Pull Exercises for the Whole Body

Pull exercises are strength training movements that involve a concentric contraction—a shortening of the muscle while moving two connection points closer together. Examples of pull exercises include the biceps curl, hamstrings curl, and lat pull down.

Pull exercises are the opposite of push exerciseseccentric contractions that involve lengthening the muscle and controlling resistance as you move connection points further apart. Examples of push exercises are the chest press or shoulder press.

While there are some exercises that are often described as push exercises or pull exercises, the truth is that most exercises include both a concentric and eccentric phase. During a biceps curl, for example, the lifting phase is concentric (shortening) and the lowering phase is eccentric (lengthening).

You should include both push and pull exercises in a comprehensive strength training plan. Concentric and eccentric training both provide strength training benefits and help to increase muscle mass. Concentric training (pull exercises) also helps to train the body to move through certain daily activities with greater ease, such as picking up a heavy object or pulling open a heavy door.  


Verywell / Ben Goldstein 

A deadlift targets the whole body, but particularly works the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and back. You can use a barbell if one is available. If not, use dumbbells or a kettlebell.

Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, holding the weight in front of your thighs. Keeping knees slightly bent, tip forward from the hips keeping the back straight. Shoulders should be engaged as you bring them back and slightly down, also engaging your lats. Keep the core solid. Lower the torso towards the floor, keeping the weight close to legs until it touches the floor. Squeeze through the butt and hamstrings to come to the starting position and repeat.

Use less weight when first starting out. If the movement is new to you, try it a few times with no weight at all and watch your form in a mirror. You can also try the movement with a PVC pipe or a broom to get a sense of how it will feel with a bar. Make sure that your back doesn't slump forward when you lower the weight to the floor and be sure to keep the shoulders away from your ears.

Dumbbell Rows

Woman doing a dumbbell row

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A dumbbell row (also called a bent-over row) works the muscles in the middle back, including the trapezius, rhomboids, and latissimus dorsi. It also targets the back of the shoulders (posterior deltoid). It's easiest to do rows with a dumbbell, but you can also use a kettlebell.

To begin, place a dumbbell in one hand and stand with feet hip-width apart. Hinge forward at the hips until your torso is just about parallel to the floor. Let the weight hang beneath the chest, the palm will face in towards the midline of the body. Keep the core engaged and pull the weight up towards the ribcage. As you pull up, your elbow will lift towards the ceiling. Keep the arm close to the ribs and lower to the starting position.

Rows can be done as a single-arm exercise or for a greater challenge, you can work both sides at the same time.

Dumbbell Pullover

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A dumbbell pullover targets the chest and the lats (the large wing-shaped muscles in the back). Once you get comfortable with the movement, you can also add stability challenges to strengthen the core or the glutes.

Lie faceup on a bench holding one dumbbell with both hands. Keep your core engaged so there is no arch in the back. To begin, reach the weights back and over your head to a fully extended position where the weights are behind (but not below) your head. Keep your elbows extended but soft. Once you reach full extension, exhale slowly and return your arms to the starting position over your chest.

Once you get comfortable with one weight, try this exercise with two weights (one in each hand). You can also add a stability and core challenge by lifting your bent knees over the hips so your feet are elevated (with a 90-degree bend at the hips and the knees). With these modifications, your core will need to work harder to keep your lower body balanced and stable while the upper body moves.

Bicep Curls

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

A traditional curl exercise targets the biceps muscle on the front of the upper arm. There are several variations of the biceps curl that can challenge you by involving other areas of the body. You can do curls with dumbbells, but barbells, cables, and kettlebells can also be used.

To do a biceps curl, stand with one weight in each hand. Keep the core engaged and back strong as you bend at the elbow joint and lift the weights towards the shoulders. Make sure that your elbows don't drift forward or out to the sides. Slowly lower back down to the starting position.

If you find that you need to swing the weights to get enough momentum to lift them, reduce the amount of weight, and try again. If this exercise seems easy, try incorporating other movements to engage your whole body. For example, add a biceps curl to a lunge exercise. Or add a stability challenge and do a biceps curl while balancing on one leg. Too easy? Balance on one leg while standing on a BOSU while you do your curls.

Leg Curl

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A hamstring curl targets the back of the thigh (hamstring) but also works the calf muscles, glutes, quads, and shins. Most people do a hamstring curl on a leg curl machine at the gym, but there are also ways to do this exercise at home.

To do a curl on the machine, lay face down on the bench. Make sure the roller pad is resting on top of your lower leg between your calf and heels. Contract the back of the thigh and lift the feet towards your glutes bending at the knee. Keep your hips in contact with the bench. Slowly return the feet to the starting position and repeat.

If you don't have access to a machine, try using a dumbbell. To do so, lay face down on a mat. Place a dumbbell between your feet. Lift the weight off the floor by bending at the knees. You'll need to keep the ankles together to hold on to the weight as you bring the weight closer to your glutes. Return to the starting position and repeat.

Finally, hamstring curls can also be performed in a standing position with a fitness band. Stand tall with feet and knees close together and using a chair for support if you choose. Stand on the middle of the band with your right foot so it is secure. Loop the other end around your left ankle. You may need to adjust the placement of the band under your right foot so there is not too much slack in the band.

Now, keep the knees together and abs tight while you lift the left foot (bending at the knee) and bringing it closer to the glutes. Control the movement as lift, then return to the starting position and repeat before switching sides to work the other leg.

Pull Up

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

A traditional pull-up exercise targets the muscles in the upper body, particularly the latissimus dorsi. This advanced exercise can be done at home with a properly hung pull-up bar. But there are ways to do pull up variations if you don't have a bar or aren't ready to do a full pull up.

To begin, grab the bar with an overhand grip. The bar should hang high enough that you need to jump up slightly or step up on a bench to grab it. With your body hanging still beneath you, lift your body up, bending at the elbows, so that your chin is level with the bar. Hold for one to two seconds then slowly lower your body to the starting position and repeat.

If you have a pull-up bar at home but can't do a full pull up, you can use assistance to complete the exercise. You can have a partner assist you as you pull your chin to the bar or place one foot on a bench to assist your movement. You can also do a lat pulldown exercise to strengthen the same muscles.

Note that a common variation of the pull up is to do the lengthening phase only. For this modification, you start with the chin at bar level (using a chair or partner to get your body into place) and then lower your body. But this variation targets the eccentric (pushing) phase, not the concentric (pulling) phase of the exercise.

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2 Sources
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  1. Negrete RJ, Hanney WJ, Pabian P, Kolber MJ. Upper body push and pull strength ratio in recreationally active adults. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2013;8(2):138-44.

  2. Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn DI, Vigotsky AD, Franchi MV, Krieger JW. Hypertrophic effects of concentric vs. eccentric muscle actions: A systematic review and meta-analysisJ Strength Cond Res. 2017;31(9):2599-2608. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000001983