11 Best Pull Workouts (Strengthen Your Back & Build Muscle)

Connor Sellers
Published by Connor Sellers | Senior Coach
Last updated: December 28, 2023
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Pull exercises develop our appearance and body width. They are essential for having a smaller chance of injury and developing holistic and well-balanced agonist-antagonist muscles.

Throughout my personal trainer career, I coached many people on implementing pull exercises into their workouts, so they get injured less often, raise their confidence, and build an overall strong body.

Keep reading to know the best pull workouts, how to program them into your weekly workouts, and tips and tricks to help you along the way.

Quick Summary

  • The best pull workouts or exercises include deadlifts, pull-ups, lat pulldowns, barbell rows, pullovers, dumbbell rows, dumbbell shrugs, barbell biceps curls, face pulls, dumbbell preacher curls, and cable curls.
  • One of the ways to build a functional back is to implement unilateral pull exercises since it requires your stabilizer muscles to work more.
  • NIH research suggests that to maximize muscle hypertrophy, keeping a high-intensity workout with rest periods of no more than 90 seconds between sets is optimal, as this duration has been consistently shown to be the most effective for muscle growth.
  • In my opinion, pull exercises are essential for a well-rounded fitness regimen, offering significant benefits in posture, strength, and overall back development.

11 Best and Most Effective Pull Exercises

A person doing pull exercises in the gym

Our fitness team and I tested all pull exercises from the list. This ensures maximum strength and muscle-building effects while keeping in mind to avoid getting injured.

These exercises can and should be performed by beginners.

If you are inexperienced or coming back from an injury, focus first on perfecting your form and start with lighter loads.

Here are the best and most effective pull exercises you can start doing today.

“Pulling exercises strengthen many of the muscles responsible for good posture, mobility, strength, and flexibility.”

- Steve Stonehouse, NASM CPT and Director of Education for STRIDE

1. Deadlifts

Deadlift is among the best pulling exercises since it uses your whole body holistically to perform the movement.

It involves plantar flexion in your ankles, extending your knees, hips, and pulling the bar with your upper body to assist the movement.

The deadlift activates your quadriceps and the whole posterior chain, including your hams, glutes, and lower back, while also forcing your lats and traps to assist the movement.

How to Perform a Deadlift

  1. Assume a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent.
  2. Bend your knees and hips while holding the barbell and position your hands shoulder-width apart.
  3. Keep your back straight, lift the bar, and stand up.
  4. Lower the bar back down with a slow eccentric contraction while maintaining the same position in your back.
  5. Repeat the desired number of reps and stop when you compromise your form to avoid getting injured.

2. Pull-Ups

A person doing pull ups in the gym

The pull-up belongs to the vertical pull movement pattern and is one of the prominent pull exercises for strengthening your back.

The pull-up activates your latissimus dorsi, posterior deltoid, biceps brachii, trapezius, and pectoralis major.

How to Perform the Pull-up

  1. Start by grabbing a pull-up bar with your knuckles facing toward your face. Your arms are fully extended in the elbows and shoulder joints.
  2. Slightly bend your knees and cross your feet behind.
  3. Start the exercise by pulling yourself until your chin raises above the pull-up bar.
  4. Hold that position for one second and reverse the motion by lowering yourself to the hanging position.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

3. Lat Pulldowns

Lat pulldowns are an easier variation of pull-ups since you will be provided with stable ground and tuck your legs, making your lats and traps more effective.

Check our guide on the 10 best lat pulldown machines for home gyms to understand how to pick a high-quality one that will pay off in the future.

Lat pulldowns will activate muscles such as your rear deltoids, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, biceps brachii, and others. 

How to Perform a Lat Pulldown

  1. To perform a lat pulldown, assume a sitting position on the lat machine where holding your legs attachment locks them.
  2. Hold the bar with a pronated grip and fully extend your elbows. The wideness of the grip will depend on your preferences, but starting a little wider than shoulder-width apart is recommended.
  3. Start the exercise by pulling the bar towards your collarbone.
  4. Hold that position for one second when the bar reaches your collarbone.
  5. Reverse the motion by letting the bar return to the top, but control the movement up.

4. Barbell Rows

A person doing dumbell rows in the gym

Barbell rows are one of my favorites because they effectively target all your primary back muscles.

Barbell rows below the horizontal push movement pattern and activate muscles such as your traps, rear delts, biceps, and latissimus dorsi.

Rows and pull-ups should always be combined in a single week of pulling workouts to ensure maximum benefits for the balance of your upper body.

How to Perform Barbell Rows

  1. Assume a standing position where the barbell is close to your shine.
  2. Bend slightly on your knees and take an overhand grip, your hands are outside your legs.
  3. Protract your shoulder blades, brace your core, maintain a flat back, and lift the barbell off the ground.
  4. Stand in the hinge position, and start rowing the barbell towards your lower abdominal muscles to target the lats or closer to your ribs to target the traps more.
  5. When you reach the top position where the bar is close to your stomach, reverse the motion and return to the start with a slow eccentric workout movement phase.

