Pull-Ups vs. Push-Ups: What’s The Difference?

March 3, 2022

Pull-ups and push-ups are considered staple upper body exercises. So much so there are fitness standards for each exercise to qualify for serving your country. How do they differ?

The main difference between push-ups and pull-ups is push-ups are an upper body pressing movement targeting the chest, shoulders, and triceps. Pull-ups are an upper-body pulling movement targeting the lats and biceps.

There’s no need to pick one or the other. You need both! Here’s why.

Pull-Ups vs. Push-Ups Muscles Worked

Pull-ups and push-ups are opposite exercises. One involves upper body pulling, while the other involves upper body pressing. Meaning they work opposite or antagonistic muscle groups.

The pull-up is the best back exercise for activating the lats and targets the arms [1]. Depending on the pull-up grip used, the biceps are heavily recruited to aid in pulling the body to the bar. The abdominals are also activated to maintain posture during the exercise.

On the other hand, push-ups primarily target the chest, shoulders, and triceps. But the rectus abdominis, spinal erectors, and traps also contribute toward a successful push-up [2].

How To Do A Pull-Up

While the pull-up may seem like an easy exercise to perform, many miss the little nuances that turn the pull-up into a back and arm mass builder.

  • Grip the bar with an overhand grip (aka pronated grip). Use a medium grip width for the most lat activation.
  • Create a big chest in the dead hang position so your upper chest faces the pull-up bar.
  • As you initiate the pull, drive your elbows to your ribs. This will ensure you keep a big chest and give you a better lat contraction.
  • Your chest should touch the bar at the top if you are strong enough.
  • Slowly lower yourself to the dead hang position.

This can quickly turn into an arm movement when done poorly. It’s essential to maintain a big chest as rounding the upper back will instantly make it harder for you to recruit your lats.

Benefits Of Pull-Ups

The pull-up has many benefits you can take advantage of in your training.

Build Back And Arm Muscle

This is what the pull-up is most well known for—building massive back muscle and arms to go along with it. If you’ve ever seen someone that can pump out ten or more reps, then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

It requires a lot of training to perform many pull-ups resulting in significant muscle growth of the back and arms.

Develop Upper Body Pulling Strength

Pull-Ups vs. Push-Ups Muscles Worked

Upper body pulling strength is something we lose quickly as we age, and it’s not used. Day-to-day activities don’t involve any upper body pulling. Supplementing a daily or weekly dose of pull-ups will mitigate these declines in strength.

Balance The Upper Body

Most day-to-day activities involve having our hands and arms in front of us. It’s like performing mini front raises most of the day. To balance out the use of the “mirror muscles,” we need upper body pulling exercises.

By developing the back musculature, we provide balance to the upper body to help with posture and general strength.

Develop A Strong Grip

Hanging from a bar requires strong hands. Each time you do a pull-up, you’re training your grip and forearms. This is a simple, indirect way to develop bone-crushing grip strength without having to spend time isolating the forearms.

Little Equipment Needed

All you need is a bar to hang from and some space overhead to perform pull-ups. If you’re out in nature, thick tree branches are also useable and challenge your grip even further.

For your convenience, you can now buy doorway pull-up bars to enjoy this amazing upper body pulling exercise without even leaving your home.

ProsourceFit Multi-Grip Lite Pull Up/Chin Up Bar

Enhance Shoulder Mobility

Hanging from a bar is one of the best ways to improve shoulder mobility and create space in the shoulder. It places a significant stretch on the lats and various muscles in the shoulder, relieving tension in that area. If you struggle to get your arms overhead, this is one exercise that can help.

Further, hanging is a great way to deload the spine.

Train With High Volumes

Pull-ups being a bodyweight exercise means you can perform ultra-high volumes of training. As in hundreds of reps per day if you are conditioned. One way to do this is to have a doorway pull-up bar and perform reps every time you walk past.

You’ll be blasting pull-ups in no time with a physique to show for it.

How To Do A Push-Up

The push-up is a staple upper body pressing exercise used by the military, professional athletes, and weekend warriors alike. Here’s how to do it properly:

  • Set up in the push-up position. Hands on the floor with your thumbs just outside shoulder width. You will be in a plank position.
  • Externally rotate your hands slightly out, so they are not pointing straight ahead. This will feel better on your shoulders.
  • Slowly lower yourself until your chest touches the floor. If you do this correctly, your chest should be the only part of your body that touches the floor. If your hips or stomach touches first, then you’ve lost your plank position.
  • Your elbows should be 45° from your torso, not flared to the side. Push back to the starting position.

