Even if you can’t complete a full pull up, you’ve probably heard of this popular exercise. It’s a movement that kindles even amounts of love and hatred. On one hand, it’s the go-to exercise for building a powerful upper back. On the other hand, though, it’s frustratingly difficult to become proficient at.
Pull ups create one of those irritating loops that limits progress. You need to do pull ups to get better at them, but you can’t do pull ups because they’re too tough. People realize this and shut down – screw pull ups, they say.
I know it’s tempting, but try not to jump the gun. There are two reasonable ways around the dreaded beginner pull up stage. First, it helps to learn about the muscles that pull ups work out. You can then use that knowledge to strengthen those muscles with other exercises. Second, not many people realize that there are several easier pull up variations, like assisted pull ups and negative pull ups. Get good at these and you’ll be doing full pull ups in no time.
So, What Do Pull Ups Work Out?
Many people tend to think of pull ups as an arm exercise. That’s partially correct because they do hit some of the muscles of your arms, but it’s not the whole story. First and foremost, pull ups are an upper back exercise.
You achieve the pulling motion that characterizes the pull up with your latissimus dorsi, or lats for short. This gigantic muscle group covers much of your upper back and it’s a major player in lots of upper body exercises.
The lats might be the prime mover, or the muscle primarily responsible for the movement, but there’s much more to it. Other upper back muscles including the rhomboids and the trapezius come into play, too. We can’t forget about the rotator cuff muscles either. Since the pull up involves shoulder rotation, muscles of the rotator cuff including the teres major, teres minor, and infraspinatus act as key stabilizers.
Finally, that brings us to the last few muscles that pull ups work out: your arms. Your upper arm and lower arm muscles work together to help make the pull up happen. The brachioradialis, biceps brachii, and brachialis all contribute to the movement.
3 Types of Pull Ups For Beginners
Pulls ups aren’t an easy exercise to build up to, but that doesn’t mean they’re impossible. It takes time and dedication to get to the point of completing even a single full pull up, and it takes even longer if you don’t know how to get started.
But that’s not you. You’re already a step ahead because you’re reading this article. If you’re interested in building your pull up strength, try these three types of pullups that work well for beginners. They’re still going to be tough, but unlike with full pull ups, you can hop right into them.
If you don’t have access to an assisted pull up machine, resistance bands are a fantastic alternative for building a pull up foundation. They function the same way in that they give you a boost during the pulling part of the exercise, but they’re even better since they don’t require access to a gym.
You don’t need a gym, but you do need a pull up bar or a sturdy tree branch. Find one of those and attach one end of the band to it. The easiest way to do this is to pull the end of the band over bar (or branch) and then loop the other end through it.
Here comes the tricky part: get both feet on the dangling end of the band and both hands up to the bar. You should be able to jump high enough to reach it, but you might need to get creative if that doesn’t work.
Once you’re in position, spread your hands out so they’re about shoulder-width apart, and make sure your palms face forward. You should be in a hanging position with straight arms. Depending on how strong the band tension is, you might need to push yourself down into that position.
Whew, what a setup. You’re finally ready to do a pull up. Take a second to give the bar a death grip, then pull yourself up until your chest reaches the bar. Don’t let your elbows track too far out – pretend like you’re trying to tuck them into your back pockets. As you pull, you should feel a helpful push from the band. If you don’t feel any assistance, switch to a band with more tension.
Negative reps focus on the eccentric portion of an exercise. That’s the part where your muscles lengthen and it’s often referred to as controlled lowering. It’s considered the easy part of motion, but it’s still a muscle contraction that requires a good deal of strength.
During the pull up, the eccentric phase occurs as you lower your body down from the bar, and that’s exactly how negative pull ups work. It’s true that you’re not doing a full pull up, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t working the same muscles. You can reap many of the same benefits of pull ups as long as you exert force by fighting the descent back to the ground.
You need to be able to get up to the bar though, so you’ll need access to a partner, stool, or platform of some kind to help you get into position. Once you have that figured out, grab the bar with both hands. Let your palms face forward and set your grip to about shoulder-width apart.
You should be in the top position of the pull up, so that means chest even with the bar and elbows tucked down at your sides. When you’re ready, wave away your buddy or step off your platform and lower yourself towards the ground as slowly as possible. For the best results, try to actively pull yourself up as you descend.