5. Pullovers

Pullovers are usually performed with dumbbells and are an excellent way of isolating the lat muscles.

We perform these mainly with dumbbells because they stretch the lats during the movement.

How to Perform Pullovers

  1. Assume a lying position on a flat bench with your knees bent. Your feet are placed flat.
  2. Hold the dumbbell, your palms are faced away, and your hands are shoulder-width apart.
  3. Keep your arms straight while raising the weight over your head.
  4. Start the exercise by bending your arms at the elbow joint and lowering the dumbbell until they are completely behind you.
  5. Raise the weight over your head and repeat for the desired amount of reps.

6. Dumbbell Rows

A person doing dumbell rows in the gym

Row exercises, known for boosting posture and muscle strength, start with feet shoulder-width apart. Lower your shoulders, grip a dumbbell in your right hand, and extend your arm.

Remember, lower the dumbbell slowly to engage your lower back. Aim for 2-3 sets on each side for full benefits.

Dumbbell rows, including the single-arm variation, are great alternatives to traditional barbell rows. They not only challenge your stabilizer muscles, enhancing shoulder stability, but also activate key muscles like lats, traps, biceps, and rear delts.

How to Perform Dumbbell Rows

  1. Take two equal dumbbells and assume a standing position.
  2. Make sure to have at least one meter of space in front of you to bend forward at your hips.
  3. Bend over at your hips while slightly bending your knees and retaining the same position for the rest of the exercise.
  4. Start the exercise by pulling the dumbbells toward your stomach.
  5. Hold the position for one second when the dumbbell reaches and crosses your upper body line.
  6. Return the dumbbell to the starting position while slowly lowering it through eccentric muscle contraction.

7. Dumbbell Shrugs

Dumbbell shrugs are one of the most effective pull exercises for building your upper traps. They activate all fibers of your traps but mainly target their upper portion.

How to Perform Dumbbell Shrugs

  1. Assume a standing position and pick two equal dumbbells to start the exercise.
  2. While standing, your arms should be fully extended in the elbow joint and act as a rope, meaning they should be loose.
  3. Start by elevating your shoulder and keeping your elbows extended throughout the movement.
  4. When you come to the maximal elevated position, hold it for a second.
  5. Slowly depress your shoulders and return to the starting position.
  6. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

8. Barbell Biceps Curls

A person doing bicep curls in the gym

Barbell biceps curls are effective at building your muscles and activating your biceps brachii, brachialis, and brachioradialis.

How to Perform Biceps Curls

  1. Place the barbell on the rack and load it with the desired weight.
  2. Pick the loaded barbell and leave it hanging in front of you while you grab it with a supinated grip.
  3. Start the exercise by flexing your below joint and keep the barbell moving until it reaches close to your shoulders.
  4. When the barbell reaches the top position, reverse the motion and begin the eccentric phase by lowering the barbell back to the hanging position.
  5. Repeat for the desired amount of repetitions.

9. Face Pulls

Face pulls are performed with cables and are good at targeting your rear deltoids. They are also used in modern athletic warm-ups and before lifting sessions to activate necessary muscles and reduce the risk of injury.

How to Perform Face Pulls

  1. Assume a standing position with the feet hip-width apart. Your knees are slightly bent.
  2. Grip the cable. Your palms are facing away, and your hands should be shoulder-width apart.
  3. Start by pulling the cable towards your face. Keep your elbows close to your sides.
  4. Hold the top position for one second. Reverse the motion to return to the start.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

10. Dumbbell Preacher Curls

A buff male doing dumbbell preacher curls in the gym

Dumbbell preacher curls are one of the best to grow your biceps. You will need a preacher curl bench and a pad to complete this exercise.

Preachers curls are among the best ways to isolate your biceps and develop a mind-muscle connection, enhancing hypertrophy and strength.

How to Perform Dumbbell Preacher Curls

  1. Assume sitting on a preacher curl bench and your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Grip the dumbbell in both hands with your palms facing your thighs.
  3. Rest your arms on the pad in front of you and curl the dumbbells up to your shoulders.
  4. Lower the dumbbells to the beginning position. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

11. Cable Curls

You will need a cable machine to perform this exercise. Cable curls effectively target your biceps brachii, brachioradialis, and brachialis.

How to Perform Cable Curls

  1. Assume a standing position with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart, and you should grip the cable with your palms facing away from you.
  3. Curl the cable towards your shoulders while keeping your elbows close to your sides.
  4. Reverse the entire motion to return to the starting position and repeat for the desired amount of reps.

What Is a Pull Day?

