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Pull Day Exercises | Strength, Size, Sculpt

A powerlifter performing pull day exercises.

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If you’re looking to add a bit of extra oomph! to your back workouts, these pulling exercises can help. The exercises selected are a mix of big compound lifts and isolation movements. A diverse range of exercises enables you to create workouts that are better at building both a strong and sculpted back.


For example, pull day exercises #1: Deadlift, is one of the best ‘maximal stimulation’ exercises for increasing strength and size in the lower back (Strength Training Anatomy). But also, deadlifting has been shown to promote whole-body growth as it encourages greater testosterone production.


Pull day is not all about strength and size, though. We also want to improve the shape and sharpness of our back muscles. That’s why isolation exercises such as face pulls and reverse flyes have been added to the list. These movements are like taking a hammer and chisel to your back; each set carves out deeper, more defined striations and muscle separation.


How to use these pull day exercises

Before we get stuck into the tutorials, it’s worth considering a few methods of approaching the exercises. You can use the article in a couple of different. Below, I’ve briefly outlined two options.


First, the nine exercises can be used as a reference guide. When it’s time to reinvigorate your pull day workout, you can consult the list for exercise replacement ideas.


Second, if you’re struggling to come up with a workout, you could quickly create one from these exercises. As they’ve been organised in ascending order (from the lower back – erector spinae – to the top – trapezius), performing between one to three sets on each exercise would ensure that every muscle in your back is activated. (In the conclusion, I have created a pull day workout for you to try.)


Our final way is more for those still developing their exercise vocabulary. Beginner trainers who are not sure which muscle or muscle group an exercise works, could use this article to fact-check. Let’s say that you want to increase strength in the lats. However, you’re not entirely sure which exercise is best to achieve this objective. The ‘target muscles’ list will enable you to select the most appropriate exercise for the job.


Pull day exercises quick finder

Pull day exercises #1: Sumo deadlift >

Pull day exercises #2: Bent over row >

Pull day exercises #3: Single arm dumbbell row >

Pull day exercises #4: Lat pulldown >

Pull day exercises #5: Pull-ups >

Pull day exercises #6: Seated cable row >

Pull day exercises #7: Reverse cable flyes >

Pull day exercises #8: Face pull >

Pull day exercises #9: Shrugs >


 

Pull day exercises #1: Sumo deadlift

Purpose of exercise: Develop explosive pulling power in the posterior chain muscles.


The sumo deadlift is a power-strength exercise par excellence. In addition to engaging the major muscle groups of the legs and back, it also activates a score of synergists and stabilisers. Sumo deadlifts are typically performed with an Olympic barbell. However, as the video shows, you can use kettlebells (also dumbbells and resistance bands).


Sumo to high pull key teaching points

  • Adopt a one and a half shoulder-width stance. Your shins are almost touching the bar.

  • Taking a narrow grip, ensure that your hands are equally spaced.

  • Apply a bit of force against the bar – do not snatch it off the floor: the movement should be smooth and seamless.

  • Execute the exercise by lifting the barbell off the floor. If you want to make the exercise more challenging, perform a high pull. To do so:

  • Use the momentum of the deadlift to assist the second phase – the high pull.

  • Though two exercises, the sumo deadlift to high pull should be performed as one.

  • Watch the video demonstration >


 

Pull day exercises #2: Barbell row

Purpose of exercise: Build strength in the upper back – lats, traps, rhomboids, infraspinatus.


Few other exercises build strength in the upper back and arms like the bent-over barbell row. The exercise demonstrated in the video is the reverse grip variation. By reversing the grip training emphasis is shifted a little more to the biceps. But also, many find that by reversing the grip you can achieve a deeper contraction.


Barbell bent row key teaching points

  • Take a reverse grip on an Olympic barbell. Hands are spaced about shoulder width. Standing with the bar resting against the upper quads, hinge forward at the hips until the bar is level with the upper knee.

  • Before initiating the exercise, ensure that posture is correct: back straight, knees bent, looking forward.

