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Columns: Do It Right


Ronai, Peter M.S., RCEP, CEP, EP-C, FACSM, CSCS-D

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ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: March/April 2016 - Volume 20 - Issue 2 - p 24-27
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000192


The pull-up is a multijoint upper-body calisthenic or body weight exercise that activates and strengthens the back, shoulder girdle, arm, and forearm muscles.


The pull-up is a closed kinetic chain exercise intended to improve shoulder girdle stability, strength, endurance, and hypertrophy in muscles of the back, shoulder girdle, shoulder, and elbow joints (3–5). They require minimal equipment and can be performed in many indoor and outdoor settings. Although pull-ups also can be performed with either neutral or supinated forearm position grips, this article will address the pronated forearm handgrip pull-up (4,6–14). Novices can perform one set of accumulated repetitions until they are able to perform longer uninterrupted sets. Clients accustomed to performing pull-ups can choose to complete multiple sets.


Exercises to improve upper-body muscular hypertrophy and pulling strength are integral parts of strength and conditioning programs for athletes, military professionals, first responders, and clients interested in improving their musculoskeletal fitness and physical performance (3,5,6,9–14). Pull-ups have been implemented routinely as physical fitness testing and training tools with persons performing tasks requiring a large upper-body strength-to-body mass ratio. They have been used safely to assess upper body strength and endurance in children, adolescents, athletes, and individuals serving in the U.S. military or attending U.S. military service academies (5,9–13).

Pull-ups can help improve strength in muscles necessary to perform activities such as rope, pole, or rock climbing; rowing/paddling; gymnastics; swimming; wrestling; pole vaulting; and throwing (3,5). Clients should be free of shoulder or upper-extremity injuries and related pain before performing this exercise. The onset of injury-related pain warrants termination of exercise and immediate client consultation with a physician, physical therapist, or other health care providers.


Pull-ups have been identified as primary exercises for activating the latissimus dorsi, teres major, pectoralis major, infraspinatus, teres minor, subscapularis, rhomboids, middle trapezius, lower trapezius, pectoralis minor, levator scapula, biceps brachii, brachialis, brachioradialis, flexor carpi radialis, flexor carpi ulnaris, palmaris longus, flexor digitorum profundus, flexor digitorum superficialis, and flexor policis longus muscles concentrically and eccentrically during the ascending or pulling up and descending or lowering phases, respectively (1,2,4,6,8–10,14) (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1:
Shoulder girdle muscles activated.


Pull-ups can be performed on a fixed overhead bar, outdoor playground bar, Smith machine, or portable door-mounted bar. Bar height should enable the client to hang with full elbow extension from the bar without the feet or knees touching the ground (knees are either fully extended or bent with ankles crossed behind the torso, respectively) (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2:
The hang position at the beginning and end of the pull-up.

Clients should complete the full range of movement during each repetition in a controlled manner without swinging, kicking, or using a bicycling motion with their legs. Clients should exhale during the pulling or ascending phase and inhale during the lowering or descending phase of the exercise (see video, Spotters should place their arm lightly across the client’s thighs to prevent swinging and to ensure that the client’s body moves vertically and maintains an upright position throughout the exercise (4,6–8,10–14) (see video,

Exercise intensity can be increased by wearing a weighted vest or by hanging additional weight from a weight belt worn around the waist (2,5). Pull-ups can be made easier for novices by providing either manual (Figure 3) or elastic band resistance just below the knee and under the top of the shin while the client crosses their ankles and maintains their flexed/bent knees behind them. Elastic exercise resistance band pull-ups are performed by attaching one end of the elastic exercise band loop over the middle of the horizontal pull-up bar and the other end under the performer’s bent/flexed knees at the top of the shin. Exercise band thickness and tension determine the amount of assistance provided during elastic band-assisted pull-ups. Thicker bands provide greater resistance (Figure 4, A and B) (see video,

Figure 3
Figure 3:
Start of the manual assisted pull-up.
Figure 4
Figure 4:
Elastic resistance-assisted pull-ups. A, Beginning and end. B, End of upward phase.


Starting Position

Clients grasp an overhead pull-up bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width pronated (palms forward) handgrip and hang vertically with feet just above the ground. Static contractions of all muscles described in the Primary Muscles Activated section provide shoulder girdle and shoulder joint stability while the scapulae are in relative elevation, abduction, and upward rotation and the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint is in relative abduction. The elbows are extended, and the hands and wrists are flexed.

The trunk maintains an upright neutral position (4,6,10–14) (Figure 2).

Upward Pulling Phase

The trunk is kept in an upright position, and the body is pulled upward in a linear or vertical path until the underside of the chin is above the top surface of the horizontal bar and parallel with the ground (Figure 5). Clients should pause briefly at the top position. They should be cued to complete the entire range of movement of each repetition and to “pull the bottom of the chin all the way up over the top of the bar” and to “come all the way down and straighten your elbows during each repetition.” The scapulae are forcibly depressed, retracted, and rotated downward by concentric actions of the middle and lower trapezius, rhomboid, and pectoralis minor muscles. The glenohumeral or shoulder joints are adducted by concentric actions of the latissimus dorsi, teres major, pectoralis major, subscapularis, infraspinatus, and posterior deltoid muscles (1,2,4,8–10,14). The elbows, wrists, and hands are flexed by the biceps brachii, brachialis, brachioradialis, flexor carpi radialis, flexor carpi ulnaris, palmaris longus, flexor digitorum profundus, flexor digitorum superficialis, and flexor policis longus muscles (1,4,6,14). Maximal work and repetitions can be performed by maintaining a smooth and steady, controlled, and self-selected speed during the ascending phase of the pull-up (7). (The middle and end of the upward phase appears in Figure 5, A and B.)

Figure 5
Figure 5:
A, Middle of the upward phase. B, End of the upward phase.

Downward Phase

While maintaining shoulder girdle and shoulder joint fixation and stability, clients lower their body to the starting/static hanging position (Figure 2). Eccentric actions of the middle and lower trapezius, rhomboids, pectoralis minor, latissimus dorsi, teres major, pectoralis major, subscapularis, infraspinatus posterior deltoid, biceps brachii, brachialis, brachioradialis, flexor carpi radialis, flexor carpi ulnaris, palmaris longus, flexor digitorum profundus, flexor digitorum superficialis, and flexor policis longus muscles help the body to follow a linear and controlled downward path and help prevent excessive stress in the shoulder and elbow. Clients should be cued to “stay straight,” “avoid dropping,” and “lower gently until the elbows are straight” during the downward phase of the pull-up (1,2,4,6–9,14).


Pull-ups are a multijoint exercise and require minimal equipment to perform. They can be progressed or regressed to increase and improve upper body muscular strength, endurance, hypertrophy, and performance of tasks that require upper body pulling strength. Proper technique and control should not be sacrificed to perform more repetitions.


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Recommended Resource:

U.S. Marine Corps Personal Fitness Test Score Charts [Internet]; [cited 2015 July 18]. Available from:

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