The Science of Pull Workouts

back exercise woman

The pull workout typically makes up the second and fifth days of the push, pull, legs split. Which is typically structured as: 

  • Day One: Push 1
  • Day Two: Push 2
  • Day Three: Legs 1
  • Day Four: Rest 
  • Day Five: Push 2
  • Day Six: Pull 2 
  • Day Seven: Legs 2

Day eight is typically a rest day, and the cycle begins again on day nine. 

Unlike the push day, the pull day focuses on the pulling muscle groups of the upper body. This includes the muscles that make up the back, such as the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboid major and minor, rear deltoids and erector spinae. But it also includes training biceps. Think of the muscles you use to pull open your fridge door, those are the ones that get used on pull days. 

Benefits of Pull Training

Push/ Pull splits are a great way to balance the time spent on the muscle groups and can help create a more balanced physique. It also means you can train your back at a higher volume than you might with a bro split or body part split. The push pull legs split is definitely a bodybuilding style split and is not best suited for those with powerlifting goals. 

Training in this way is optimal for muscular hypertrophy as Scoenfield has suggested that it is most optimal to hit a muscle with 10+ sets per week, something that is easily done with two pull workouts a week. 

Types of Pull Exercises

Pull exercises can be split into 3 movement categories: 

  • Vertical pulls 
  • Horizontal pulls 
  • Bicep isolation 


Vertical pulls include pull up and pull-down variations. So, should you be doing pull ups or pull downs? 

A 2013 study found no difference between chin-ups and pull downs in lat activation, however, it did conclude that biceps were more active in the chin-up (pull up movement) and that the pull down isolates the latissimus dorsi (lats). This would suggest that a pull up variation is best to include early on in a pull workout as it uses all of the pulling muscles in unison. 

However, the pull down does still have its place. 

If you want to get the appearance of a wider back, or a smaller waist, lats are great to focus on, which can be done by also adding in a pulldown. Research has shown that grip and hand position can play a role in how active of a role the lats play in the pull down. For example, it has been found by multiple studies that there is no difference between doing a pulldown in front or behind the neck, but a 2002 paper to the front of the neck put the shoulders in a less vulnerable position and allowed participants to go heavier. 

This suggests that it is better to pull in front of the neck to avoid a shoulder industry. Moreover, the lats are a type 2 dominant fibre muscle which means that they may respond better to heavier loads, and as the research suggests this is better done by the front of the neck pull down. 

It has also been found that hand position plays an important role in targeting the lats. A 2014 study suggested that a medium grip of 1.5x shoulder width saw higher activation in the lats in the eccentric phase of the movement. 

Further research also suggested that lat activation was higher with a pronated (palms facing away from you) grip than a supinated (palms facing toward you). This suggests that to target the lats it might be best to do a pull down, with a medium pronated grip. However, it is also worth bearing in mind that studies take averages and it might take some playing around to find what works for you. 

If lats are something you particularly struggle with it is also worth activating them with the single arm pull in and/ or cable pullovers. Most of the literature on activation has been done on the glutes, however Snyder and Leech did find that specific coaching queues such as palpation and thinking about engaging the lats (mind to muscle connection) increased their EMG activity during the lat pull down. 


Horizontal pulls mainly include the wide variety of rowing movements, such as the bent over row, with barbell or dumbbell, a chest supported row and the seated cable row, to name just a few. But they also include face pulls and too an extent the banded pull apart. 

Research has also indicated that rows yield the same, if not greater, lat activity than a pull down, so they can be another way to increase the size of the lats, especially without access to a cable machine. 

It has been suggested that lat activity is greater on exercise like the inverted row and the cable seated row as opposed to the bent over row as they don’t involve stabilizing the lower back. However, this does not mean that the bent over row is not a great exercise to include. Especially as it does involve stabilizing the lower back, which calls on the spinal erectors. 

As for grip on rows it is best to use the one that is most comfortable for you, and whatever works best. Or to change grips periodically. 

The face pull is a great way to recruit from the rear delts and traps. It can be performed with either a cable and the rope or D-handle attachments or a band, dependent on your strength as well as what equipment is available to you. 

The banded pull apart is also a great exercise to add in as well. 


Isolation work on the biceps is not an essential part of a pull workout and is definitely more goal based than a strict rule. If you want to grow your biceps, it’s a great idea to add one or two exercises to the end of your workout as this will help with growth. But they are also targeted in most of the exercises throughout the pull day. 

Some suggestions of bicep exercises include, hammer curls, incline bench curls, ez bar curls and standard barbell bicep curls. If you chose a barbell curl, whether that’s ez or standard it is better to go for a medium to wide grip, as a narrow grip can cause shoulder based issues. 

James Smith has also suggested it’s a good idea to do bicep curls with an overhand grip as this targets both heads of the biceps as well as the forearms. 

Using this information, you can successfully put together a great pull workout to grow your back and biceps! 

Charlotte Wilson
My name is Charlotte Wilson and I am a writer specialising in fitness and nutrition. I am extremely passionate about both of these things due to personal experiences. I have had a significant weight loss journey which also helped me to build a healthy relationship with food and exercise, which is something I now aim to share through my writing. I want my articles to help others build a healthy relationship with food and exercise and step away from yoyo dieting, diet fads and unsustainable exercise. I am a big believer in eating food to fuel you that you enjoy, but making sure it is still nutritious, and doing exercise that makes you feel good physically and mentally.