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Pull ups are about one of the best back exercises you can do. Not only are they a great way to get a full stretch through the lats and build them wide as possible, they are almost a sort of “great equalizer” in that there seem to be two types of lifter at the gym – those who can do a pull up, and those who can’t. However, have you ever wondered what muscles do pull ups work?
Pull ups are a back exercise working primarily the lats. However, they can also significantly hit the rhomboids, too (especially if you really arch your chest at the top of the movement). While those are the prime movers, pull ups can also indirectly hit the upper back, lower traps, and rear delts, too.
You may have heard about biceps involvement when asking, “What muscles to pull ups work?”. The biceps are indirectly involved, just like they are in most back / upper body pulling exercises. The same goes for the forearms. The goal is to minimize emphasis placed on the biceps, making the muscles of the back do all the work.
Old school anecdote says that you should spread your hands really wide when doing pull ups to get a greater stretch through the back. This was the prevailing opinion as when you hang from a pull up bar with a very wide grip, it feels like your lats are getting stretched more than normal. But this isn’t really the case.
When using a wide grip like this, you’re actually shortening your range of motion (ROM). Watch someone do pullups with their hands at shoulder-width, then watch them again after moving their hands a few inches out from that. Their body isn’t traveling as far up and down. This is because the ROM has been shortened.
If you want a better stretch, not to mention a greater contraction, you should stay away from doing pull ups with a really wide grip. This doesn’t mean your hands should be super close either, though. Keeping them around or just wider than shoulder-width is fine.
Just because using a wide grip means you have a shorter ROM, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever do them. Spreading your hands out wide will often transfer emphasis to the lower part of the lats where they tie into your torso. Using a medium grip allows you to work the entire back as a whole.
If your gym has a pull up bar with parallel grips (i.e. – such that your palms are facing each other), this can allow you to really work the upper back and rhomboids hard. Focus on arching your chest at the top – even to the point that you’re pulling your sternum to the bar. Drive your elbows back, retracting your scapulae. This almost gives it some semblance of a rowing motion, but you’ll find your entire upper back, rear delts, traps, rhomboids, and even upper lats seriously pumped up.
The pull up is a classic, old school movement that many think is the best back builder you can do. That said, switching up your grip can change where the emphasis goes. When all else fails, just take a normal shoulder-width grip for the best mix of stretch, contraction, and hitting every muscle of the back.