A pull day workout is an effective way to improve strength and muscle size in many of the major muscles in your upper body.
As the name states, it focuses primarily on your pulling muscles – the lats, traps, rear delts, lower back, biceps, and grip.
In this article, we’ll take a look at a pull workout that is effective for gaining muscle mass and increasing your strength. We’ll cover the best pull exercises, sets and reps, and other important factors for your gains.
What is a Pull Day Workout?
As the name states, a pull day is a workout where you focus on pull exercises and the muscles involved in them. This typically means compound pulling exercises like bent-over rows, lat pulldowns, and deadlifts, but also isolation exercises for your pull muscles, like face pulls and bicep curls.
In contrast, a push workout involves pushing exercises for your chest, shoulders, and triceps, and a leg workout involves exercises for your lower body.
Sometimes, a push, pull, and leg workout is strung together in the same workout routine, like in our push pull legs routine.
Muscles Worked in a Pull Workout
Your main pull muscles and the major muscle groups worked on a pull day are:
These are the muscles used when you pull an object towards your body or, alternatively, pull yourself towards an object, like in a pull-up or inverted row.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these muscle groups and how to train them.
Your lats have a wide origin, spanning from your thoracic and lumbar spine, your lower ribs, the thick fascia of your lower back, and out to your iliac crest (the top of your hip bone).
The muscle runs up along your rib cage and inserts on the inside, almost to the front, of your humerus, your upper arm bone.
The lat muscles’ primary function is to pull your arms closer to your body, and they are worked in exercises like lat pulldowns and barbell rows.
Because of the lats’ wide origin, it has a wide range of pull. This means that you may emphasize different parts of the lats by combining vertical (like the pull-up) and horizontal (like the row) pulling exercises.
Contrary to popular belief, your trapezius is far larger than what you can see above your shoulders when you are looking in the mirror.
It spans from the back of your skull down past half your back and inserts on your scapula and collarbones.
The trapezius is commonly divided into three parts: the upper, middle, and lower muscle fibers.
The different parts of the trapezius have different origins, insertions, and functions:
- The upper fibers originate from the base of your skull and along your cervical spine. They insert on the outer third of your collarbone. Their main function is supporting and elevating your collarbones and shoulders, and they are worked in exercises like deadlifts and dumbbell shrugs.
- The middle fibers originate along your cervical and upper thoracic spine and insert into your shoulder blades. Their main function is to rotate and retract (pull back and together) your shoulder blades, and they are worked in rowing exercises.
- The lower fibers originate along your lower thoracic spine and insert on the lower part of your shoulder blades. Their main function is to rotate and pull your shoulder blades down, and they are worked in exercises like the lat pulldown and pull-up.
Your lower back contains many muscles, some of the largest being your erector spinae and multifidus. Both of these muscles run along the entire length of your spine, but they are at their thickest in your lumbar region.
Together, the muscles of your lower back are responsible for stabilizing, extending, and rotating your spine. They are used extensively in your everyday life, and they are worked in exercises like deadlifts and back extensions.
Your rear delts (posterior deltoids) are one of three sets of muscle fibers in your deltoids, the other two being the front and lateral delts.
Your rear delts originate from the spine of your shoulder blade, partially covering your infraspinatus and teres minor, two muscles of your rotator cuff. It inserts on the outside of your upper arm, and it can thus both extend your shoulder (= bring your arm back, like in a row) and externally rotate it.
Your rear delts are worked in exercises like barbell rows and face pulls.
When we refer to the biceps muscle in everyday speech, we are usually referring to the front of your upper arm. But if we are to be specific, there are actually two (equally large) muscles making up that bulk: the biceps brachii and the brachialis.1
- Biceps brachii is the most superficial of the two and has thus garnered the most attention. As the name states, it has two heads (bi = two, ceps = head) originating from your shoulder blade. The short head originates from the front of your shoulder blade, while the long head passes over the humerus (your upper arm bone) head and originates from the top of your shoulder blade. The two heads join together into a single muscle belly, which inserts on two places in your forearm: the radius and the forearm fascia. Thus, the biceps crosses two joints: the shoulder and the elbow.
- The brachialis has the same muscle volume as the biceps brachii but is located underneath it, closest to the bone. It originates from the second half of your humerus and inserts into the ulna. The brachialis’ function is to flex (bend) your elbow, and it is actually a more powerful elbow flexor than the biceps brachii.
Grip & Forearms
Your forearms and hands contain a large number of muscles involved in gripping and flexing your wrist.
Most of the large muscles of your forearm originate close to the elbow, and that is also where most of the meat (the muscle belly) is located. As the muscles stretch down towards your hand and fingers, they become tendinous as they cross your wrist.