  • Now row the bar to the abdominals.

  • Pause momentarily at peak contraction as you ‘squeeze’ your lats together.

  • Return to the start position and repeat.

  • Watch the video demonstration >


 

Pull day exercises #3: Dumbbell row

Purpose of exercise: To target the lats, rhomboids, infraspinatus, traps, and the biceps.


The dumbbell bent row builds strength and size in the back. But it's also a terrific exercise for sculpting lean, defined muscle in the lats, rhomboids, infraspinatus, traps, and biceps. And because the exercise is performed with a dumbbell, it can be used to identify and iron out strength imbalances.


Dumbbell row key techniques

  • Using a stable object for support, grasp a dumbbell with one hand.

  • Before executing the exercise, organise your posture first.

  • Open your feet so that they form a solid base.

  • Ensure that your back is straight.

  • When you’ve formed a firm foundation from which to lift, proceed to row the dumbbell to your chest.

  • Pause momentarily at peak contraction before lowering the dumbbell to the start position.

  • Watch the video demonstration >


 

Pull day exercises #4: Lat pulldown

Purpose of exercise: To develop the strength and shape of the latissimus dorsi.


Of all the pull day exercises covered in this article, lat pulldowns are arguably the best for building bigger, stronger and leaner lat muscles. Legend has it that Bruce Lee used pulldowns to forge his wing-like lats. He apparently loved the exercise so much that he contracted a metal smith to build him a pulldown machine that he kept in his basement – where he’d perform pulldowns at two in the morning.


Lat pulldown key techniques

  • Ensure to set up the lat pulldown machine before starting the exercise.

  • Position your hands evenly on the bar.

  • The hands are spaced one and a half shoulder-widths.

  • Sit down on the bench and wedge your legs under the supports.

  • Keeping your eyes fixed on the bar, pull it down to your chin.

  • As you pull the bar down focus on keeping your elbows in line - don't allow them close together.

  • Watch the video demonstration >


 

Pull day exercises #5: Pull up

Purpose of exercise: To increase upper body strength, especially in the lats and arms.


The pull up is a bodyweight variation of lat pulldowns. However, unlike lat pulldowns, you are, of course, restricted to the resistance provided by your body weight. That can be problematic for two reasons.


First, new exercisers rarely possess the requisite strength to perform pull-ups. There’s no denying it, this is a tough exercise that few people can perform. But you can use pull day exercises #4: Lat pulldowns to build up to bodyweight pull-ups.


Second, and at the other end of the fitness spectrum, advanced trainers with bags of upper body strength may find that their body weight does not provide enough resistance. A simple way to overcome this limitation is by gripping a medicine ball between your legs or using a weights belt.


Pull up key techniques

  • Take a firm grip on the bar. (Adopting a ‘wide-grip’ shift emphasis to the lats which can help increase the width of the back.)

  • Hanging from a bar, ensure that your arms and legs are straight and that your body is still. This is called the dead hang.

  • Before initiating the exercise, fix your eyes on the bar.

  • Under control, pull evenly with both arms until your chin clears the bar.

  • Pause momentarily before lowering back down.

  • Watch the video demonstration >


 

Pull day exercises #6: Seated cable row

Purpose of exercise: To build strength and shape in the upper back muscles.


Seated cable rowing is an effective exercise for developing strength, size, and shape in the mid and upper back muscles. The cable row primarily targets the lats and traps. However, it also engages many smaller muscles – such as the infraspinatus, rhomboids, and teres minor and major. But don’t forget that cable rows also heavily involve the biceps. It’s for this reason that you should avoid training back and biceps on the same day.


Cable row key techniques

  • Before getting into position, ensure the correct weight for your strength has been selected.

  • Take a seat on the bench ensuring that the soles of your feet are fixed firmly against the supports.

  • Grasp the handle firmly before adjusting your position. Your legs should be almost straight and your back perfectly flat. There is tension on the cable.

  • Keeping your eyes fixed forward, smoothly row the handle to your stomach.

