a bar and then lower yourself back down. If you've ever tried to do one, however, you know that their straightforwardness is exceeded by their intensity. It takes strength, both physical and mental, to perform pullups.
Some have even called them the "toughest exercise ever." Although they're tough, and may still evoke a feeling of dread if you were among those forced to do them in gym class, there's good reason to include pullups in your weekly exercise routine. Your hard work will reap bountiful rewards.
Benefits of Pullups
Pullups are infamous for building and strengthening your upper body, but this is only one of their claims to fame.
Jacque Crockford, an American Council on Exercise (ACE) certified personal trainer and certified strength and conditioning specialist noted, "Because performing the pullup involves moving the entirety of your own bodyweight up against gravity, it takes incredible upper-body strength and trunk stability."1
Your back muscles are also involved, and pullups are an excellent tool for strengthening and elongating those muscles. If you do pullups regularly, you may find that your posture begins to improve.
As a multi-joint, dynamic and compound movement, pullups work many muscles all at once. This includes the muscles of your back, shoulders, chest and arms, including:2
✓ Middle and lower trapezius
✓ Pectoralis major and minor
✓ Teres major
✓ Biceps brachii
✓ Flexor carpi radialis
✓ Flexor carpi ulnaris
✓ Palmaris longus
✓ Flexor digitorum profundus
✓ Flexor digitorum superficialis
✓ Flexor pollicis longus
✓ External oblique
✓ Erector spinae
In addition, the pullup is an exercise that builds the muscle mass of your latissimus dorsi, which is the broad back muscle that runs from the back of your shoulder to your lower back (the primary muscle responsible for that coveted V-shaped look).
Pullups are a classic bodyweight exercise, which means your own body provides the resistance. Such exercises are ideal because they don't require excessive equipment (although a pullup bar is necessary for pullups) and can be customized to your current skill and fitness level.
Meanwhile, pullups will help build your core strength and are an ideal form of functional movement, which can help reduce your risk of injuries and falls while helping you to maintain independence as you get older. In addition, pullups build grip strength because your fingers, hands and forearms are all used.
Are Pullups Harder for Women and Tall People?
There is some debate over whether certain uncontrollable factors, like your sex or height, influence your ability to do a pullup.
In one study by researchers from the University of Dayton, women were trained for three months to specifically strengthen their biceps and latissimus dorsi, which should theoretically help them successfully do pullups.
The women increased their upper-body strength by 36 percent during the course of the study while lowering their body fat by 2 percent (which should also make pullups more feasible). Still, when tested, only 4 of the 17 women could perform a single pullup.3
The researchers suggested there's more to performing pullups than simple upper-body strength. "Men and women who can do them tend to have a combination of strength, low body fat and shorter stature," The New York Times reported.4
Men may have an easier time performing pullups than women because they tend to have lower body fat percentages and higher muscle mass.
Some men, particularly those who are tall and have longer arms, may also struggle with this exercise, Paul Vanderburgh, a professor of exercise physiology and associate provost at the University of Dayton, told the Times.
"We're a combination of levers; that's how we move … Generally speaking, the longer the limb, the more of a disadvantage in being able to do a pullup," he said.5
That being said, both women and men of all shapes and sizes can absolutely do pullups, but it will take time to build up the strength and technique to do so. This isn't a bad thing, as you'll benefit immensely during the learning curve as well.
Proper Pullup Form
Before attempting pullups, be sure you're aware of the proper form, as demonstrated in the video above.
- Place your hands on the pullup bar, palms facing forward, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep your legs slightly bent and your knees together.
- Focus on your latissimus dorsi, your back muscle, and feel the contraction as you're pulling yourself upward. It's not necessary to get your chin over the bar.
- As you pull up, open up your posture by pushing your stomach forward and keeping your sternum high. (Visualizing pulling your elbows down through the floor can help you feel your back muscles more.)
Pull up to a slow count of three, pause while squeezing your back muscles, then come down to a slow count of three.
- Between reps, let yourself hang while looking down and relaxing, to allow the latissimus dorsi to pull away from your scapula.
- Make sure all your movements are slow and controlled.
Pullups From Beginner to Advanced
If you've never done a pullup before, you'll need to gradually work your way up to completing this challenging exercise. Below are examples of techniques you can use to do so whether you're a beginner, intermediate or advanced.6
- Assisted Pullup Machine: This machine works via counterbalance weights that assist your pullups. The higher you set the weight, the easier the pullup will be.
- Band Pullup: A superband is basically a giant rubber band that you wrap around the pullup bar with the other end under your knee or foot. The band gives you a boost that makes the pullup easier and allows you to gradually build up your strength.
- Chair Pullup: Place your pullup bar 3 to 4 feet off the ground. While sitting in a chair, grab the bar, then straighten your back and hips while keeping your knees slightly bent with feet on the floor. Then pull yourself up so that your chest touches the bar.
- Jump Pullups: This move involves holding on to the pullup bar and then getting a jump start. The jump propels you upward, which allows you to harness the momentum to assist in completing the pullup.
- Vary Grip Positions: Traditional pullups involve a palm forward-facing grip. To vary your grip position, you can either turn your palms facing toward you (this variation is typically called a chin-up) or move your hands closer together or farther apart on the bar.
You can also try stopping your pullup midway through the move instead of pulling all the way up. All of these variations induce muscle confusion, which helps to build muscle and burn fat.
- Traditional Pullup: This is the pullup demonstrated above.
- Weighted Pullup: If you need more of a challenge, add a weight belt or hold a weight between your knees while you do your pullups.
- Rotating Handles: You can kick the intensity up a notch further by trading your pullup bar for a set of rotating handles. Research suggests that using rotating handles during pullups results in the greatest activation of the latissimus dorsi, even more so than varying grip widths.7
No Pullup Bar? Try These Three Pullup Alternatives
If there were a downside to pullups, it would be that they require some way to pull yourself up. While you can find pullup bars at gyms or purchase one for your home (including door-mounted options), not everyone has access to a pullup bar when they need it.
You can still target many of the same muscles using items you probably already have at home, like a chair, towel and door. Even if you have access to a pullup bar, you may want to mix up your workouts by alternating in these challenging pullup alternatives:8
- Table Bodyweight Row: Using a sturdy table and chair, grab the edge of the table with an underhanded grip, while placing your feet on a chair placed about four feet away (you will be in a horizontal position facing upward toward the table). Pull up with your arms as though you're trying to touch your chest to the bottom of the table.
- Door Pullins: With the door open, wrap a towel around the inner and outer doorknobs so you have the loose ends of the towel to hold. Position your feet on either side of the door, lower yourself away from the door using your upper body strength and then slowly pull yourself back up to starting position. You can also try this with just one arm at a time (hold both ends of the towel with one hand).
- Biceps Plank: Get into a plank position, but turn your hands to point toward your feet. Shift your body forward until your hands are under your hips. Keep your body straight and you'll feel this exercise in your biceps.