Best Pull Exercises to Build Strength

Athletic girl doing pull up exercise on horizontal bar. Fitness woman working out in gym

Knowing what exercises are best to get a great workout can be complicated whether you are new to the gym or a seasoned pro. We often get into a routine and forget the wide range of workout activities available to us. It’s ideal to do exercises that benefit both your lower and upper body, but it’s also important to do activities that engage different muscle groups. NASM Certified Personal Trainer Alissa Tucker agrees, “Our bodies are brilliant and learn to adapt to stress relatively quickly.” We need to implement changes and surprise our muscles in order to ensure we get the best results from our workout. You can easily amp up your workout routine by implementing new activities like push or pull exercises. Let’s explore what exactly a pull exercise is, and how you can incorporate it into your exercise routine.

What Is a Pull Exercise?

A pull exercise is a strength training movement. It focuses on a concentric contraction, or a shortening of the muscles during the pull motion. Most pull exercises engage muscles in your upper body like the biceps, forearms, and back muscles. Pull exercises differ from push exercises, which focus on eccentric contractions, or the lengthening of muscles in the chest, shoulders, and triceps during a push motion.

Why Should I Do a Pull Exercise? 

Pulling exercises utilize a wide variety of muscles. The pulling motion generally focuses on your upper body as well as your posterior chain, which is made up of all the muscles activated when engaging in pull exercises, from hamstrings and glutes to traps

You may ask, why is this important? Have you ever thought about how much you sit every day? The average American sits for 6.5 hours per day, and many people sit hunched over on a computer which can damage their spine. Working to improve your upper body strength and posterior chain can build muscle to improve posture and help you to avoid injury to your back, hips, and legs. Choosing to skimp on pull exercises can negatively affect your flexibility, mobility, and overall strength. The first step to adding pull exercises to your routine is choosing the right dumbbell weight. The weight of a dumbbell provides the resistance you need to work these muscle groups. But how do you know how much weight is right for you?

How To Choose a Dumbbell Weight

Consider how many repetitions you plan to complete in a set. Keep in mind that this number will change as you improve. For 1 to 5 reps, try a “heavy” weight. This means you will want to choose a heavier dumbbell that might only be able to lift for 1 to 5 reps total. If you are looking to complete 6 to 15 reps, choose a moderate amount of weight. To complete 15 or more reps, you will want to select a light weight. 

You will likely need to try several different weight amounts to find a good place to start. Lifting heavier isn’t always better. Researchers have found that the main goal is to hit muscle fatigue regardless of the amount of weight you lift. It’s okay to start with just 2 or 3 lbs, but you’ll need to complete enough reps to reach muscle fatigue. 

Starting with a lighter weight is a great idea to help you learn the movements and begin to build muscle.

What Are the Best Pull Exercises? 

It is time to pull your weight, literally. Discovering the best pull exercises can help lead you to better overall fitness. It can also ensure you help protect your body against injury. Here are the best pull exercises suggested by fitness experts.  

Single Arm Dumbbell Rows

The single-arm dumbbell row is a great choice to target your back, shoulders, biceps, and hips. It will also help to improve your core stability. It is a unilateral exercise, meaning you will only work one side of your body at a time. 

To complete this move, you will start with a dumbbell in one hand. Move your body into a lunge position with a slight bend in your front leg. Ensure your knee is in line with your ankle and your back leg is straight. 

Next, bend forward to rest your non-weighted hand on your front thigh. Then, bring the dumbbell up in a straight line to parallel your chest. At the top of this movement, you will want to squeeze your shoulder blade and back muscles. You can hold this position for 1 to 2 seconds. Then, slowly bring the weight back down to your starting position, reaching a full extension. 

During the movement, imagine bringing your belly button into your spine. This will help to keep you supported and work your core. You will also want to maintain good posture. If you notice your back is rounding or arching, you may need to choose a lighter weight. 

This is one of the best pull exercises as it can be done with any weight. It will help improve your posture, back strength, and grip

Try this exercise by doing 3 sets on each side with 6 to 8 reps.

