What Muscles Do Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups Work

During a Pull-Up the muscles that are mainly worked are those of the upper body and the arms.


muscles pull up chin up exercise

A. Primary muscles

- Latissimus Dorsi (also referred as lats)

It is one the largest muscles found on your body, on the lateral sides of the back. It is responsible for supplying much of the force needed to execute a Pull-up. Widen your grip for a fuller workout on these muscles.

- Biceps

Pull-Ups place a great amount of strain on the biceps.
They are involved more during a Chin Up (where the palms are facing towards the body). 

B. Secondary muscles

- Upper back muscles

Several upper back muscles work together with the latissimus dorsi to complete a pull-up. These muscles include the teres major, rhomboids, middle trapezius and lower trapezius.
They are involved more during a Wide grip Pull-up.

- Forearm Muscles

They are heavily engaged during the beginning of a pull up. When a pull-up bar is grasped, they tighten in order to secure a strong grip on the bar. The thicker the bar, the more strain is placed on the Forearm muscles. The thickness of a bar can increase by:
- Wrapping tape around the bar repeatedly until it's thicker in size
- Wrapping a towel around the bar 
The Forearm Muscles are involved more during a Narrow grip Pull-up (your hands are as close as possible to one another on the bar).

- Deltoids

The rear deltoids (or posterior deltoids) are worked considerably during the execution of a Pull Up.

- Abdominals

The abdominal muscles receive significant stimulation as they help stabilize the body core during the exercise.

Most common muscle injuries from doing Pull-ups / Chin-ups and their prevention

Pull-ups can cause some or a combination of the following issues, in case they are not performed correctly:
1. Shoulder pain
2. Elbow pain
3. Wrist pain

How to reduce the risk of muscle injury from pull-ups

1. Keep a slight bend at your elbows while doing pull-ups, avoiding "dead hang" since this causes the muscles and tendons to be overextended. By keeping a slight bend, you work the biceps more and strain the joints less.
2. Use a variety of grips. Change your grip periodically from overhang to underhand and neutral to put stress on different areas of the shoulder and the elbow.
3. Avoid behind-the-neck pull-ups, as they place your shoulders in extreme external rotation.
4. Always Warm up your muscles before workout.
Spending time on warming up will improve your level of performance and accelerate the recovery process after the pull-up workout.
A warm up doesn't take a long time and should contain two simple elements:
- Aerobic activity
This increases blood flow to the working muscles, which results in more limber joints and less risk of injury. Running on the spot, astride jumps, skipping etc will increase your heart and breathing rate allowing blood to flow quicker.
- Stretching
There are several good stretches to limber your muscles prior to working out. All stretches should be repeated twice for each muscle group and held for 15 seconds.

Comparison of Primary muscles worked in Pull-ups / Chin-ups and Primary muscles worked in Push-Ups

Muscles worked in Pull-ups / Chin-ups

Muscles worked in Push-ups

comparison-muscles-worked-pull-ups comparison-muscles-worked-push-ups
 - Latissimus Dorsi (Back muscles)
 - Biceps (Upper arm muscles)
 - Pectoralis Major (Chest muscles)
 - Deltoids (Shoulder muscles)
 - Triceps Brachii (Upper arm muscles)

