Top 7 Benefits of Pull ups (The Definitive Guide)
What are the benefits of including pull ups and chin ups in your routine?
Pull ups are the most effective upper body exercises for developing pulling strength and muscle mass in the back and biceps.
Pull ups are an incredibly versatile compound movement that recruits muscles in the back, arms shoulders, chest and core to work simultaneously in one fluid movement.
They can be used to develop grip strength to improve other exercises such as dead lifts and functional strength gained translates to improving sports performance.
The top 7 Benefits of Pull ups are:
You can do pull ups anywhere, whether it be at the gym, at home, at the park or even with gymnastic rings anchored from a tree.
They are a compound movement that teach different muscle groups to work together.
Pull ups can be used to develop maximal strength as well as endurance strength
They can be used to increase muscle mass, particularly in the large muscles of the back and the biceps.
You can combine the benefits of calisthenics and weight training with added weight to your pull ups
There are many variations of pull ups that can put the emphasis of the exercise on either the lats or the biceps
Pull ups promote grip strength which transfers to improving your dead lifts as well for sports such as rock climbing or grappling.
There is good reason why every Military fitness instructor and world class sports coach include pull ups in their training regime. This article explains all the benefits to fully appreciate the effects of pull ups.
#1 You can do Pull ups Anywhere
There are no excuses for not having the space or equipment to do pull ups. The beauty of this exercise is that you can do them anywhere, whether its at a commercial gym, in your garage, on a football post, on a tree branch or using a door mount at home.
It doesn’t need to be fancy, it just needs to get the job done.
If you are lucky enough you may live near a calisthenics park or near a beach which has a set of bars. You can search for calisthenics parks on this list, or try a local search on google and there may be one undiscovered near you.
The only thing required for pull ups is a sturdy bar or some rings.
How many other exercises with the calibre of pull ups can you say that about?
Buying a bench press with weights on the other hand would cost hundreds of dollars and you would need a significant space to house it.
Calisthenics exercises are the some of the most cost effective work outs and have the best results.
If you are tight for space and a commercial gym is another monthly expense you could do with out, then buy a pair of gymnastic rings. They cost less then the average monthly gym fee and completely portable.
Rings take less then two minutes to set up and you can loop them over a tree branch in the park, a climbing frame, over garage beams etc.
Ring pull ups are also easier on your joints, great for strengthening your shoulder and preventing injuries and you can do lots of different exercises with them including dips, push ups and rows. Its like having a whole gym at your disposal.
With some imagination you will always be able to find a place for pull ups or a tree/anchor point for a pair of gymnastic rings and always be able to work out.
Wooden gymnastic rings made from birch wood, with a diameter of 1.25 inches are perfect for pull ups as they provide the most secure grip. For the safest, rings with the strongest buckles and the best price, check out my guide to the best gymnastic rings on amazon.
#2 Pull ups work multiple muscles together in unison rather then in isolation
Pull ups are an exercise with exceptional athletic crossover and help your body develop functional strength.
Our bodies are designed so that muscle groups work together as one unit, as it does with a pull up.
The pull up is a multi joint exercises that recruits muscles in the back, arms, shoulders and core to work together to execute the movement.
This helps develop coordination between different muscle groups which has huge benefits for developing athleticism and specific skill training for sports performance.
If you think about rowing, tackling in football or rugby, climbing etc. all these sports need you body to move and exert force in one dynamic motion, with whole body movements.
The muscles groups all have to work together and contribute to the movement which should be reflected in your training.
Pull ups are in complete contrast to isolation exercises such as bicep curls, triceps extensions and calf raises which are single joint exercises that aim to work one specific muscle at a time.
Isolation exercises do have value as they are good for sculpting individual muscles for body building and addressing particular muscle imbalance.
However if improving sports performance is your goal then isolation exercises shouldn’t feature heavily in your workouts.
Working one muscle at a time is an inefficient use of valuable gym time and will effect how well you move whereas pull ups hits multiple muscles at once.
When it comes to sports performance or in life, you want to move with fluidly and coordinated with all the muscles working together contributing to how you move.
Pull ups develop this kind of movement whilst your muscles are exerting force, therefore pull ups are a sports specific exercises which encourages your body to move in an optimal way.
#3 Pull ups for Strength (Maximal and Endurance Strength)
Not only do pull ups pack on muscle, but they are the best calisthenics exercise for developing upper body pulling strength.
Pull ups are a compound move where many different muscle groups contribute to the movement.
It depends on your personal ability, but provided you use the appropriate rep range, pull ups will develop both…
Maximal pulling strength,
Endurance pulling strength
Maximal strength is simply the maximum force you can exert when doing an exercise, whereas endurance strength is the ability to exert a level of force for a length of time.
For example if you can complete a pull up for 1-3 reps with a 30 KG weight vest, then this is an example of maximal strength training.
And if you can perform 15 reps of body weight pull ups then you will be training for endurance strength.
Endurance strength is a very useful attribute in many different sports, such as rowing, rock climbing, swimming or any sport where you have to maintain a high output and spend a lot of time under muscular tension.
