How Effective Are Pull-Ups?

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Effectiveness is relative, but the chances are very good that if you’re strong enough to do a set of pullups, the exercise will help you build upper-body strength. If you can’t do standard pullups yet, work toward the goal of performing the exercise to give your fitness routine some direction. Once you’re doing pullups with proper form, you’ll be building stronger arm, shoulder, back, chest and core muscles.

Form

  • The terms “pullup” and “chinup” are sometimes used interchangeably, but you perform pullups with an overhand grip and chinups with an underhand grip. Pullups are most effective when you do them with proper form. Set your hands shoulder-width apart or a bit wider as you hang from a horizontal bar with your body straight. Alternatively, cross your ankles behind you as you hang. Keep your head up, pull your shoulder blades down and back, then exhale and pull your chin above the bar. Inhale as you descend slowly until your arms are straight, but don’t lock your elbows. The number of pullups you’ll do depends on your strength and your goals, but doing at least one set of 10 pullups is a reasonable target for many exercisers.

Muscles Worked

  • Pullups target the latissimus dorsi, or lats -- roughly triangular muscles that extend from your mid-back, down your sides and across to just below your armpits. The lats are involved in numerous shoulder and shoulder blade movements, so strengthening these muscles will improve everything from throwing, to swinging a golf club or tennis racket, to your ability to lift a variety of weights, and thereby strengthen other parts of your body. The biceps assist in your pullup movements, while the triceps act as stabilizers. Other assisting muscles include the pectoralis minor in your chest, your rear shoulder muscles plus a variety of other back muscles.

Body-Weight Percentage

  • Standard pullups are effective relative to other body-weight exercises because you’re moving 100 percent of your body’s weight. Additionally, you’ve moving the weight straight up and down, so you’re fighting gravity as you rise, then resisting its attempt to pull you down by descending slowly. Wear a weighted belt or vest, or hold a weight between your feet, to lift more than your body weight and make the exercise even more effective.

Partial Pullups

  • Performing partial or assisted pullups is less effective than doing standard pullups because some of your body weight is supported. These exercises can still develop upper-body strength, however -- depending on how much weight is supported -- and can help you work your way up to doing standard pullups. Perform assisted pullups by having a training partner hold your legs; looping a resistance band around the bar and placing a knee or foot on the band; or by getting a boost up to the bar, then descending on your own, as slowly as possible.

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