Renegade Row

The renegade row is a full-body exercise. It will activate your core and your back. It is a mix of two separate movements: planks and dumbbell rows

To do a renegade row, you will need two dumbbells. Place them shoulder-width apart at the top of your mat or workout space. Get into an all-fours plank starting position. Your feet should be a bit wider than shoulder-width apart. 

Place one dumbbell in each hand. Bring one bent arm up at a time with your elbow pointed up and pushed as far back as possible. Squeeze your core, quads, and glutes. Then switch sides. The arm movement will seem similar to a push-up, but your core remains still. Focus on keeping your body as straight as possible. Twisting will bring tension and keep your obliques from reaching the top effectiveness of the movement. 

Aim to complete this exercise early in your workout. The mixture of the plank and dumbbell rows can be exhausting because it requires a lot of core stability.

For the renegade row, start with 2 sets of 5 to 8 reps on each side. 

Pull-Ups

There are many benefits to doing pull-ups. Pull-ups strengthen your chest, shoulders, arms, and core. They can also improve your bone density. Even better, pull-ups can be done almost anywhere. The pull-up movement will allow you to work many different muscle groups at once. If you are short on time, this is a great pull exercise to get great results. 

To do a pull-up, you will need some sort of bar from which you can safely hang your body weight. 

Get into a starting position by placing both hands on the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart and your palms facing forward. Lower your body and curve your back slightly. 

Use your strength to pull yourself up towards the bar until your chin reaches above your hands. Then, slowly lower yourself back down to a full arm extension. This counts as one rep. 

If you are unable to complete one full pull-up, that is ok. You can work to build your strength to reach this physical milestone. You can also consider trying an underhand grip as it may be easier for you when starting. 

Tips To Get Better at Pull-Ups

If you have flashbacks to high school gym class, you aren’t alone. A small poll suggests that 68% of people can perform a pull-up. If you aren’t part of this population, here are some tips to get you there. 

Remember the saying, “Practice makes perfect”? The same rule applies to pull-ups. Consistently trying to complete a pull-up helps your body build strength. It can also help you lose body fat. If you weigh less, there is less weight for you to pull up. 

Another great way to help you get to a pull-up is to simply hang on the bar. Hanging on the bar will improve your grip strength and start to build the muscles you need to complete the movement. 

You can also complete several other exercises to help you build the muscle strength you need to do pull-ups. Working on your deadlifts, hollow hold, and bent-over row are all beneficial to working up to a pull-up. You can also complete an assisted pull-up using either a box to stand on or an exercise band. 

After working through these tips, it will not be long before you can complete a pull-up. Once you’ve progressed enough, you may find that you need more of a challenge! If so, try a weighted pull-up. Adding ankle weights or a weighted vest will put even more resistance on your muscles for a more difficult workout.

Deadlifts

Deadlifts are one of the most popular exercises in many programs. Deadlifts can help to reduce lower back pain, improve bone density, activate your core, and boost your metabolism. There are many deadlift variations. You can easily change the variation every few weeks to continue to improve and shock your body into better shape. 

To complete a standard deadlift, you will need a barbell. Place your barbell directly in front of you. 

Stand up straight and imagine a string pulling your head upward. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart. Reach down by bending at the hips and slightly bending your knees. Send your hips back and keep your core tight. For the best hand placement, grab the bar with your thumbs past your outer thighs. Pull the bar up until you are back to your standing position with your arms straight. This is one rep. Try to keep your back straight throughout the movement. 

When starting, you should do three to 4 sets with 5 to 8 reps in each set. This will help you learn the movement and engage your muscles without overworking. 

Lat Pull-downs

As the name suggests, lat pull-downs focus on your latissimus dorsi muscles. They are most commonly called your lats. Your latissimus dorsi is the v-shaped muscle behind your arm that connects your arm to your vertebral column. Your lat is one of the largest muscles in your back, so it is a critical muscle to focus on for improving posture and strengthening your back.

Most gyms offer lat pull-down machines, but you can also do them with dumbbells and a decline bench at home.