Therefore if you adopt the appropriate rep range, pull ups will develop your athletic ability and in turn, improve your sports performance.
If you are able to perform 12 or more pull ups in a set then your training becomes more geared to developing endurance rather then building muscle mass.
The time it takes to perform more then 12 pull ups is substantially longer then a strength or muscle building set would take.
This means your body will spend more time under tension (the length or time the target muscle is under strain) which mimics the sort of physical demands from performing on the field.
However if your goal is to develop…
Maximal strength then you have to ensure you are completing the exercise in a lower rep range (1-6 reps for 3-5 sets is optimal for strength training) with a high enough intensity.
There are two ways you can increase the intensity for strength gain:
Change your grip for a more difficult variation
Add weight with a vest or dipping belt
If you have become accustomed to close grip chin ups try wide grip pull ups. They look like similar exercises and the do work the same sort of muscle groups but they wider pull ups accentuate the stress on the back muscles for pulling and chin ups accentuate the stress on the arms. (check out advantage #6 for more on this)
If you are good at one variation, the number of reps you can do will not translate to the variation you are less accustomed to, and therefore possible bring the number of reps you can do per set back down into that strength building range.
You should aim to equalise your strength of both wide grip and narrow grip pull ups for well rounded pulling strength. This will make sure both your lats and your biceps contribute proportionately in your ability to pull.
If you can do more the 6 reps with either variation with no problem then you will need to add weight. Adding weight combines the strength building potential of pull ups with the scalable strength progression of weight lifting. For more on this see benefit number 5 for weighted reps and check out weight vest vs dipping belt for advice on how to add the weight.
#4 Pull ups are one of the Best Exercises for Adding muscle mass
Pull ups hold serious potential for building muscle, because they are a compound exercise that engages several muscle groups at a time.
Pull ups are an all encompassing upper body movement that activates muscles in your arms, back, core, shoulders and chest.
Compound exercises are far more effective both in terms of
Time saving and
Stimulating overall muscle growth.
Think of it this way, if you train your arms by isolating your biceps with a regular barbell curl, you are working one muscle group at a time.
Therefore, if a set of bicep curls takes you roughly the same time as a set of pull ups then, with barbell curls, you will only see real results from one isolated, targeted muscle.
Whereas the pull up simultaneously recruits 5 key muscle groups with many individual muscles in just one exercise for the same duration of time.
When you work the body as one whole unit instead of trying to isolate each muscle, your muscles will grow proportionally to one another and learn how to work together.
More muscles worked in one exercise, means more muscles fibres in more muscle groups are broken down to be repaired, so that each individual muscle fibre increases in diameter while your recover, hence your muscles grow bigger as a result (hypertrophy).
Working so many major muscle groups with the correct level of tension stimulates the body to naturally produce more testosterone and growth hormones to aid repair of muscle damage for greater muscle gains.
This effect is far more pronounced in compound exercises like pull ups then it is with isolation exercises because of the number of muscles involved contributing to the movement of the exercise.
So not only are pull ups saving you time in your workouts but you will build more muscle overall as a result.
#5 You can Add Weight to Pull ups for Increased Strength and Muscle Mass
Pull ups is one of the easiest calisthenics exercises to scale up with weights.
There are several options to add weights but two of the most popular are the dipping belt or a weight vest.
Personally I prefer the dipping belt because it’s
Very easy to use and easy to add weight to between sets
Sits comfortably around the hips
They are better value for money
Vests can be uncomfortable and they are difficult to put on and take off between sets
Vests are more time consuming and fiddly to add weight to
They have a limited capacity to add weight (most are around 30 KG or 66 lbs)
However weight vests more versatile as you can use them for push ups, squats, box jumps etc which you can’t do with a belt, therefore the vest more of an all rounder and the belt more of a specialist tool.
Check weight vest vs dipping belt for a full breakdown of the pros and cons.
Adding weight to pull ups increases the intensity of each rep and opens up huge potential for adding muscle mass and gaining strength.
Pull ups with additional weight can ensure you maintain a progressive overload.
A progressive overload is where you increase the resistance of an exercise consistently so that your muscles adapt to the increased tension by gaining strength and muscle.
This is why adding weight is the perfect solution for anyone whose progress has plateaued with standard body weight pull ups.
If you can do more then 12 pull ups on the bar consistently then the emphasis of your training will be shifting more towards developing endurance strength rather then increasing maximal strength and increasing muscle mass.
You need to lower the number of reps you are capable of per set by increasing the difficulty of the of each rep in the set.
Lifting more weight per rep then your body is accustomed to will place more stress on your muscles. Your body adaptive response to the increased stress is to ultimately to build more muscle so that you become strong enough to handle the increase in resistance.
There are many ways to stimulate an adaptive response from the body such as increasing the number or reps or trying a more difficult variation of the same exercise, (such as the more difficult wide grip pull up).
However the most efficient, consistent and reliable to way elicit muscle growth and strength is to increase the intensity of each pull up with added weight to your pull ups.
