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When you apply your hard-trained upper body muscles to recreation or sport events, you will rarely activate one muscle at a time. Instead, your movements will be a concert, with back, shoulder and arm muscles working together in a smooth rehearsed fashion. Perhaps you don’t have a particular sports application, but you just want to get a great upper body workout as quickly as possible. If you have a busy schedule it’s not time-prudent to do 10 different versions of an exercise to get a full upper-body workout when a more complex but intensive upper body exercise will fully activate the same muscles.

One of the best compound upper body exercises is the medium grip pull-up. It will improve your upper body muscle fitness strength and stamina without bankrupting your time budgeted for training. Pull-ups (or chins) provide an excellent way to stress most of the muscles in the middle and upper back, shoulder, chest and arms and therefore, it’s an outstanding upper body exercise. This exercise is effective and will improve your athletic output whether you are going after a rebound in a weekend pickup game of basketball, or out for a leisurely canoe trip in the wilds.

Structure and Function

Many muscles are involved in the pull-ups, which makes it a difficult but extremely productive exercise. This includes everything from the intrinsic muscles of the hand to grip the bar, to the forearm and upper arm muscles that help in the pull upwards, to the host of deltoid and upper back muscles that are strongly activated in this exercise. The major muscles involved are described below.

The latissimus dorsi muscle (from which the abbreviated term “lats” has been derived) is one of the prime muscles in the upper back that are activated by pull-ups. This muscle attaches from the vertebrae in the thorax and lumbar regions to the iliac crest of the hipbone. The distal attachment of this muscle extends all the way to the humerus bone near the shoulder. Together, the muscle fibers of the latissimus dorsi adduct the humerus (bring the arm toward the center of the body) and extend the humerus (pull the arm backward). The upper fibers of the latissimus dorsi muscle are most completely activated when your hands begin above shoulder height and they are pulled toward the armpits (axilla) during the pull-up exercise. The teres major muscle begins on the lowest part (inferior angle) of the scapula (shoulder blade), but it attaches to the humerus bone of the upper arm. It assists in arm extension and adduction of the arm at the shoulder joint.

The biceps brachii muscle has two (“bi”) heads (“ceps”). The short head of the biceps brachii muscle begins on the front part of the scapula on a bony area called the coracoid process. It extends down the medial (inner) part of the arm. The long head of the biceps brachii attaches on the supraglenoid tubercle of the scapula (a bump over the glenoid fossa of the scapula). It sits on the lateral part of the arm and its fibers mesh with the short head to insert into the bicipital tendon, which attaches on the radius (at the radial tuberosity). Both heads of the biceps flex the elbow joint. The brachialis muscle begins on the distal half of the humerus and inserts on the coronoid process of the ulna. It helps to flex the elbow joint during pull-ups.

It may surprise you that the pectoralis major muscle has a role in pull-ups. This fan-shaped muscle covers the upper (superior) part of the chest. The sternocostal head attaches from the manubrium (the top portion of the sternum or breastbone), and the upper six ribs and converge on a groove near the head of the humerus. The pectoralis major adducts the humerus (draws the arm toward the midline of the body) and when the arms are over the head (as in the start of pull-ups), the sternocostal head of the pectoralis muscle helps extend the arms. Nevertheless, it is most active at the beginning of the pull-ups and it has less of a role as the bar gets close to the chest.

The trapezius muscle is a large diamond-shaped muscle. The superior (upper) fibers of the trapezius attach to the base of the skull and along the midline of the vertebrae of the neck (cervical vertebrae). These fibers attach to the lateral part of the clavicle (collarbone) and along the spine of the scapula. They pull the clavicle upward toward the neck. The middle fibers of this muscle begin on the upper thoracic vertebrae, and then run almost directly laterally to attach to the spine of the scapula. When the middle fibers contract, they pull the scapula toward the vertebrae (like squeezing your shoulder blades together). The upper and middle regions of the trapezius are active in pull-ups. The inferior (lower) fibers of the trapezius pull the scapula and shoulders inferiorly (as if you were forcing your shoulders downward).

