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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
December 19, 2021
One popular method to categorize movements is by labeling them as either pushing movements or pulling movements. I haven’t done the exact math, but that would mean that approximately 50% of exercises would be considered pulling exercises.
That’s a lot of pull exercises to choose from when you workout. In reality, you only need a few of these to get the job done as long as you choose the right ones.
We will break down the 12 best pulling exercises (for upper and lower body) that you need to have in your program to increase mass, strength, and improve performance. These are all tried and true classics that have been tested over time by the strongest lifters and best athletes in the world.
These movements will be the foundation of your lifting, and you would suffice if these were all you ever did, as all other pulling exercises can be considered an extra bonus.
Pulling exercises are just a very easy, non-scientific way to classify certain movements. In reality, all movements are “pulling” movements because this is exactly how muscles work; they pull across joints to manipulate the limbs.
Common ways to explain what a pulling movement is that they either close the joints or pull weight towards you. However, there are plenty of exceptions to these rules:
The most obvious observation is that pulling movements use the muscles on the posterior (back) side of the body…but even that isn’t always true as the biceps are on the anterior (front) side of the arm.
As mentioned, it is very “non-scientific”.
So, when we say pulling movements, we are talking about:
To ensure no confusion, let’s look at the actual muscles we will use. We’re going to break down pulling muscles for lower body and upper body exercises.
Glutes: Actually being comprised of three muscles, the “glutes” are the largest and most powerful muscles in the human body. It is also the glutes that are one of the defining musculature characteristics of humans, as it is what gives us the ability to stay erect and walk on two legs.
The three muscles which comprise the glutes are the:
Together, these muscles maneuver the hip by:
Hamstrings: The hamstrings are also composed of three different muscles:
Together, these three muscles are located on the posterior side of the upper leg. The hamstrings cross both the knee joint and the hip joint, making them responsible for two significant movements:
Latissimus Dorsi (Lats): The lats are the largest upper-body muscle we have. These are the muscles that look like “wings” hanging off the side of the body when developed.
The lats are responsible for:
Trapezius Muscle (Traps): No other muscle can give you that “swole” look faster like big pair of traps mounted behind your neck.
The traps run from about midway up the neck all the way down the back, overlapping the lats. At the top, the traps run all the way across the shoulders. There are three different parts of the traps:
The traps main job is to position and stabilize the scapula while also supporting the spine. This is vital as it helps provide a strong base for almost all upper body movements as well as maintains good posture.
Posterior Deltoid: The posterior deltoids are one of the three deltoid (shoulder) muscles and are stationed on the shoulders’ posterior side. They are responsible for:
And also work with the lats for:
Rhomboids: The Rhomboids are two muscles that lay underneath the traps. Their main job is to work with the traps to control and maintain the placement of the scapula.
Biceps: The biceps is one muscle that is comprised of three muscles, which form a short head and a long head. The biceps run down the front of the arm and cross both the elbow joint and the shoulder joint. The biceps has three primary responsibilities:
Let’s get into the exercises now.
We will go through the best exercises to work these muscles, starting with the lower body. Lower body pulling exercises are going to primarily train the glutes and hamstrings for
These movements will also involve the spinal erectors and other back muscles for stabilization
We are going to start this list with the “King of Exercises”.
Admittedly, the deadlift actually lays somewhere in the middle of a pushing and pulling exercise but I consider it a pulling exercise as it targets your posterior chain and compliments other pulling movements.
I specifically mentioned “conventional” deadlift because it’s biomechanics are quite different from a sumo deadlift or trap bar deadlift. The sumo and trap bar deadlift are both great movements, but they will hit the quadriceps more as more knee flexion and less hip flexion are involved.
Regardless, the deadlift is the best pulling exercise for strength there is.
How To Perform the Deadlift:
If you have watched any “booty workout”, you have almost definitely seen this barbell movement. Over the past years, this movement has become much more common for a good reason; they are arguably the single best exercise to develop your glutes.
Compared to other exercises, the barbell hip thrust causes more activation in the glutes AND hamstrings than all others. This higher activation of the glutes has led performance coaches to prefer it over other glute exercises, such as back squats and lunges, as it has more crossover to performance, such as increased sprinting. It is also the go-to movement for Dr. Bret Contreas, the “world’s foremost expert on glute training”, for training the glutes.
