You may have heard pull-ups are a great back exercise but does that mean they work all muscles in that area? Find out what this exercise does and does not work.
When it comes to back muscles, pull-ups will mainly work the latissimus dorsi, aka lats. These are the big muscles around your middle/upper back.
The scapular muscles (including the traps) in your upper back will have to work to some extent to keep your shoulder blades in position. However, during regular pull-ups, they won’t have to work that hard.
Lastly, pull-ups do not really work lower back muscles like the erector spinae. Your legs, hips, and lower back just have to hang there without resisting gravity.
Do pull-ups work lats aka latissimus dorsi
The latissimus dorsi are the big muscles around your middle/upper back. You can feel these right under your arms on each side.
One of the main functions of your lats is the depression of your arms and adducting your shoulders aka pulling your upper arms downward from an elevated position.
This applies to both when you pull your arms down forward and sideways.
From these descriptions (and after a few repetitions of the exercise), you can understand that pull-ups are a great exercise for working your latissimus dorsi.
These muscles will be the main ones responsible for moving your body weight up by moving your upper arms “down” toward your sides.
Even without adding weights, pull-ups can help many people grow and strengthen their latissimus dorsi.
Do pull-ups work traps aka trapezius
The trapezius muscle, aka traps, are the muscles along your upper back and neck.
There are 3 parts to your traps. The upper part raises your shoulders in the shrug movement. The middle part retracts your shoulder blades (pulls them back).
The lower part pulls the scapula down and rotates it downward.
These things mean that regular pull-ups do not really work your traps that much.
Your trapezius muscles will likely have to work to a small extent to keep your shoulders and shoulder blades in the right position.
However, for most people, this will not be challenging enough to see any actual growth or strength increases.
At the same time, there is a pull-up variation called the Gironda pull-up where you keep your upper body horizontal. In this version, your traps will have to work a lot harder. Likely enough to see muscle growth there too.
Do pull-ups work lower back muscles
There are a variety of lower back muscles but the main one includes the erector spinae muscle group. These are responsible for bending your spine backward or at least preventing it from bending forward.
As you can expect, pull-ups will not really work lower back muscles like erector spinae in any significant way.
The only thing you have to focus on is pulling yourself up high enough. Your legs, hips, and lower back just have to hang there without doing anything.
If you are interested in training your lower back muscles, movements like back extensions, deadlifts, and good mornings will be more effective.
Do pull-ups work scapular muscles like rhomboids
When it comes to other upper back muscles, most people will find it good enough to know that there are a variety of scapular muscles (including rhomboids and traps) around your shoulder blades to move these body parts around.
The same things as the trapezius muscles apply to these other scapular muscles.
You will engage them to some extent to keep your shoulders in the right positions during pull-ups. However, this is likely not enough to actually grow and strengthen scapular muscles like the rhomboids.
Also similarly, the Gironda pull-up variation should work these muscles a lot more than the regular version.
Do pull-ups work your entire back?
In short, pull-ups do not work your entire back to a large extent.
More specifically, regular pull-ups will mostly be helpful for growing and strengthening your latissimus dorsi with the right number of repetitions and weight.
Other upper back muscles like your trapezius and other scapular muscles will have to work to some extent but generally not enough to see a lot of positive effects.
Lastly, the lower back muscles basically do not have to do any work during pull-ups.