  • Pause momentarily at peak contraction. To increase muscular engagement, squeeze your shoulder blades together.

  • Release under control.


 

Pull day exercises #7: Reverse cable flyes

Purpose of exercise: To sculpt sharp muscular separation in the lats, traps, rhomboids, infraspinatus, and teres minor and major.


Whereas cable rows build strength and size, reverse flyes are an excellent isolation exercise for etching sharp muscle separation. Cable flyes target the same group of muscles as rowing. However, with the arms fixed out straight, you are only able to lift a fraction of the weight. For this reason, flyes are best placed at the end of heavy workouts, used to sculpt, shape, and cool down.


Cable flyes key techniques

  • Set the cable pulleys level with your chest.

  • As you look at the machine, grasp the opposite pulleys with the opposite hand – right to left, left to right.

  • Step back away from the machine so that you can explore the full range of motion.

  • In the start position, the arms are suspended parallel to the floor, with a slight bend at the elbow joints, and one hand is crossed over the other.

  • To execute the movement, pull the handles back as though throwing open your arms to embrace a friend.

  • The arms should sweep out smoothly and the angle at the elbow should not change throughout the exercise.

  • When the arms are at 180 degrees, squeeze at peak contraction before closing the hands back together.


 

Pull day exercises #8: Face pull

Purpose of exercise: To develop the definition of the upper back muscles – more specifically the trapezius.


Facepulls are an isolation exercise used to sculpt muscular definition in the upper back. Think of them as a hammer and chisel that can etch out razor-sharp muscular separation – specifically in the traps, infraspinatus, rhomboids, and teres major and minor. After a heavy series of deadlifts or bent rows, finish off with a light set of face pulls.


Face pull key techniques

  • Holding the rope at your front level with your face, adopt a neutral stance.

  • Under control pull the rope to your face.

  • Ensure to splay your hands pausing momentarily when the rope is level with your ears.

  • The elbows point out as you focus on contracting the trapezius.

  • Remember to squeeze the shoulder blades together at peak contraction.

  • Watch the video demonstration >


 

Pull day exercises #9: Shrug

Purpose of exercise: To increase the strength and thickness of the trapezius.


According to Delavier, shrugging ‘isolates the upper and middle part of the trapezius muscles, levator scapulae, and’ if you squeeze your shoulder blades together, ‘the rhomboids,’ (Strength Training Anatomy). Though the movement is minimal, shrugs are a great trap builder and neck thickener.


Shrug key techniques

  • Shrugs can be performed with dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and resistance bands.

  • Assuming that you’re using the standard resistance choice, stand with an Olympic barbell at your front. The bar should be resting against your upper thigh and your hands should be shoulder-width.

  • Form a solid base by planting your feet shoulder-width. Your knees are slightly bent.

  • To execute a shrug, try to touch your ears with your shoulders.

  • Just up and down. Avoid rotating the shoulders as it has been suggested that this action can cause pain in the rotator cuff.

  • Squeeze at peak contraction before lowering.


 

Putting the pull day exercise into action

Armed with these pull day exercises, you’ll be able to reinvigorate your routine while engaging your back muscles in different ways. As we discussed above, you can use the exercise in a variety of ways.


For example, you can use them to replace old exercises that are no longer delivering the desired results. Or, if your current pull day workout is getting a tad too easy, you could expand it by integrating a couple of the exercises. (Try these back routines >)


Alternatively, if you’re struggling with training ideas, you could create a pull day workout from the nine exercises listed in the article. To save you the trouble of creating a workout, I’ve put one together for you.


Pull day exercises workout session plan.

 

Never be without a workout!

Get your hands on over 80 training plans with the Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits & Workouts Volume 3.

This pull day exercises blog concludes with the Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits and Workouts Volume 3.

 

About Adam Priest –

A former Royal Marines Commando, Adam Priest is a content writer, college lecturer, and health and wellbeing practitioner. He is also a fitness author and contributor to other websites. Connect with Adam via LinkedIn or info@hungry4fitness.co.uk.

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