If you want a powerful, well-rounded butt, you need to be doing this lower body pulling exercise.
How to Perform a Barbell Hip Thrust:
Related: Hip Thrusts Exercise Guide
Want a nice pair of hamstrings? Then ditch the leg curls and start doing glute-ham raises (or do both, just make sure you’re doing gluts-ham raises!). Glute-ham raises are the most effective exercises to train the hamstrings for strength and hypertrophy, even activating more muscle than the leg curl mentioned above.
One of the reasons is that this exercise works the hamstrings at both ends by extending the hips AND flexing the knees.
Glute-ham raises are also going to recruit the glutes and require an isometric contraction in the spinal erectors.
How to Perform Glute-Ham Raises:
Related: Best Glute Ham Raise Alternatives
The good morning exercise is a powerful pulling exercise to train the hip extensors. The movement is similar to a Romanian deadlift except that it is placed across the back rather than held with the hands. This will place much greater torque on your lower back and hips, so use lightweight with higher repetitions and slow tempo. Really concentrate on the stretch and contraction of the muscles.
How to Perform Good Mornings:
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts (SLDR) are the only unilateral exercise on this list. Unilateral exercises simply refers to an exercise that is performed on one side and can bring several benefits:
These benefits make having at least one unilateral exercise for the lower body important. The SLDR the perfect option for this list as it is also a great pulling movement.
The Romanian deadlift involves significantly more hip flexion and less knee flexion than a conventional deadlift. This means that it will require more hip extension, which is exactly what we want to train the glutes and hamstrings.
How to Perform Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift:
Standard Romanian Deadlift (For Heavier Weight - Muscle Mass):
Related: Romanian Deadlift Exercise Guide
Nordic curls are the best lower-body bodyweight movement that no-one is doing. Nordic curls use what’s known as eccentric-overload to train the hamstrings like no other. During the eccentric phase of a muscle contraction (when the muscles get longer), the muscle is able to produce more force. Eccentric-overload training takes advantage of this phenomenon by allowing an excessive load to be put on the muscle. This excessive load is what allows eccentric-overload training to produce superior gains in strength and power.
Nordic curls are slightly different from the other movements as the muscles aren’t actually “pulling”; instead, you are contracting the hamstrings and glutes to lower yourself down slowly.
You will also need a partner to help hold your angles and perhaps even aid with assisted nordic curls.
Start slow with nordic curls, and feel free to use variations as they are very difficult to do with perfect form. Many programs will only have trainees do 3 sets of 2-3 reps to begin with.
How to Perform Nordic Curls:
Related: Nordic Ham Curl Exercise Guide
All you need to build a monster back
Rack-pulls are a powerful pulling exercise to build a huge upper back and monster traps. The biomechanics are very similar to the deadlift, so this muscle will work in the same manner by stabling the upper back and keeping it from rounding.
However, the range of motion (ROM) is much shorter, and you have a much better mechanical advantage. This allows you to load the bar with significantly more weight, which places a significant demand on your musculature. During deadlifts, the upper back gets more activation as the load goes up and trainees can use up to 50% more weight with rack pulls.
That is a huge load to put on these muscles. That means a ton more activation.
How to Perform a Rack-Pull:
Related: Rack Pull Exercise Guide
When talking about best pulling exercises for back training, the chin-up is at the top of the list. It is a favorite among top strength coaches, such as the infamous Mark Rippetoe, due to the shear amount of muscle it uses; basically all of them.
Because the elbows come out in front of the body, the chin-up will get more activation in the traps and the biceps while significantly creating a larger ROM when compared to the pull-up.
This is the reason that I choose chin-ups over pull-ups (If I HAVE to choose). Both are great movements. Check out a more in-depth breakdown of pull ups vs chin ups.
The chin-up is the best vertical pulling exercise you can do as it will literally work every muscle in your back, even better than the lat pull-down.
How to Perform a Chin-Up:
On the flip-side, the bent-over row is the best horizontal pulling exercise.
As the name implies, the bent-over row is done while being bent-over while pulling a barbell up into the stomach. This will hit the back muscles in an entirely different manner than the chin-up as it will train the back with transverse extension. It’s also going to train the posterior chain with a killer isometric hold. This makes the bent-over one of the top pulling exercises for mass.