Benefits Of Push-Ups

Just like the pull-up, the push-up has many of the same benefits.

Joint Friendly Pressing Exercise

Some lifters struggle with straight barbell pressing exercises like the bench press. Whether it’s old shoulder injuries or general wear and tear, the push-up doesn’t aggravate these problems to the same extent.

The push-up allows you to move your body freely through space as you are not fixed to a barbell.

Perform Ultra High Volume

We know that volume is a key driver of the muscle-building response [3]. Push-ups are an easy way to get more upper body pressing volume. You may start with the bench press and move to the dumbbell bench press if you are doing a chest workout.

But to finish off your upper body, push-ups are a great way to get extra volume. You can perform reps of twenty or more with no concern of dropping heavy implements on yourself.

Build The Chest, Shoulders, And Triceps

It’s no secret that the push-up is one of the best exercises to build the chest, shoulders, and triceps. You can vary your hand width to target different muscles. For example, close-grip push-ups are typically used to target the triceps, and wider grip push-ups typically target the chest.

No Equipment Needed

The most significant benefit of the push-up is that it does not need any equipment. In fact, you could drop on the floor right now as you read this and smash out a set of push-ups. Further, you can make the push-up harder just by elevating the feet.

For those with resistance bands lying around, the resistance band push-up is another way to load the push-up with minimal equipment.

How Many Push-Ups Equal One Pull-Up?

How Many Push-Ups Equal One Pull-Up

No number of push-ups equal one pull-up. You could do ten or twenty push-ups, but that does not mean you could perform a pull-up. They train opposite muscle groups, so increasing push-up strength doesn’t carry over to the pull-up.

However, if you can do twenty or thirty push-ups, safe to say you have a great base of training and general strength. In that case, you’ll likely be able to pull-ups.

Frequently Asked Questions About Pull-Ups vs. Push-Ups

While I’ve broken down the differences between pull-ups and push-ups, many more questions arise about the two.

Are Pull-Ups Harder Than Push-Ups?

Pull-ups are much harder than push-ups. Pull-ups require pulling almost all of your bodyweight to the bar as your body hangs under your arms. During push-ups, the hands don’t support all your weight as your feet are still on the ground and you’re in a horizontal position (as opposed to a handstand position).

This means your arms are not carrying your entire bodyweight. Further, most lifters are stronger when pressing than pulling, making push-ups easier.

Why Can I Do Pull-Ups But Not Push-Ups?

You’ll rarely find someone that can do pull-ups but can’t do push-ups. If you’re strong enough to do pull-ups, you’re likely strong enough to do a push-up. However, if that’s not the case, you have a much stronger back and biceps than chest, shoulders, and triceps.

Pull-Ups or Push-Ups First In A Workout?

If you’re doing pull-ups and push-ups within the same workout, I recommend doing pull-ups first. Pull-ups are the harder of the two exercises, so you need to be fresh compared to push-ups. However, you can superset them to make your workout more efficient.

This means going doing a set of pull-ups then push-ups before resting. Since they work opposite muscle groups, you don’t carry local fatigue to the next exercise. But, if you are not conditioned, your second exercise will take a hit due to being out of breath.

Summary

Pull-ups and push-ups train opposite muscle groups. There is no reason to choose one over the other. Both should be staples within your training routine. If your goal is to gain size or get stronger in these exercises, I would recommend performing a set number of reps each day if possible. The volume adds up quickly, and so will the gains.

References

1. Hewit, J. K., Jaffe, D. A., & Crowder, T. (2018). A comparison of muscle activation during the pull-up and three alternative pulling exercises. J. Phys. Fitness, Med. Treat. Sport5(4), 1-7.2

2. Ebben, W. P., Wurm, B., VanderZanden, T. L., Spadavecchia, M. L., Durocher, J. J., Bickham, C. T., & Petushek, E. J. (2011). Kinetic analysis of several variations of push-ups. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research25(10), 2891-2894.

3. Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of sports sciences35(11), 1073-1082.

About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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