Some of these forearm muscles only cross your wrist and then insert into the base of your hand. These are only able to act on your wrist, such as flexing it or bending it to the sides.
Other muscles extend all the way out to your fingers, either to the middle bones of your fingers or all the way out to your fingertips. These muscles can also flex your wrist, but maybe more importantly, they are powerful gripping muscles.
Your grip muscles are worked in any pulling exercises where you have to grasp a weight.
The Pull Day Workout Routine
Here is the outline of the pull day routine.
Pull Day Workout
- Deadlift: 3 sets x 5 reps
- Barbell Row: 3 sets x 8 reps
- Lat Pulldown: 3 sets x 10 reps
- Dumbbell Row: 2 sets x 10 reps
- Face Pull: 2 sets x 12 reps
- Barbell Curl: 2 sets x 10 reps
- Preacher Curl: 2 sets x 15 reps
This workout is available for free in our workout tracker app, where you can see demonstrations of and track your reps and weights for each exercise.
Let’s go over each exercise and what muscles they work, and also alternatives for every exercise if you can’t or don’t want to do exactly the ones we’ve selected for you.
The deadlift is a classic barbell compound exercise that works almost your entire body, but especially your posterior chain: the lower back, glutes, traps, hamstrings, and grip.
Few exercises build “real-world strength” like the deadlift, and many people pick this exercise when asked, “Which exercise would you choose if you could only do one for the rest of your life?”.
The barbell deadlift is hard but works most of your back muscles in a single movement, making it an effective first exercise in your pull day workout.
How to Deadlift with Proper Form
- Step close to the bar so it is about over the middle of your foot. Place your feet hip-width apart.
- Inhale, lean forward, and grip the bar.
- Hold your breath, brace your core slightly, and lift the bar.
- Pull the bar close to your body, with a straight back, until you stand straight.
- Lower the bar back to the ground with control.
- Take another breath, and repeat for reps.
2. Barbell Row
The barbell row, or bent-over row, is another classic back exercise with a barbell. It primarily works your lats, trapezius, and rear deltoids, and secondarily your biceps, lower back, and grip.
The bent-over barbell row works many of the antagonists of the bench press exercise, and is useful for evening out the strength and muscle balance across your upper body.
To work your upper back muscles properly, avoid swinging and using excessive momentum, as that will shift the work to your glutes and low back.
How to Do Barbell Rows
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and grip the bar with an overhand grip.
- Lean forward with the bar hanging from straight arms.
- Inhale and pull the bar towards you.
- Pull the bar as high as you can so that it touches your abs or chest, if possible.
- With control, lower the bar back to the starting position.
3. Lat Pulldown
The lat pulldown is a staple for pull day workouts and one of the best exercises you can do for your latissimus dorsi. In addition, it works your biceps, grip, and rear deltoids.
My general recommendation is to use a wide overhand grip, but feel free to change the grip to your liking.
How to Do Lat Pulldowns Correctly
- Adjust the thigh pad to fit snugly against your thighs to prevent your body from lifting off the seat.
- Grasp the bar with an overhand (pronated) grip, with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Sit with your thighs under the thigh pad, keep your chest up, and look at the bar.
- Pull the bar down towards your chest, leading with your elbows. Pull until the bar is below your chin or touches your upper chest.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the bottom of the movement.
- Exhale and slowly release the bar back up to the starting position.
4. Dumbbell Row
The single-arm dumbbell row is the most popular dumbbell lat exercise of all, and is great for developing both the middle of your back, as well as the back of your shoulders.
Like other rowing exercises, your lats, traps, and rear deltoids are the primary muscles working here, with your biceps and grip as secondary working muscles.
How to Do Dumbbell Rows
- Start by placing a dumbbell on the floor beside a bench or chair. Stand facing the bench or chair and place your left hand and left knee on top of it.
- Keep your back flat and parallel to the ground, with a slight bend in the standing leg. Grip the dumbbell with your right hand.
- Inhale and pull the dumbbell by driving the elbow toward the ceiling.
- With control, lower the dumbbell back to the starting position while exhaling.
- Complete desired reps on one side, then switch to the opposite arm and leg.
5. Face Pull
The face pull is an exercise that targets your rear deltoids and rotator cuffs but also the upper parts of your trapezius.
To nail the form, begin with a very light weight and keep your elbows high.
How to Do Face Pulls
- Fasten a rope handle in a high position on a cable pulley. Grip the ropes with an overhand grip, and take a step or two back.
- With elbows held high, pull the rope towards you by letting your upper arms move straight out towards your sides while simultaneously rotating your forearms up.
- Return with control to the starting position by letting your arms move forward again.
6. Barbell Curl
Being the king of bicep exercises, the barbell bicep curl is a simple but very effective exercise for growing and strengthening your biceps.