A person doing dumbbell pulls in the gym

Pull day is your go-to for upper body strengthening, especially targeting back muscles. Start each exercise with your feet shoulder-width apart, arms straight, knees slightly bent, and shoulder blades engaged.

Divide your routine into vertical and horizontal pulls.

As per a study from MDPI, regular pull exercises are key to avoiding injuries and ensuring balanced upper body development [1]. For targeting upper back muscles, use an underhand grip on a cable machine, leaning forward for the right form.

Essential exercises? Focus on barbell deadlifts, rows, and bodyweight pull-ups. These core activities are crucial for muscle strength and growth, as demonstrated in fitness research.

How Is It Different From Push Day?

The pull day is different from the push day since it requires only doing pull exercises.

This is commonly known as push, pull, and leg splits, and it is one of the most popular workout programs that are effective for building a more holistic and well-rounded body.

As per a study by the National Institute of Health (NIH), the trick is to include equal pushing and pulling to develop your agonist and antagonist muscles [2].

A weakness in one of them can easily create posture problems and increase the chance of potential injury.

Pull Day Workout Routine

A person doing deadlifts in the gym

Now that you know all the best pull exercises to build strength and induce hypertrophy, it's time to program them effectively into a workout routine.

Here is a sample pull workout you may try today:

  1. Deadlifts - Begin with heavy deadlifts to work out your back muscles. Perform one or two warm-up sets first, then do 3 working sets of 6-8 reps. Lift the proper form to avoid injury.
  2. Pull-ups - They mainly target your lats. Start with 3 sets of pull-ups. Try working until failure in each set with a short break in between. If you can't perform normal pull-ups, start with negative pull-ups instead.
  3. Barbell rows - Start rowing for 3 sets and aim to complete at least 8-12 reps in each set.
  4. Pullovers - Start with 3 sets of pullovers, each with 10 to 15 repetitions. Do not use too much weight.
  5. Cable face pulls - Start with 3 sets of face pulls and aim to get at least 15 reps.
  6. Dumbbell Curls - They should be performed for 3 sets, and each set should be composed of 12 repetitions.

This is what a good pull-day workout looks like. Always start with compound and multi-joint movements and finish with isolation or single-joint movements.

“Lifting the leg up to take your next step, grabbing your backpack and pulling it close to put on your back, and grabbing your seatbelt to put it on are all pulling activities."

- Bethany Stillwaggon, ACSM CPT & Master Coach for Row House

Useful Tips for Your Pull Day Workout

A person picking up a dumbbell in the gym

Here are some useful tips to remember for your pull-day workouts:

1. Keep the Intensity High

According to NIH, always keep the intensity high to maximize muscle hypertrophy's benefits. This means resting no more than 90 seconds between the sets. This time interval has been tested over time and has shown to be the most effective for hypertrophy [3].

2. Make Sure to Progressively Overload

Progressive overload is the concept in weight training that requires a constant increase of weight or reps with every consecutive pull workout. This, according to NIH, will push your body to its limits and make the most progress [4].

Do more reps or increase external resistance whenever you feel comfortable in your sessions.

3. Use Proper Form

Compromising your form can have all sorts of detrimental effects. Some include a bigger risk of getting injured and developing muscle imbalances that can alternate your posture. Always make sure to lift the weight with proper form.

4. Vary Your Grip

Experiment with different grips (overhand, underhand, mixed) in exercises like pull-ups and rows. This variation targets different muscle groups and prevents overuse injuries

An underhand grip can emphasize bicep involvement, while an overhand grip focuses more on the back. Changing grips also keeps your routine fresh and challenging.

5. Prioritize Recovery

Recovery is crucial for muscle growth and injury prevention. Incorporate rest days into your routine to allow muscles to repair and grow.

Utilize techniques like stretching, foam rolling, and adequate sleep to aid recovery. Also, ensure you're consuming enough protein and staying hydrated to support muscle repair.

Balance Pull Day With These Top Push Exercises

Here are some push exercises to balance the pull day:

  • Push-ups
  • Barbell overhead press
  • Inverted push-ups
  • Dumbbell overhead press
  • Dips
  • Incline bench press
  • Landmine press

You can implement all of them in the weekly schedule to balance out your push and pull workouts.

This will ensure you build your body holistically and reduce the chance of potential injury.

FAQs

What Is the Best Pull Day Workout?

The best pull-day workout comprises deadlifts, pull-ups/chin-ups, and rows. These compound-pulling exercises are essential for building a stronger and more functional back.

How Do You Structure a Pull Workout?

You structure a pull workout by implementing both vertical and horizontal push exercises. Start your workouts with compound movements and end with isolation exercises.

How Do I Start a Pull Day?

You start a pull day by doing deadlifts, rows, and pull-ups/chin-ups. These are essential exercises for developing your back.


References:

  1. https://www.mdpi.com/2411-5142/2/3/33
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3625793/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7927075
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4215195/
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