Login | March 18, 2019

Pull up vs. bench press

Pete’s World

Published: March 12, 2018

Funny how the bench press is so often thought of as the barometer of upper body brawn. Heck, it’s even viewed as the definition of raw physical strength. Definitely the penultimate “glam” exercise of gyms, studios, and fitness facilities, the bench press just seems to exude vigor, force and toughness.

Truth be told, there’s really no single metric that can accurately determine this particular issue, so I’d have to say the bench press has gotten a little too much good pub when the topic turns to benchmarks of upper body strength.

Nonetheless, just for the sake of discussion I’m going to throw my hat in the ring with an upper body strength assessment exercise, primarily because it’s far more accurate than the bench press. That’s right, and this is why I’m nominating the pull-up. Why, because pull-ups absolutely torch back musculature, in addition to darned near every other muscle in the upper body. 

First, let me clear up one common misconception: chin-ups and a pull-ups are NOT synonymous with one another. The pull-up involves a pronated (overhand) grip where your palms point outwards such that they’re facing away from you.

More important, the pull-up targets multiple muscle groups: middle and lower trapezius, rhomboids, pectoralis major and minor, deltoids, infraspinatus, latissimus dorsi, teres major, subscapularis, biceps brachii, brachialis, brachioradialis, external oblique, and erector spinae.

Chin-ups, on the other hand, involve a supinated (underhand), palms facing you orientation, and are much easier than pull-ups because they primarily involve just the biceps and latissimus dorsi muscles.

Now if you haven’t done a pull-up in a while, you might think of it as a pretty basic exercise, but go ahead and try to crank off five or ten reps…and you’ll soon find out it’s definitely NOT an easy exercise to execute.  Hanging arms extended from a bar and pulling your entire body weight up several vertical feet is a challenge for some, and damn near impossible for many. 

So while it may not be as fashionable as the bench press, the pull-up has far more health and fitness benefits. For instance, not only do pull-ups increase arm, back, and abdominal strength, but they also improve hand and finger strength as well, not to mention they’re beneficial to general posture and flexibility. 

Pull-ups are one of the most convenient exercises you can choose, and they can be done in a host of places outside of the gym environment. Just install a pull-up bar in a doorway and you’re able to do them at home. Monkey bars, sturdy tree branches and rafters will also work. Actually anything that’s firmly fixed and parallel to the ground can be used as a pull-up bar. 

Moreover, you can do pull-up variations quickly and easily by changing your hand position from the typical shoulder-width grip to wide-grip, close-grip, and alternating grip. In essence, you can do multiple exercises without having to adjust anything but your hands.

If you’re a rock climber, martial arts specialist, swimmer and golfer, then you’re among those who have the most to gain from pull-ups. They train your grip and your ability to pull downwards. And remember, the pull-up motion is a shoulder extension action, which is a movement that counters the pushing motion of exercises like the bench press and shoulder press. Thus, pull-ups create symmetry and balance throughout the joints and musculature of the shoulder.

Okay, so you’ve never really liked doing pull-ups…maybe because you were never really good at them? Well, I’ve got a pretty cool way to get started. Instead of approaching the exercise by thinking you have to blow yourself out with one painful set, how about trying this twice-a-week routine: Start out by doing 10 sets of 1 controlled pull-up with a 45-second break between sets.

Once you can do two controlled pull-ups, progress through these twice-a-week routines with the same 45-second break between sets: Week 1 - 6 sets of 2 reps; Week 2 - 5 sets of 3 reps; Week 3 - 4 sets of 4 reps; Week 4 - 3 sets of 6 reps.

Once you’re able to do more than 12 consecutive reps, well, in my book I’d say you’ve just joined a small fraternity of individuals who really can demonstrate true upper body strength.