What Muscles Do Pull Ups Work? A Guide for Beginners

What muscles do pull ups work? Learning how to do a proper pullup seems daunting, but when you understand the correct form and what muscle groups are used suddenly it becomes an attainable goal. It can be one of the best exercises for improving overall strength.

I’m not sure about you, but when I took high school gym class, the pull-up test was one of the most dreadful things to think about.

The first thing I learned is that a pullup is different than a chin up and, to most, is noticeably more challenging.

It became a bucket list item for me to do one, and nowadays, with a huge focus on health, many claim it’s their favorite exercise. 

So let’s talk about all things we need to know for accomplishing our first pullup!

What Muscles Do Pull Ups Work?

Before we get into the fun stuff, it’s pretty important to understand what primary muscle groups are being worked on. Why? Because when you do a proper pullup, you should be able to feel those main muscles working.

It also signals a warning that you may not be using the correct form if you feel various muscles that you shouldn’t.

Pullups use a lot of muscles if you are doing it the right way. The pullup is one of the compound exercises which uses many small and large muscle groups. Primarily, it’s an upper-body strength exercise. Let’s talk about some of the major muscles used. 


Your traps are major upper body muscles targeted when you perform a pull-up. These upper back muscles run from your neck to your shoulder blades and down your back, forming a v-shape. These muscles allow you to shrug when you’re feeling iffy.  

Latissimus Dorsi

Your lats will be another muscle that will feel tight and sore as you learn the proper mechanics of a pullup. They are the largest back muscles and run up your back to under your armpit and around your shoulder blade. They allow for many functional movements of your back and shoulders. 

Thoracic Erector Spinae

These are the muscles that go around your thoracic spine and assist in the extension of back movements. 


Located between your shoulders and the thoracic spine, these muscles assist you in the controlled release as you lower yourself from a pullup. 


The brachialis and biceps brachii are important upper arm muscles when performing the pullup.


Your abs are used when doing pullups because when you engage your obliques by tightening the muscles. This helps keep your body straight to make the pull-up easier. Core strength is important for pullups. We’ll get into that during our form section. 


Your butt muscles also should be working. Not as much as your back, but your glutes, like your obliques, help stabilize the body, so we aren’t flopping around like fish. 

girl doing pullups
What muscles do pullups work?

What Does Proper Pull Up Form Look Like?

It can be difficult for a beginner to nail down proper form right away. This is why it’s important to be kind to yourself as you navigate the ropes. You may not get it on the first try. It’s also important to remember that good form is strict, which is why there are other ways to train to get you to the perfect pullup.

Let’s go through the form and what it looks like to do a pullup when you have the strength to do so. The first thing to note is that pullups are different than chin-ups in the way that your palms face towards you for a chin up and away from you for a pullup. 

Here’s A Step-By-Step Guide

  • Grab a small stepping stool or a box so that you can comfortably reach the pull-up bar. Don’t put it right under the pullup bar as your feet will hit in when you lower yourself. You will want to put it a little behind the bar so you step off and are able to dead hang without it interfering. With a strong grip, grab the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart.
  • Step off the box or stool and have your legs locked completely straight with your toes slightly flexed upward. This helps keep your body straight. Some people are tempted to cross their legs. Refrain from doing so as it doesn’t allow you to tighten your muscles to keep good form. 
  • From here, engage your core, glutes, and back muscles as you pull your body up at even pace. Keep your body straight and refrain from kicking or trying to hurdle yourself over the bar. You want to squeeze your back muscles. It should be a smooth and fluid motion. 
  • Keep your elbows close to your side pushing them back to continue engaging those muscles. Once your chin is over the bar, slowly lower yourself at an even pace until your elbows are completely locked out again. 

This is the form of a perfect pullup. Sometimes we see people trying to gain momentum by kicking or applying force. This cheats your muscles and could result in injury. The best way to engage the proper muscles is to remain consistent in your speed and keep everything tight together. 

Pull Up Variations To Work More Muscles

The cool thing about pull-ups is the considerable number of muscles worked. One way to hit even more muscle groups is to shift your hand position. Spread your hands out on the bar for a wider grip, and you’ll work the chest muscles in a slightly different way.

With wide grip pull-ups, your shoulder muscles will also be targeted from different angles. Shift your hands to a narrower grip, and you’ll expose other muscles. Yet one more variation would be the underhand grip or the chin-up. This grip tends to work the core muscles and abdominal muscles a little more than the overhand grip.

Where Do We Start As Beginners?

Keeping the form mentioned above is incredibly difficult, even for those with natural strength. There are several ways that we can get to that point by taking baby steps towards that goal. Let’s go over some of the best methods to gain strength and maintain good form. 

Using Resistance Bands

Using resistance bands is one of the best ways to teach good form early on and start learning the mechanics of a pullup. There are many steps you can take to build yourself up to bodyweight pullups. 

