February 19th, 2019
We’re constantly pushing ourselves: to try again, move faster, go farther. But every action has an equal, opposite counterpart. If you want to build balanced, functional strength, you can’t just push – you also have to pull.
The pull is all about forward motion. It propels Olympic swimmers to the finish line and advances rock climbers to the top of mountains. Think of gymnast Gabrielle Douglas on the uneven bars, soaring through the air with perfect form as she pulls herself endlessly up, over and around. Without the power of the pull, those breathtaking movements would never make it off the ground.
Strong pulling muscles aren’t only important for athletes and fitness pros. They’re just as indispensable outside the exercise room as they are within it. Every time you open your front door, paddle a kayak, or grab a cold beer from the fridge, you’re performing a version of the pull.
Many people associate the movement primarily with the biceps, but it actually engages a wide range of muscles from the shoulders right down to the hamstrings. Practicing a wide variety of pull exercises will enable you to build balanced strength through the better part of your body – and the benefits of that training will extend to improve all aspects of your fitness performance. With every pull, you bring yourself that much closer to a strong and balanced body.
As you exert your strength to execute a pull, most of the power comes from your back. Your rhomboids, posterior deltoids, and latissimus dorsi contract together, combining their efforts as your biceps shorten to give you the necessary force. Each time you release and prepare to pull again, those muscles lengthen in unison. Your lower back engages, providing the resistance to keep you from falling forward.
When the pulling motion is restricted to one side of your body – as you open a door, or shift the gears in your car – your abdominal muscles also get involved. Isometrically contracted, the rectus abdominus and obliques keep your trunk stable and control its rotation so that you can pull harder.
From a standing position, the movement isn’t limited to your upper body. Gluteal muscles, quadriceps, hamstrings: standing pulls activate the same major muscles as lower-body exercises like the lunge or the squat. Think of the efforts involved in a game of tug-of-war. With your arms extended and your knees bent, you can feel the force of gravity as you stand strong and pull with everything you’ve got.
All these muscles work in tandem to keep your movements as smooth and powerful as possible. Adopting a staggered stance with your feet wide apart allows the muscles of your lower body to fully engage, providing a base of strength and stability so the muscles of your arms and back can do their job.
Ultimately, the pull is an exercise in resilience. When you don’t succeed, you pull yourself off the floor and learn from your mistakes. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t get anywhere at all.
Watch the videos below for a breakdown of three modifications for the YWT and Crawl – terrific body weight exercises to improve your pulling muscles.