Do Pull-Ups & Push-Ups Work Every Muscle in the Upper Body?

Building up strength. Handsome hard working confident man holding a horizontal bar and doing chin ups while working out
Pull-ups work most of the muscles in your back. (Image: yacobchuk/iStock/Getty Images)

If you were stranded on a deserted island with no exercise equipment, you could still develop your upper body by doing push-ups and pull-ups (if you can find a convenient branch). Between those two exercises, you can work most major muscles in the upper body and maintain or even increase your strength and muscle mass.

The Upper Body

For the sake of working out, the body can be divided into three parts: the upper body, the core and the lower body. The upper body muscles make your arms move, the core muscles make your torso move and the lower body muscles make your legs move.

The actions of the upper body muscles can be divided into two categories: pushing and pulling, or reaching and pulling. One set of muscles makes your arms go away from you, and one set brings them towards you. You can push or pull something in front of you, above you and out to the sides.

Difference Between Vertical and Horizontal

Each of these muscles contribute a different amount to the push-up and pull-up. The push-up is a horizontal pushing exercise because your arms are pushing straight out as opposed to straight up. The pull-up is a vertical pulling exercise because you are pulling almost straight down, as opposed to a horizontal pulling exercise which would be pulling something towards you.

For the pushing muscles, the more horizontal the movement the more the pectoralis major is involved. The more vertical the movement goes the more the front and middle deltoid are involved. The push-up is almost completely horizontal, so the chest muscles get a lot of work. The shoulders also work very hard, but not as much as they would in a vertical pushing exercise.

The triceps works harder in a horizontal push then a vertical press. Another major difference comes in hand position. The closer your hands are to each other, the more you use your triceps, demonstrated a 2010 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research which compared the different muscle activation in six push-up variations.

Sporty women in a gym exercising with gymnastic rings
The lats are the muscle on the outside of the back. (Image: Likoper/iStock/Getty Images)
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