Pull-ups are a classic bodyweight resistance exercise. Find out whether they are good and if so, for what goals and what people.
First of all, regular bodyweight pull-ups will be too challenging to be considered good for certain individuals.
People who can’t do at least 3 sets of 5 pull-ups likely want to start with assisted versions or exercises that work similar muscles.
If that does not apply to you, pull-ups are a good exercise for growing and strengthening your latissimus dorsi, bicep, and potentially forearm grip muscles.
In turn, pull-ups can also be helpful for achieving more of a V-shape look, losing weight, improving general health, and performing better in certain sports.
At the same time, you want to keep in mind that there are many muscles and fitness components that pull-ups don’t work. You likely want to implement other exercises too.
6 goals and people pull-ups are good for
While pull-ups alone may not be enough to reach all your training goals, they are great for certain purposes and people. Find out whether this exercise is worth considering for you.
1. More intermediate and advanced lifters
Something to note about this first point is that it assumes you just have a pull-up bar and no bands for doing assisted pull-ups or a pull-up machine.
That being said, pull-ups are a relatively challenging bodyweight exercise. Not everyone can do them and even if they can, pull-ups could still be too challenging to do in repetition ranges that are optimal for progress.
With assisted pull-up bands or a pull-up machine, you can do the exercise at a lighter load.
However, if you don’t have these, you likely want to start with easier exercises that work similar muscles until you are strong enough to do pull-ups in sets and repetitions that align with your training goals.
On the flip side, people who are advanced when it comes to resistance training may need to consider weighted pull-ups to keep seeing results at their desired speed.
2. Growing and strengthening your latissimus dorsi and biceps
Pull-ups are a compound exercise but this only means you are moving multiple joints and muscles, not that they work every muscle in your body.
More specifically, pull-ups are mostly good for growing and strengthening your latissimus dorsi (middle/upper back), biceps, and potentially forearm grip muscles.
You also work upper back muscles like your trapezius and other scapular muscles to some extent but you should not really expect any actual growth in these areas.
Additionally, keep in mind that you still need to implement the right load, repetitions, sets, rest, and nutrition.
3. Losing weight
Most people think about cardiovascular workouts like running, walking, and cycling when trying to lose weight. However, certain types of resistance training exercises can be great too.
Not in the sense that they burn a lot of calories during the workout.
For example, the average person can expect to burn around 89-152 calories per 15 minutes of heavy and vigorous bodyweight pull-ups during the repetitions. This is nice but not that impressive either.
However, the latissimus dorsi is a relatively big muscle with a lot of room for muscle mass increases.
How much you weigh plays a big role in how many calories you burn throughout the day. Moving more weight requires more energy from your body.
By adding a nice amount of healthy weight, which pull-ups are good for, you burn more calories throughout the day. Including during any cardiovascular workouts you decide to do too.
One thing to keep in mind is that while pull-ups help you lose weight, you also still need good habits in other lifestyle areas like nutrition to make this goal happen.
4. General health
The extra muscle mass and strength are great but pull-ups are also simply good for you in terms of general health.
Some of the more measurable benefits of pull-ups are that they can do things like strengthen your bones, build/preserve muscle mass, and reduce blood sugar spikes from food.
Additionally, there are just so many internal processes going on that there are likely at least a few unknown ones that will be positively influenced by doing resistance training exercises like pull-ups.
Something that will be discussed more in-depth is that doing pull-ups is a step in the right direction but that you likely want to implement other lifestyle changes too.
5. Making your back wider
One of the aesthetic differences of bigger latissimus dorsi is that you get a wider upper back and a look that comes closer to the V-shape some people desire.
When it comes to aesthetics, there will always be some personal differences in preferences. However, many people will agree that a wider back makes you look fitter.
6. Performance in certain sports
Basically all sports involve moving your muscles. By training these in the most suited ways you can often get a competitive advantage over your opponents.
For example, pull-ups work your latissimus dorsi a lot. This muscle is responsible for moving your upper arm down from the front or the side.
That means pull-ups could be good for activities like pitching in baseball, swimming, throwing a football, etc.
Depending on the sport, you can choose between mainly training muscle power, muscle strength, or muscle endurance for the best performance increases.
4 things and people pull-ups are not that good for
By now, it is clear that pull-ups could be a great exercise to add to your routine.
At the same time, there are also some people that may want to skip pull-ups for now and/or add different exercises for certain fitness goals.
1. Complete resistance training beginners (unless…)
As briefly mentioned before, not everyone will be able to do bodyweight pull-ups in repetition ranges that can offer results.
If you are not able to do at least 5 pull-ups per set for 3 to 6 sets, you likely want to start with other resistance training exercises like lat pulldowns and row variations.
That being said, some exceptions include if you have assisted pull-up bands or an assisted pull-up machine available. These allow you to do the same movement at an easier challenge level.
2. An entire resistance training workout
The latissimus dorsi, biceps, and forearm grip muscles are definitely important but at the same time, there are still many other important ones too.
Pull-ups are a good exercise but they are generally not enough for an entire resistance training workout.
Unless you do strength training 6 days a week with separate muscle groups on each day, you likely also want to add exercises that work your leg, chest, tricep, and shoulder muscles.
3. An entire exercise routine
Similarly, even if you would round out your resistance training workouts with exercises for other muscle groups, you would likely also want to implement cardiovascular training sessions for goals like general health and losing weight.
The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends the following exercise guidelines to adults (1):
- Moving more and sitting less throughout the day
- At least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity a week. Preferably spread throughout the week.
- You can gain additional health benefits by engaging in physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.
- Muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week.
Pull-ups do engage your cardiovascular system to a small extent but they will likely not be enough to hit the guidelines above.
4. Potentially daily exercise
Even if an exercise like pull-ups would be good for your training goals and situation, that does not mean you should go straight to 100 pull-ups a day or something similar.
When doing resistance training exercises you damage the muscles involved. This may sound bad but actually starts internal processes that can make you stronger and healthier over time.
That being said, your body still needs time to complete these processes.
While you could recover in time depending on your body and how you approach your training, it is typically recommended to give the muscles you worked at least a day of rest.
This may feel lazy but it can actually increase the amount of progress you make.
Additionally, these days can be used to do other important resistance training exercises, other types of workouts, or rest days.
What makes an exercise good?
Pull-ups are definitely a great compound back exercise with a lot of potential for positive effects. Many people will benefit a lot from adding this exercise to their resistance training routine.
At the same time, whether an exercise is good for you or not depends on your training goals and personal situation.
For people who are not able to complete certain amounts of pull-ups and don’t have the equipment to make them easier, other resistance training exercises could be better.
Lastly, even if pull-ups are good for you, you want to make sure you implement a good resistance training routine, eat enough nutrients, and give your body enough rest to get results.