First, start with a pretty heavy resistance band, otherwise known as an assist band. It will likely be thick and long so that you can tie it to the middle of your pullup bar. Once it is secure, you can place one of your knees inside the resistance band and let it help take off the weight. Keep the mechanics the best you can. 

Once you see that you are gaining strength and can complete pull-ups easily with a heavy-duty band, you can start moving down the line of bands with less resistance and less thickness. It continues to train you to take on more weight. 

Once you gain enough strength, you can use a thinner band that is longer and place one of your feet inside instead of your knee. This allows you to learn the proper form while also giving you some assistance. 

Something that mimics this methodology and an assisted pullup machine. Instead of using bands, they use a counterweight and a pad to place your knees or feet to offer support. You can keep adjusting the weight to fewer pounds as you gain strength.

Negative Pull-Ups 

Another great way to gain strength and learn to do a proper pull-up is to do negative pullups. You may be thinking, what the heck is that, and if I can do zero pull-ups, why would I want to do negative? 

We get it! But take a look.

A negative pull-up is when you start with your chin over the bar and slowly lower your entire body weight down slowly. This helps build strength in the muscles we mentioned above and is the easier part of the exercise. You may need a taller box to start with your chin over the bar.

It’s also super important to resist letting go too quickly as you can hurt yourself. You can start with a three-second countdown and then move to five and 10 seconds to keep track of your progress. 

Exercises for Grip Strength 

Grip strength is a huge part of doing pullups. Your hands may feel sore, or you may not even be able to hold onto the bar long enough to do one. This is natural. The exercises listed above help with grip strength, but there are also a few exercises you can do on your own to help. 

Farmers Walk

Farmer’s walk is a great grip strength exercise. To do this, take one dumbbell in each of your hands at a comfortable weight that you can carry. Standing straight with your shoulders back and dumbbells at each side, walk 10 yards and turn around.

The correct weight should make your hands feel sore, like you may need to squeeze extra to keep holding it after a few seconds. 

Dumbbell Row

Dumbbell row is an exercise that is great for grip strength and training yourself for pullups. To do this, you want to take an athletic stance in front of a bench. Lean forward and place both hands on the bench with your back flat. 

Your knees should be bent. Remove one of your hands and squeeze your core. Pick up the dumbbell on the ground with your other hand and bring the dumbbell to your side by squeezing your elbow. After doing several reps, change sides. 

What muscles do pullups work? Here’s a quick video on pull up variations and muscles worked.

How To Incorporate Pullups into Your Workout

Once we get the hang of pull ups, you may feel like you want to constantly break your PR or challenge yourself more! This is great! But pullups should be balanced with other exercises that target different muscle groups to not get over fatigued.

When they become over fatigued this can result in injury. 

As a tip, you should never forget to stretch these muscle groups out as it is a heavily engaging exercise. You will likely feel very sore at first as your muscles get used to working in this manner. 

Benefits From Pullups

Pullups are a great exercise that can benefit us in a lot of different ways. Overall increasing strength is a vital benefactor, but we can break it down a little further than that. Here are some of the practical benefits we get from pullups. 

Grip Strength

We just talked about grip strength, but it’s worth another quick mention. Not being able to carry heavy things due to our grip strength can be frustrating. You may notice certain chores like moving the wheelbarrow start to get easier. 

Injury Prevention

When our back muscles are stronger, we are much less likely to experience tweaks and injuries from having both a weak core and a weak upper and lower back. Since pull-ups target both, we decrease these chances. 

Better Stability

With strength in these target muscles, we will have noticeably better stability from our major muscle groups. This is a major benefit that may even go unnoticed. It also relates to injury prevention because a lower risk of falling comes with a lower risk of getting hurt. 


Doing a pull-up is no joke which is why confidence comes with the territory. Trying something new, especially in the gym, can be intimidating, but once you conquer it, you’re likely to try something else! 

From One Beginner to Another

Say goodbye to those haunting gym class memories because with this simple guide and overview on pullups; you are sure to be cranking them out in no time.

And if it takes you a little longer, don’t worry because it’s a process. Pullups are one of the most effective exercises for maintaining strength and overall fitness.

The most important thing to remember is that form and quality are way better than quantity.

Take the steps you need with resistance bands and other forms of strength training that will aid you in a full range of motion in your pullup journey. 

The aftercare is important too. Fatigue and tired muscles will lead to soreness, so appropriate stretching and other forms of strength training is always a good idea. With this, you’re good to go!

What muscles do pull-ups work? Here’s an excellent video for beginners to do their very first pullup.

Best Calisthenics Shoulder Exercises for Strength

The best calisthenics shoulder exercises for strength and muscle building are also very simple. It doesn’t need to be complicated to keep your shoulder joints, shoulder blades, rotator cuff, and overall upper body strength in top shape.

Building your shoulder muscles can be one of the most difficult areas to focus on. The facts are, there are just so many other areas people tend to focus on during weight and strength training.

Squats, deadlifts, and the bench press are vitally important for overall muscle strength but don’t forget about other important areas such as the shoulders.