Medium Grip Pull-Ups

Usually, it’s a good idea to begin with lat bar pull-downs before progressing to medium grip pull-ups. However, once you have the base, pull-ups can be an excellent all-around exercise as a latissimus, biceps/brachialis and chest builder, and can be done wherever there is a bar, a tree branch or even a doorjamb in a hotel room if you are traveling or at home.

1. Grip the chin bar with your hands directly below your shoulders. Start with your hands in a pronated position. Although your biceps will be more strongly activated if your hands are supinated, the major disadvantage is that these small arm flexor muscles (relative to the back, the biceps are small) fatigue more rapidly with your hands in a supinated position.

2. If possible, stand on a box or bench so that the bar begins at your chest rather than at your chin. The use of wrist straps is recommended for those who have weak forearm strength (weak grip strength), and/or anyone who finds that his arm flexors fatigue before his back.

3. Step off the box or bench, bend your knees (so your feet do not touch the bench or box) and then slowly (three to five seconds) lower yourself until your upper back is completely stretched at the bottom position. Allow a two-second stretch at the bottom before starting upward. This will result in lengthening of the latissimus and teres major muscles before the contraction, and will therefore increase activation of the muscle throughout the next part of the movement.

4. Pull yourself up until the bar is at the upper part of your chest (just below your chin). Attempt to arch your upper back and get your body as high as possible to ensure a complete contraction of the upper and intermediate back muscles (i.e., trapezius and small scapular muscles).

Important Tips

The pull upward extends the humerus bone and activates the latissimus dorsi, teres major and part of the pectoralis and deltoid muscles. Your elbows, however, must flex so the biceps brachii and brachailis muscles are activated. Furthermore, your arm must be adducted at the shoulder joint so all the muscles described above, including the pectoralis fibers, contract.

If you choose a wide grip instead of a medium grip, you will reduce the range of motion that’s produced by the humerus of the upper arm and this will decrease the extent of muscle shortening, but increase the activation of the teres major. Conversely, the lower fibers of the latissimus dorsi muscle should be in a better angle for activation if the grip is narrow. A medium grip activates all regions of the back effectively and this should be the preferred grip for most people.

If you want to turn the intensity up a notch, try adding a few forced repetitions to your set of pull-ups. For example, if you have your box or bench below the chin bar, you can use it to help you when the set gets impossible to complete. Instead of having your knees bent to prevent contacting the bench, extend your knees and push off the box with your feet to assist you in the upward movement (but only after you have exhausted your back strength under the first part of the exercise). Always control the downward stretch.

After a couple of months of intensive pull-ups, you will likely need additional resistance (a belt with a chain for attaching a plate is ideal for this purpose). You will feel the stamina, strength, thickness and width of your upper back, arms and chest begin to take on previously unseen dimensions in only a few months of consistent effort. Remember, the upper back consists of a lot of complex muscles, so it’s critical to work hard enough to stimulate all of them. Compound exercises that activate many muscles are never easy, but then, what else would you expect from the ultimate upper body exercise?


1. Antinori F, Felici F, Figura F, Marchetti M and Ricci B. Joint moments and work in pull-ups. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 28: 132-137, 1988.

2. Cotten DJ. An analysis of the NCYFS II Modified Pull-up Test. Res Q Exerc Sport 61: 272-274, 1990.

3. Grant S, Hynes V, Whittaker A and Aitchison T. Anthropometric, strength, endurance and flexibility characteristics of elite and recreational climbers. J Sports Sci 14: 301-309, 1996.

4. Harms-Ringdahl K. On assessment of shoulder exercise and load-elicited pain in the cervical spine. Biomechanical analysis of load–EMG–methodological studies of pain provoked by extreme position. Scand J Rehabil Med Suppl 14: 1-40, 1986.