It is like combining the all the benefits of pull ups with the benefits of weight lifting.
If your goal is to:
Gain muscle then the rep range you should be aiming for is 8-12 reps for 3-5 sets.
For strength the optimal range is around 3-6 reps for 3 sets.
So you should add the appropriate amount of weight to bring the number of reps you can complete in a set to fall into these two categories.
However the most important thing is that the quality of each rep is high and that you are spending the appropriate time under tension, to make the most out of your weighted pull ups.
#6 There are Different Variations of Pull ups that Target the Lats and Biceps with Different Emphasis
The beauty of pull ups is that there are so many variations. Different variations of pull ups places emphasis on different muscles groups
For example the width of your grip has a big impact in terms of whether the arms (specifically biceps) are the primary mover of the exercise or the large muscles of your back such as the lats.
Of course all pull ups integrate the same muscle groups into the movement, but the relative tension on different muscle groups depends on the variation.
the wider the grip on the bar, the more you recruit the lats to do most of the pulling,
and the more narrow your grip is, will place more tension on the biceps.
This is simply because when you adopt a narrow grip, your arms will naturally be more in front of your body rather then out to the side. This puts the biceps at a mechanical advantage to do most of the pulling.
Whereas a wide pull up grip requires your arms to be out to your sides and therefore recruits the lats to a far greater degree.
The underhand (chin up) grip will also help you focus more of the tension on your biceps.
With a wider grip it is important that you adopt a overhand (pull up) grip as this is the most comfortable position for your arms and safer for your joints.
Personally I love to switch up the variations in my work outs every 6 weeks or so. This will negate the likely hood of developing strength or muscle imbalances and I find that practising with both grips not only gives you well rounded strength but they also enhance your overall ability in pulling exercises.
Pulling strength largely comes from the back and the arms (specifically biceps). So switching your focus up will ensure your strong in both areas and its a great way to overcome strength plateaus.
If your goal is 10 body weight chin ups and you’re stuck at 8 spend a few weeks working on wide grip pull ups to develop lat strength and you will blast through your plateau.
If your stuck on a plateau with muscle building, working different muscle groups with different variations will stimulate an adaptive response from your body to increase both strength and muscles to cope with increased difficulty of the exercise.
Switch your grip up every few weeks and reap the benefits of both wide and narrow grip pull ups.
#7 Pull ups Develop Serious Grip Strength
Developing grip strength may not be the first goal you have when practising pull ups.
But this is a very under appreciated result of the exercise. It’s primarily the tendons and muscles of the forearms that are responsible for a solid grip.
Think about just hanging on to the bar. You are holding your entire body weight with just one relatively small group of muscles and tendons.
Naturally developing a good level of grip is going to be a seriously useful byproduct of pull ups.
Grip strength in your hands and forearms developed from pull ups will directly transfer to your ability to:
dead lift, bench press, row, dips etc.
And all other maximal strength barbell lifts.
Grip strength may well be your limiting factor in some of these exercises. Therefore by progressing your ability to perform pull ups you will be able to handle more weight on the bars for other exercises.
This in turn allows you to lift more weight so the emphasis of your workout is back on the target muscles so you can build strength and size, rather then just lifting until your grip gives out.
Not only is your grip supporting you body weight during pull ups, but it is stabilising your body whilst you are executing a dynamic movement, so you are developing strength, coordination and stability.
But the benefits of increased grip strength from pull ups isn’t limited to just gym lifts.
Think of all the sports that not only require a strong grip but depend on it.
Rock climbing, grappling, mixed martial arts, Judo, Rowing, Tennis, NFL, Rugby, hockey etc.
There is a complete range of sports from combat sports to racket sports where having a strong grip, is a prerequisite for performance.
The fact that pull ups can work so many different muscles in one exercise has huge benefits for strength, muscle and time efficiency when working out. Imagine time it would take having to exercise all the muscles groups that pull ups hit in your back, biceps and core by isolating each muscle.
All the muscle groups learn to work together for more:
Proportionate muscle development
Equalise any strength imbalances
Compound movements such as pull ups should form the basis of any work out regime. Training pull ups has the added incentive of improving all your other lifts because of the grip that you develop from moving your own body weight through a dynamic range of motion.
Exercises such as dead lift and rows rely heavily on a solid grip, and quite often a a deficiency in form arms strengths can be the limiting factor that is holding you back from lifting more weight.
Even though pull ups are a calisthenics exercise, they will help you lift more in the weight room. This can help take your overall performance in the gym to a new level, for more strength and muscle.
Pull ups can be scaled from the beginner who is trying to achieve their first rep, to an expert who is looking to add weight to their pull ups to increase the intensity of the exercise.
Pull ups are a world class, truly democratic exercise that is available to everyone as you need the bear minimal of equipment to get started, whether its in a gym, at home, or with gymnastic rings looped over a tree branch.
There is a reason every military fitness coach and world class strength trainer rely on the benefits of pull ups day in day out. Start reaping the benefits yourself today!
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