One of the most effective ways I’ve built shoulder strength is simply using bodyweight training. Some of the best calisthenics shoulder exercises utilize nothing more than your own body’s weight for a certain number of repetitions.

Resistance bands are helpful, but you don’t even need bands to do these great exercises. 

Calisthenics Shoulder Exercises
There are simple body weight shoulder calisthenics exercises to build muscle and stay fit.


Standard push-ups have been known by many beginners as chest workouts. However, regular push-up can also be one of the best bodyweight exercises out there.

One of the nice things about push-ups is the many variations you can utilize just by changing your hand placement. This is one of the best exercises for developing strong shoulders, improving shoulder joint strength, and working many overall muscle groups.

There’s the strict, Military style push-up, one of the most basic exercises out there. Keeping your arms shoulder width apart, simply lower and raise your body slowly.

Then, you can widen out your hands for wide push-ups, which focus more on your pectoral muscles. Another great variation is the diamond push-up, causing focus on the triceps. 

One of the best push-up moves used in calisthenics shoulder exercises is the power clap push-up. Lower your body just below the level of your bent elbow, then quickly push upward so your hands leave the ground enough that you can clap them together quickly.

One of my favorite power moves to strengthen shoulder muscles using only body weight (and gravity).  

Handstands – Against a Wall

Another great move for calisthenics shoulder exercises is the handstand against a wall. Your first impression might be, “this doesn’t look that difficult.”

Not only is it difficult to maintain a handstand against a wall, but it’s also a challenge for many people to simply get into position.

Also called the handstand hold, your upper back and chest muscles will also benefit. I’ve included this move as one of my everyday activities, and my muscle fibers have never felt better.

Luckily, YouTube was invented, and there are tons of great videos demonstrating safe ways to practice this move.

From the bent over starting position, place your hands about one foot away from the wall. Keeping your arms straight, push your legs up against the wall.

You’ve just done a handstand. Watch the video a few times to be sure you follow proper form to prevent injury.

Doing handstands against a wall is a great way to build shoulder strength, practice balance, and work your core muscles.

Walking On Your Hands

One of my personal favorite body weight calisthenics shoulder exercises is walking on my hands. It’s not only a tremendous shoulder workout but a great overall workout for your core, legs, and arms.

It is a great overall workout maneuver and an excellent way to practice balance and improve your overall agility. 

I’ve been walking on my hands for the last 6 months, and I’ve noticed improved shoulder and neck strength.

After about two months of practice, I could walk across the living room on my hands. I must warn you first, you might only be able to practice for five to ten minutes each day because it’s such an intense total body workout. 

Once you master the move, it only takes a five-minute session to be completely gassed with a great callisthenic workout.

No matter your fitness level, walking on your hands can be one of the best bodyweight shoulder exercises out there.

After watching this video, I was able to walk on my hands after about two months of practice. It’s now one of my favorite exercises, and a great way to work the shoulders!

Decline Push Ups

Decline push-ups are one more way to get an outstanding shoulder workout. Elevate your legs on a couch, chair, or bench, and proceed to do a push-up with your hands about shoulder-width apart. 

You will immediately feel this move work the front of your shoulders and upper pectoral muscles.

Tighten your core and keep your legs straight, moving up and down slowly. Decline push-ups are also a great way to strengthen your lower back muscles.

If this is your first time attempting this move, you might be wondering why it’s called a “decline” push-up when your feet body is parallel with the ground when your arms are extended. “How much harder can it be?” You might be thinking.

Bend your arms and begin lowering your body down to the ground – now you know why this is the decline push-up. You have to try it first to experience how much tougher it is than a typical push-up. 

There are a few more variations of the decline push-up, including pike push-ups. If this is the first exercise you attempt, be sure to warm up properly.

The pike pushup can be a great workout for the entire body, but be sure to maintain the correct form, as always.

Calisthenics exercises to form stronger shoulders should always maintain good form and include a full range of motion. Don’t worry about advanced exercises or the number of reps initially; just be sure to use the proper form.

Handstand Push-Ups

One of the most challenging moves using your body weight is handstand push-ups. Not only is this one of the most challenging, but it’s also one of the best calisthenics shoulder exercises I’ve found. 

It’s an advanced maneuver, but just like anything else, with a little practice, you can acclimate yourself and start doing entire sets in no time flat. 

This video features great beginner tips to getting upside-down, then beginning to learn the handstand push-up. Take your time – and have fun!

One Arm Handstand Push-Ups

If you search “one arm handstand push-up,” you will find many results in Google asking if it’s even possible.

Without a wall to support your balance, I’m not sure that it is, but as you can see in the video below, this guy did it. 

I couldn’t find any evidence of someone doing a perfect one arm handstand push-up without a wall. If you can do one, please, let me know. Or better yet, post a video on YouTube for all to see. I guarantee it will get millions of views in a matter of days. It would be one of the greatest displays of power, strength, and balance known to humankind!

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