5. Koukoubis TD, Cooper LW, Glisson RR, Seaber AV and Feagin JA, Jr. An electromyographic study of arm muscles during climbing. Knee Surg Sports Traumatol Arthrosc 3: 121-124, 1995.

6. Moore, K.L. Clinically oriented Anatomy. Third edition. Baltimore, Williams & Williams, 501-553, 1992.

7. Signorile JF, Zink AJ and Szwed SP. A comparative electromyographical investigation of muscle utilization patterns using various hand positions during the lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res 16: 539-546, 2002.

8. Singer RN. The effects of palms-in vs. palms-out pull-ups training on isometric strength of forearm flexors and extensors. Am Correct Ther J 24: 61-63, 1970.


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By: Stephen E. Alway, Ph.D., FACSM
Title: Pull-Ups: The Ultimate Upper Body Exercise
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Published Date: Wed, 07 Oct 2020 14:13:13 +0000




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Ripped Leg Blast for Carved Thighs



Powerful and thick thighs require gut-busting exercises like squats and leg presses. However, once you have acquired adequate thigh mass and strength, you should consider adding some balance and sharpness to the muscle bellies in your thighs. Although tough to accomplish, leg extensions provide a great way to carve the separations between the muscle bellies, and to accentuate the “teardrop” shape of the four quadriceps muscles of the anterior thigh.

Active Muscles in Leg Extensions

The three vasti muscles comprise most of the anterior thigh.1 The vastus medialis covers the medial (inner) part of the femur bone (thigh bone). When it is well developed, it forms a teardrop-like shape over the medial side of the knee joint. The vastus lateralis muscle attaches to the lateral (outer) part of the femur bone. The vastus intermedius connects to the femur bone between the vastus lateralis and the vastus medialis muscles. The fibers of all three vasti muscles come together at the quadriceps tendon, which crosses the patella (kneecap) to attach to the tibia bone just below the knee.1

Together, the three vasti muscles extend the leg at the knee joint, although the vastus intermedius may be more fatigue resistant than the vastus lateralis.2 The vastus medialis oblique (VMO), which is a small part of the vastus medialis muscle, attaches to the medial part of the patella. It is thought to help the patella track properly during movement of the knee. Improper tracking can increase the likelihood for knee injury.

The vastus medialis and especially the VMO part of this muscle are primarily responsible for tibial rotation (rotation of the tibia bone of the lower leg on the femur) during knee extension. This rotation or “twist” has been shown to increase the activation of the VMO portion of the vastus lateralis even more than doing knee extensions with the hip adducted (thigh rotated so that the medial portion of the knee is facing mostly upwards).3 Dorsiflexion of the foot (moving the ankles so the toes are pointing towards your head) also increases the activation of the VMO by more than 20 percent.4 Likely this is because the dorsiflexor muscles stabilize the tibia during knee flexion and resist rotation of the tibia on the femur as the knee straightens.

The fourth muscle of the quadriceps group is the rectus femoris muscle. It attaches to the anterior part of the hip bone just above the hip joint.1 The largest bulk of the muscle fibers are located on the upper three-quarters of the thigh, whereas the largest belly of the vastus medialis and vastus lateralis are more inferior (i.e., closer to the knee). The distal end of the rectus femoris muscle becomes tendinous and it creates a deep valley between the lateral and medial vastus muscles as it approaches the knee.1 It assists the other quadriceps muscles by extending the leg at the knee joint, although it is less effective when the hip is flexed than if it is straight.

Leg Extensions

The three vastus muscles of the anterior thigh are strongly activated by single-leg knee extensions. The rectus femoris is not activated as strongly, but it does undergo some overload when the anterior thigh is under contractile effort, about halfway up to the top of each repetition.

1. You should always warm up your knees with some stationary cycling prior to getting into leg extensions. Furthermore, the resistance on your first set should be fairly light to allow the joint to fully warm up before you get to the heavier stuff.

2. Adjust the knee extension machine so that the pivot point of the lifting arm is directly adjacent to the center of the side of your knee joint.