How to Perform Bent-Over Rows:
For unilateral dumbbell pull exercises, I go with Kroc rows. Kroc Rows are the black sheep brother of dumbbell rows. These were invented by a crazy strong guy named Matt Kroc to increase his grip strength while adding strength and size to his upper back to help with his deadlift.
The Kroc rows differ from traditional dumbbell rows as these are done with heavyweight AND high volume, upwards of 20-30 reps. To do this, there is a much bigger ROM that uses an explosive pull at the bottom and allows more “body English”.
This has become a favorite movement from some of the strongest guys on the planet, such as Jim Windler. You should do them too.
How to Perform Kroc Rows:
Related: Best Dumbbell Back Exercises
While a “smaller” movement than the rest, the face-pull is arguably the best pulling exercise for posture. They are a simple yet extremely effective exercise that trains the entire upper back musculature and posterior delts. For many, these muscles are underdeveloped and weak while the front muscles (chest, anterior belts) are overused. This leads to poor posture, less than a perfect form with exercises (rounding of the back), and general issues within the shoulder complex.
This is why face-pulls are utilized to either treat these problems OR prevent them from ever occurring in the first place. Everyone should be doing this pulling exercise. And by everyone, I mean everyone. From the elderly to elite athletes. Having a strong upper back combined with improved mobility in the scapula and shoulder complex will go a very long way in your training career.
How to Perform Face-Pulls:
It’s always good to have a least one bicep curl in your regime to strengthen the biceps and the joints and tendons of the elbow. The good thing is that there are plenty to choose from, and studies don’t show much difference between bicep curls, hammer curls , and EZ bar curls. Being so, I tend to prefer prescribing either the hammer curl or EZ bar curl as these are often more comfortable and can take stress of the elbow joint.
How to Perform Bicep Curls:
You should aim to do these exercises twice a week (i.e. two pull workouts per week).
Overall volume actually plays a bigger role in terms of muscle growth. This means that when total volume is equated for, the number of times you train during the week has little effect. When taking all other factors into consideration, training these exercises twice a week seems to be the sweet spot for most people in terms of being able to perform the most amount of quality work efficiently.
If you were to do a push-pull routine, you could do the 6 lower body pulling exercises on lower body pull day and the 6 upper body pulling exercises on upper body day.
Day 1: Upper Body Pulling Workout
Day 2: Lower Body Pushing Workout
Day 3: Rest
Day 4: Lower Body Pulling Workout
Day 5: Upper Body Pushing Workout
Day 6: Rest
You could also do a push-pull routine that hits both upper and lower body exercises in the same workout. For example:
Day 1: Pull Workout (6-8 Exercises - Low Reps, Heavy Weight)
Day 2: Push Workout (6-8 Exercises - Low Reps, Heavy Weight)
Day 3: Rest
Day 4: Pull Workout (6-8 Exercises - High Reps, Lower Weight)
Day 5: Push Workout (6-8 Exercises - High Reps, Lower Weight)
Day 6: Rest
All of them.
There is a wide spectrum of reps that can be utilized to meet your specific goals. A basic spectrum looks like this:
Still, there is overlap through all of these. New studies have even suggested that reps and loads are only a concern for strength building while hypertrophy can be achieved equally across any rep scheme.
Related: Strength vs Hypertrophy
If you look at the best strength athletes and bodybuilders’ programs, you will quickly see that few of them only work within one rep range. They may tend to favor one end of the spectrum depending on their specific goals, but they will still utilize the entire range.
Isolation movements are great when used appropriately. However, too many trainees overuse them when they would get better results from utilizing more compound movements. When using compound movements in a progressive manner, the use of single-joint exercises becomes negligible. Studies have shown that adding isolation movements to a proper program utilizing compound movements offers no additional benefits in strength OR hypertrophy; that goes for both untrained and trained individuals!
This doesn’t mean isolation movements are bad, just that when we are looking for “must-do” pulling exercises, most isolation movements will need to take a backseat to compound movements.
Don’t make training complicated by thinking you need to do hundreds of movements. You don’t. Yes, there are other good movements to do. However, I promise you would be very happy with your results if you only ever did these 12.
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