Articles - References

  1. Influence of Cadence on Muscular Performance During Push-up and Pull-up Exercise (LaChance, Peter F.; Hortobagyi, Tibor / Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research)
    • Abstract: The acute effects of different cadences on performance during maximal effort push-up and pull-up exercise were evaluated. The findings indicate that the amount and rate of work performed during a single bout of exercise depends on the exercise cadence.
  2. Kinematic and electromyographic comparisons between chin-ups and lat-pull down exercises (Kenji Doma , Glen B. Deakin & Kevin F. Ness / Sports Biomechanics, Volume 12, 2013 - Issue 3, Pages 302-313)
    • Abstract: The purpose of this study was to compare kinematics and muscle activity between chin-ups and lat-pull down exercises and between muscle groups during the two exercises. The findings indicate that Chin-ups appears to be a more functional exercise.
  3. Surface electromyographic activation patterns and elbow joint motion during a pull-up, chin-up, or perfect-pullup™ rotational exercise  (Youdas JW1, Amundson CL, Cicero KS, Hahn JJ, Harezlak DT, Hollman JH / J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Dec; 24(12): 3404-14)
    • Abstract: This study compared a conventional pull-up and chin-up with a rotational exercise using Perfect•Pullup™ twisting handles. The Perfect•Pullup™ rotational device does not appear to enhance muscular recruitment when compared to the conventional pull-up or chin-up.
  4. The Pull-up (Ronai, Peter MS, RCEP, CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT*D; Scibek, Eric MS, ATC, CSCS / Strength & Conditioning Journal, June 2014 - Volume 36 - Issue 3 - p 88–90)
    • A detailed description and figures of the proper exercise technique for a pull-up.
  5. The Effect of Grip Width and Hand Orientation on Muscle Activity During Pull-ups and the Lat Pull-down (Kelly. L. M. Leslie, Paul Comfort / Strength and conditioning journal 35(1):75-78 · February 2013)
    • Abstract: It has been demonstrated that using rotating handles during pull-ups or using a pronated grip during lat pull-downs tends to result in the greatest activation of the latissimus dorsi, with no difference in latissimus dorsi activity between grip widths.
  6. The Effect of Experimental Alterations in Excess Mass on Pull-up Performance in Fit Young Men (Vanderburgh, Paul M.; Edmonds, Timothy / The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 11(4) · November 1997)
  7. Relationship of Lat-Pull Repetitions and Pull-Ups to Maximal Lat-Pull and Pull-Up Strength in Men and Women (Johnson, Doug; Lynch, James; Nash, Kedren; Cygan, Joe; Mayhew, Jerry L / Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research:
    May 2009 - Volume 23 - Issue 3 - pp 1022-1028)
  8. Comparison of male and female functional capacity in pull-ups (RICCI B., FIGURA F., FELICI F., MARCHETTI M. / Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness,1988, vol. 28, no2, p. 168-175)
  9. A Comparison of Muscle Activation during the Pull-up and Three Alternative Pulling Exercises: seated lat-pulldown, kneeling lat-pulldown, assisted pull-up (Jennifer K Hewit, Daniel A Jaffe and Todd Crowder /  Journal of Physical Fitness, Medicine & Treatment in Sports / Submission: October 24, 2018; Published: November 02, 2018)
  10. Electromyographic analysis of muscle activation during pull-up variations (Dickie J, Faulkner J, Barnes M, Lark S / Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology 32: 30-36, 2017)
    • Abstract: This study sought to identify any differences in peak muscle activation (EMGPEAK) or average rectified variable muscle activation (EMGARV) during supinated grip, pronated grip, neutral grip and rope pull-up exercises. Over a full repetition, the pronated grip resulted in significantly greater EMGPEAK  and EMGARV of the middle trapezius when compared to the neutral grip pull-up. The concentric phases of each pull-up variation resulted in significantly greater EMGARV of the brachioradialis, biceps brachii, and pectoralis major in comparison to the eccentric phases. Results indicate that EMGPEAK and EMGARV of the shoulder-arm-forearm complex during complete repetitions of pull-up variants are similar despite varying hand orientations; however, differences exist between concentric and eccentric phases of each pull-up.
  11. Electromyographical Comparison of a Traditional and Kipping Pull-up (Snarr R, Casey J, Hallmark A, Esco M / Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning 26(2): 28-34, 2018)
  12. Electromyographical Comparison of a Traditional, Suspension Device, and Towel Pull-Up (Ronald L. Snarr, Ashleigh V. Hallmark, Jason C. Casey,  Michael R. Esco, Journal of Human Kinetics, 2017 Sep; 58: 5–13)
    • Abstract: The purpose of this investigation was to compare the electromyographical activity of the latissimus dorsi, posterior deltoid, middle trapezius, and biceps brachii while performing three variations of the pull-up. Results: No significant differences existed within the latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii or posterior deltoid between any of the exercises. For the middle trapezius, towel pull-ups provided significantly lower muscle activity than the traditional pull-up, while no differences between suspension pull-ups and the other variations occurred. In conclusion, only one muscular difference existed between the exercise variations and all versions examined provided electromyographical values, determined by current literature, to invoke a sufficient stimulus to promote increases in muscle strength and hypertrophy.

Books - References

  1. HomeMade Muscle: All You Need is a Pull up Bar (Motivational Bodyweight Workout Guide). By Anthony Arvanitakis, ISBN-10: 1512366404
  2. How to Carve a Gymnast's Ripped Back with Pull ups. By Anthony Arvanitakis  (Author), Lela Arvanitaki (Illustrator)
  3. Doorframe Pull-Up Bar Workouts: Full Body Strength Training for Arms, Chest, Shoulders, Back, Core, Glutes and Legs. By Ryan George, ISBN-10: 1612433561
  4. Raising the Bar The Definitive Guide to Pull-up Bar Calisthenics. By Al Kavadlo, ISBN-10: 0938045458
  5. The Ultimate Guide to Pullups and Chin-ups. By Logan Christopher, ISBN: 1489532714
  6. Muscle Exercises Encyclopedia. By Oscar Moran & Is. Arechabala, ISBN-10: 1841263508
  7. Anatomy of Exercise: A Trainer's Inside Guide to Your Workout.  By Pat Manocchia, ISBN-10: 1554073855
  8. Anatomy of Muscle Building: A Trainer's Guide to Increasing Muscle Mass. By Craig Ramsay, ISBN-10: 1554078164

*   Always talk with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.