3. Position the ankle roller/leg pad over the lower part of the leg (above the ankle joint).

4. Take about three seconds to slowly extend (straighten) both leg so that the weight is lifted upward from the stack.

5. Continue upwards until the tibia and the femur bones form a straight line and the knee angle is straight. Hold this for two seconds at the top.

6. Slowly lower the weight (about four seconds down) towards the starting position. Once the knee has reached 90 degrees, start the upwards extension phase again. Continue for 12-15 repetitions for the first set. Lower the number of repetitions but increase the resistance for subsequent sets.

7. On the next sets, lift the weight upwards until the knee joint becomes almost straight, but just slightly short of a total knee lockout. Be careful that you do not “jam” the knee joint into a fully locked out position, because this could cause knee cartilage damage5, especially with heavy weights. Hold the top position for a count of three before lowering the weight.

8. Lower the weight slowly (four to five seconds) towards the starting position where your knee is flexed to 90 degrees. Just before the weight stack contacts the remaining plates at the bottom, start lifting it upward for the next repetition.

The downward movement should be slower than the upward phase because you are resisting the pull of gravity. The slow lowering of the weight stretches the muscle under a resistance and this is a great stimulus to improve muscle shape and size.6

Make sure that you do not hold your breath during the lift upwards.7 Rather take a breath at the bottom (start) of the lift, and exhale as you extend the knees/legs. Take another breath at the top and slowly exhale as the weight is lowered. Take another breath at the bottom and repeat the sequence.

This is a mechanically simply exercise, but it really can be very challenging and blood depriving8,9, especially if you try to control the weight as it is moving up and down. However, if you are willing to work through some discomfort, you will be soon enjoying your new shape and slabs of carved thighs.

GettyImages 674163248 600


1. Moore K.L. Clinically Orientated Anatomy. Third Edition. Williams & Willkins, Baltimore, 1995; pp 373-500.

2. Watanabe K, Akima H. Neuromuscular activation of vastus intermedius muscle during fatiguing exercise. J Electromyogr Kinesiol 2010;20:661-666.

3. Stoutenberg M, Pluchino AP, Ma F et al. The impact of foot position on electromyographical activity of the superficial quadriceps muscles during leg extension. J Strength Cond Res 2005;19:931-938.

4. Coburn JW, Housh TJ, Cramer JT et al. Mechanomyographic and electromyographic responses of the vastus medialis muscle during isometric and concentric muscle actions. J Strength Cond Res 2005; 19:412-420.

5. Senter C, Hame SL. Biomechanical analysis of tibial torque and knee flexion angle: implications for understanding knee injury. Sports Med 2006;36:635-641.

6. Alway SE, Winchester PK, Davis ME et al. Regionalized adaptations and muscle fiber proliferation in stretch- induced enlargement. J Appl Physiol 1989;66:771-781.

7. Garber CE, Blissmer B, Deschenes MR et al. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: guidance for prescribing exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2011;43:1334-1359.

8. Denis R, Bringard A, Perrey S. Vastus lateralis oxygenation dynamics during maximal fatiguing concentric and eccentric isokinetic muscle actions. J Electromyogr Kinesiol 2011;21:276-282.

9. Ueda C, Kagaya A. Muscle reoxygenation difference between superficial and deep regions of the muscles during static knee extension. Adv Exp Med Biol 2010;662:329-334.

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By: Stephen E. Alway, Ph.D., FACSM
Title: Ripped Leg Blast for Carved Thighs
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PRIMAL Preworkout



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A Better Pump

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30 minutes prior to training, consume 2 rounded scoops (20.3g) with 8-12 oz of water or your
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PRIMAL Preworkout

• Enhances energy and endurance†
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PRIMAL is a pre-workout that will power your performance and enable you to crush it every time you train.

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†These statements have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This product is not
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By: Team FitRx
Title: PRIMAL Preworkout
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Published Date: Thu, 21 Jul 2022 16:51:41 +0000

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