The pull-up is a great exercise; it's something you could do anytime, anywhere – so long as you have access to a bar of sorts you can hang from 🐒
It’s a move that hits multiple muscle groups at once – your arms, upper back, lats, and even the abs.
As a result, countless fitness "experts" believe that the pull-up serves as the ultimate upper body-builder: The One Exercise you must add to your fitness repertoire.
Well, guess what? They couldn't be more mistaken. Now, don't get me wrong. The pull-up is indeed one of the best indicators of a strong, well-developed upper body musculature.
But … to use it as one of the main muscle-building exercises in your routine (especially for the back)? That isn't a very smart way of training. Here are 3 reasons why.
1: Involves a mix of “small” and “big” muscle groups
Unfortunately, the advantage you'd get from doing pull-ups – hitting multiple muscle groups at once – can also be its greatest downfall.
To help you understand why, we'll first need to dive into the prime movers (i.e., specific muscle groups) involved in the pull-up.
According to this 2018 EMG analysis published in the Journal of Physical Fitness, Medicine & Treatment in Sports, the muscles most activated during pull-ups, listed in the order of highest to lowest activation levels, are:
- Mid and lower traps
Surprised? That's understandable; most people think of pull-ups primarily as a "back exercise" – but, as you can tell, research disproves this belief.
Now, imagine what the high activation of your core and biceps during the pull-ups would mean.
Here's the answer: it means you run the risk of these smaller muscle groups tiring out before you can even start working on the bigger muscle groups (i.e., your back).
And that, ultimately, defeats the purpose of doing the pull-ups. Why? Well, consider this: do you typically do pull-ups in the hopes of growing the biceps? Not likely.
2: Fails to target the lats optimally
On that note … chances are, you typically use the pull-ups to develop the lats.
While the pull-up does indeed involve the lats (as shown in the 2018 EMG analysis), it honestly isn't the best exercise meant for the lats simply because of its movement mechanics.
At its core, it’s a large, flat triangular muscle that wraps around your mid-back.
Exercises that optimally activate the lats will thus be the ones where you're drawing in your elbows toward the torso at a 45-degree angle. Or, in other words, exercises with a movement pattern that aligns with the direction your lat fibers run in.
Not getting a clear picture of how that translates to your actual exercise selection? Don’t worry.
Here are a few examples of “lats-specific exercises” that’ll help you visualize the movement:
Exercise 1: “Lat-focused” seated cable row
Here’s where you choose a slightly narrower cable attachment that’ll allow you to maintain a 45-degree elbow angle relative to your torso. Go too wide (e.g., your standard pull-up bar), and you'll end up hitting your upper back – including the traps and the rhomboids – more.
See: this video.
For maximum lats activation, you’ll also want to maintain a slight lean forward in the torso. You should also avoid pulling beyond the torso; doing that takes your lats out of their active range of motion.
Exercise 2: Chest-supported dumbbell rows
With the chest-supported dumbbell rows, you'll have to set up a bench to roughly 30 degrees incline.
Then, you should perform your dumbbell rows as "usual" – only being mindful of keeping your elbows close to your sides and keeping the lats within their natural range of motion. That means your elbows shouldn’t travel beyond your torso.
At this point, you should have a clear idea of what a “lats-focused” movement pattern looks like. Think back to how you perform the lats. Does it look anything like the above exercises? Definitely not.
3: Incredibly challenging to master
Also, let's be honest. The pull-ups are tough to master.
First, there’s shoulder mobility, an area that's a struggle for many people. Then, there's the fact that you're lifting the entirety of your body weight, which is understandably challenging. Finally, all the different muscle groups involved will also need to learn how to synchronize, which is no easy task.
The result? It'll likely take most people at least a month before they're able to perform a single pull-up – and anywhere between 3 to 6 months before breaking through 10+ pull-ups.
That’s hardly good news for hypertrophy. After all, we all know that training volume is the primary determinant of muscle growth; in general, the higher your volume, the better your gains (provided you take care of your recovery and avoid going into the overtraining territory).
So, imagine what happens if you're counting on the pull-ups for back development. Yep. Subpar growth.
Wait. Does this mean that you should eliminate the pull-up from your training program? Well … that truly depends. On what, you ask?
It all depends on your fitness goals.
If you're looking to grow your upper back and lats in the quickest, most effective way possible? Don't do the pull-ups – but, instead, alternatives “lats-“ and “upper back focused” like the seated cable row (you can shift the emphasis based on your elbow angle) instead.
But if you don't have access to the gym, you can only do bodyweight exercises? Or, if you're looking to impress your gym crush with the number of pull-ups you can rep out? Then pull-ups will serve their purpose well enough.
Here’s the bottom line. Be mindful about the exercises you add to your training program: make sure they serve a purpose that's aligned with your fitness goals.
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Hewit, J. (2018). A Comparison of Muscle Activation during the Pullup and Three Alternative Pulling Exercises. Journal of Physical Fitness, Medicine & Treatment in Sports, 5. https://doi.org/10.19080/JPFMTS.2018.05.555669