Are Pull-Ups the Best Back Workout?
Whether you’re a gym rat focused on strengthening your back or a beginner looking to get in shape for the first time, you’ve probably asked yourself at least once: are pull-ups the best back workout?
The answer may surprise you.
The Different Types of Pull-Ups
Pull-ups are a multi-joint exercise that uses several muscle groups throughout your body. These include your back, abdomen, shoulders, and arms – though not every muscle group involved does the hard pulling to get you up. Instead, some of them help your body to stabilize or flex as you go through the motion.
If you’re like most of us, chances are, you’re unlikely to run into situations that call for doing pull-ups outside the gym or parkour. But if you do (and even if you don’t), you should understand how each type of pull-up affects your body.
When you picture doing a pull-up in your mind’s eye, you probably see a traditional pull-up. To make this motion, you simply grab a pull-up bar and get pulling. Done correctly, a traditional pull-up activates the muscles in your arms, shoulders, and torso to pull your body into the air. 1
Suspension pull-ups are one take on the traditional pull-up. To make this motion, you rely on a suspension device – such as two handles hanging from the pull-up bar or ceiling – to enhance your workout.
Suspension pull-ups increase the difficulty of a traditional pull-up by providing an unstable, mobile surface. This increases the muscular demand on your body to keep the correct form and complete your reps. The goal of adding a suspension pull-up into your routine is to improve your stability and fine motor control. 1
Some workout junkies may also claim that suspension pull-ups can help you build muscle or get toned faster. However, clinical trial data does not support this assertion. In particular, one trial that assessed the differences among the three types of pull-ups found no significant difference in muscular electrical activity when doing suspension pull-ups compared to traditional or towel pull-ups. 1
Towel pull-ups are the happy medium between a traditional pull-up and a suspension pull-up. This workout involves hanging two towels over the pull-up bar to act as your “handles.” Then, you grasp the towels and complete your reps as usual.
Towel pull-ups, like traditional pull-ups, have not been found to increase muscular electrical output compared to other types of pull-ups. That said, the same study that examined electrical activity also found that towel pull-ups were reported as the most challenging workout, which can be partly attributed to the fact that they require greater grip strength. 1
The Benefits of Pull-Ups
Now that we understand the different types of pull-ups, we can look at the benefits of this workout as a whole, which includes: 1
- Increasing muscle and grip strength
- Improving upper body stability
- Toning your arms, shoulders, and torso
- Enhancing your flexibility
Pull-Ups Strengthen Your Arms, Shoulders, and Back
One of the most impactful (and obvious) impacts of pull-ups on your body is the increase in muscle strength. The basic motion of a pull-up activates a large number of muscles between your wrist and mid-back, most notably your: 1
- Latissimus dorsi: the flat muscle that covers the width of your lower and middle back)
- Posterior deltoid: the muscle on the back of your shoulder
- Middle trapezius: the muscle that runs from shoulder to shoulder beneath your neck but over your mid-back
- Biceps brachii: the muscle at the front of your upper arm
- External obliques: the muscles that run down both sides of your torso
Pull-Ups Improve Your Grip Strength
Aside from improving your muscle strength, doing pull-ups can help build your grip strength, too. More than that, the strength of your grip – and the type of grip you use – can impact how effectively you perform the pull-up motion.
We saw this above in the case of towel pull-ups, which require (and build) a slightly stronger grip than traditional or suspension pull-ups. But another study of sport-climbers took a different approach. 1
This study examined how grip width and style affected the number of pull-ups and overall muscular output in a clinical setting. The authors found that the number of pull-ups and muscular output decreased with a wider grip, while climbers with stronger and smaller grips could perform more pull-ups under the same conditions. 2
Pull-Ups Enhance Your Overall Fitness Level
Aside from helping you build muscle and grip strength, adding pull-ups to your workout routine has been found to improve your overall fitness level. For instance, one study of 25 males found that men who could perform a higher number of pull-ups had leaner body mass, less fat mass, and lower BMIs overall. 3
Additionally, each man in the study was sorted into performance groups based on the number of reps they could do in a single round. Men in the high-performance group – those who could do more than 12 pull-ups – were found to have greater overall physical performance and health than those in the lower performance group. 3
Are Pull-Ups the Best Back Workout?
As we can see, pull-ups are a great back workout that enhances your body’s core muscle groups. Adding pull-ups to your workout routine has also been shown to include muscle and grip strength and increase your flexibility and stability. 1
When it comes to where pull-ups improve your body, studies have found that they activate muscles in your upper arms, shoulders, and upper to lower back. That said, the type of pull-up you do doesn’t seem to affect your muscle-building abilities (though towel pull-ups might increase your grip strength). 1
But at the end of the day, when it comes to which workout is best for your back, no one exercise will buff you out equally. Instead, you should think of pull-ups as an essential component of your workout routine for strengthening your back, arms, and torso.