To complete a lat pull-down at home, ensure your bench is in the decline position. Place one dumbbell in each hand then lay down on the bench. Pull your arms straight out so that the dumbbells are in front of your chest and perpendicular to the floor. Then lower your arms overhead. Focus on pulling your shoulder blade down and together. Return your arms over your chest. 

Complete 2-3 sets of lat pull-downs with 10-15 reps in each set. This will incorporate another great pull exercise into your workout routine. 

Bent-Over Rows

The bent-over row is a great way to target muscles in your upper back. It can also target your chest. It is a moderately intense exercise that burns calories more quickly. 

There are a ton of variations to the bent-over row. For this pull exercise explanation, we will use two dumbbells and complete the standard movement. 

Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart. You will need a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing each other. Send your hips back and bend your knees slightly. Your torso should be almost parallel to the ground. Lower your arms until they are in front of your knees. Squeeze your belly button to your spine and maintain a flat back. 

Then, squeeze your shoulder blades together and bring the dumbbells to your ribcage. Your elbows should be pointed up and straight behind you. 

You can do both arms at the same time, or you can do a single arm and switch back and forth. You should start with 2 to 3 sets of this movement, completing 8 to 10 reps per arm in each set. 

Bicep Curls

Your arms are one of your most-used body parts. Building muscle in your arm with an exercise like the bicep curl can help with your everyday tasks and make your arms look more toned. There are also several variations to this movement. 

To complete a basic bicep curl with dumbbells, you will start by standing with one dumbbell in each hand. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart, and your palms should be facing forward. Bend your elbows and pull the dumbbells up to eye level. Hold them at eye level for a few seconds, and then lower your arms back down. Be sure to focus on squeezing your muscle throughout the movement. With this movement, you can work both arms at the same time or alternate back and forth. 

To get muscle fatigue from this movement, you likely need to complete at least 8 sets. Each set should have 8 to 10 repetitions per arm.

Overhead Tricep Extension

Think of a distant future in which you are enjoying the luxury of retirement at a bingo hall. They call the final letter you need to get Bingo. You stand and shake your arms in excitement. But to your horror, your arms continue to shake long after you have stopped your excited movements. The extra flab on your arms is referred to as bingo arms or bingo wings in some circles. 

Tricep extensions are a great way to work the triceps brachii muscle and avoid the extra flab of a bingo wing. The triceps brachii has three parts – the medial, lateral, and long head. Your tricep is used to extend and straighten your arm. The tricep also helps to stabilize your shoulders. 

You can use either a dumbbell or kettlebell to complete the overhead press tricep movement. To complete a standard overhead tricep extension, get into a starting position by standing straight with your feet hip-width apart. Hold your weight with both hands just above your head. Then, bend your elbows and lower the weight behind your head. Think of the weight drawing a line down your spine. Once you have lowered it as far as possible, lift the weight back up. During the movement, keep your core engaged by sucking your belly button into your spice. 

Complete 3 sets of overhead tricep extensions with 8 to 10 reps in each set. 

Each of these exercises will help you to create a great pull workout. Keep in mind it is important to provide variation to your workout every few weeks. Use different variations of each movement or switch out the movements altogether.

How to Incorporate Pull Day Into Your Gym Schedule

Your “Pull Day” workout will be one in which the workout mostly consists of upper-body movements. This is different from a push day in that a push day incorporates push exercises that focus on the opposite muscles. It is important to alternate between pull and push exercises to ensure your body has plenty of time for rest and recovery

To build the best workout routine, consider the following schedule from Ladder Sport

Monday: Push day workout, Tuesday: Pull day workout, Wednesday: Legs and core workout, Thursday: Push day workout, Friday: Pull day workout, Saturday: Legs and core workout, Sunday: Rest

This schedule will help you to build muscle safely. Allowing your body to recover is essential to your strength training success. You need to consider the needs of both your upper and lower body in your workout regimen. 

Using pull exercises is a great way to fatigue your muscles and reach peak fitness. From pull-ups to deadlifts, you can find many different exercise options to reach your goals. The best pull exercise for you will be an exercise that is difficult but doable.

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