To keep the work focused on your biceps (and brachialis, which lies underneath), keep your elbows slightly in front of your shoulders, or at least by your sides, and don’t let them drift back. Prioritize form over weight.
Lift the bar up by squeezing your biceps, and lower it back slowly with control, until you’ve built a massive pump in your arms.
How to Barbell Curl
- Grip a bar with an underhand grip (supinated), hands about shoulder-width apart.
- Lift the bar with control by flexing your elbows.
- Don’t let your upper arm travel back during the curl, keep it at your side or move it slightly forward.
- Reverse the movement and lower the bar back to the starting position.
7. Preacher Curl
The last exercise in our pull workout is the preacher curl. This is a biceps isolation exercise where it is difficult to cheat and easy to focus on your biceps working.
Preacher curls place the highest resistance on your biceps while they are in a lengthened position, which has been proven to be effective for muscle growth.2 Just make sure to start with light weights and increase gradually from there.
Sets, Reps, and Rest Periods
That was the exercise selection. Now let’s go over some of the finer details like sets, reps, and rest.
The Number of Reps
As we outlined in the pull day workout routine earlier, you’ll be aiming for a range of 5–15 reps per set in all exercises. You’ll do fewer reps with heavier weights in the compound exercises, and more reps with lighter weights in the isolation exercises.
This rep range will both build muscle and increase your strength. The sets with heavier weights and lower reps will lean slightly more towards strength, and the sets with lighter weights and higher reps will lean slightly more towards hypertrophy. However, the entire rep range will develop some of both qualities.
It’s important to remember that this is just a guideline, and you are free to adjust the rep numbers as needed. Don’t worry if you end up doing more or fewer reps than the recommended range; just focus on working hard and trying to progress your training over time. We’ll discuss this in more detail later!
The Number of Sets
For each exercise in the pull day workout, you should aim for two to three sets. This will give you a total of eight primary work sets for your lats, eleven for different regions of your trapezius, three to six for your lower back, ten for your rear delts, and four primary plus eight secondary work sets for your biceps.
Research has shown that the number of sets you perform per muscle group is strongly correlated with the amount of muscle and strength gained. For beginners and those who haven’t trained before, performing ten or more sets per muscle group per week leads to the best growth.3
While doing this pull day routine once per week is effective, you could see even faster growth by repeating the workout sooner.
You don’t have to stick to a seven-day cycle; instead, try repeating it every four to five days or whenever you feel fully recovered. Conversely, if you feel you need an extra rest day before repeating the workout, don’t hesitate to take one.
Rest Periods for Optimal Results
As a rule of thumb, resting for two to three minutes between sets is a good balance between getting enough recovery and still being time-efficient with your training.
The idea is that you should rest long enough to be able to perform the next set with:
- proper form
- at the desired weight
- for the desired number of reps.
Research has found that longer rest periods (three minutes or more) lead to greater muscle and strength gains compared to shorter rest periods (one minute or less), as long as the number of sets remains the same.4 5
This is because longer rest periods allow us to perform more reps in the subsequent sets. More reps mean more training being done and more stimulus for the muscles to grow. To compensate for shorter rest periods, you’d need to increase the number of sets you do.
If you are in a hurry, or just restless, I recommend you to at least try to get two minutes of rest in between sets. That will allow you to recover around 95% of your power, and perform way better than if you only rested for one minute.6
Progressive Overload: The Key to Gains
The first time you try this pull workout, you should try to find weights that let you perform the prescribed number of sets and reps with good form in each exercise.
Then, in the next workout, you should try to lift more than the last time.
This is the key to growing bigger and stronger muscles.
Your muscles are very adaptive, and what was once a challenging workout soon becomes a walk in the park. And when your muscles aren’t sufficiently challenged, they will cease to adapt.
Meaning: no more growth.
To keep the gain train on track, you must progressively increase the stress and stimulus you expose your muscles to. This is known in strength training as progressive overload, and it is typically done in one of two ways:
- Do more reps with the same weight as last time.
- Do the same number of reps as last time, but with more weight.
Often, people alternate a bit between these two. They might strive to increase the number of reps for a few workouts before they increase the weight, and then focus on increasing the reps for few workouts again.
The beginner can usually do a bit bigger jumps, but when you’re past the beginner stage, I recommend you try to do one more rep or add 2.5 kg (5 lb) per set and exercise.
If you did three sets of five reps at 100 kg (~220 lb) in the deadlift last workout, you could try to do three sets of five reps at 102.5 kg (~225 lb) in the next workout.
If you can only get three sets of four reps at 102.5 kg, you could stick with that weight for the next few training sessions and try to get all sets up to five reps before you increase the load again.
How to Track Your Pull Workouts
A key to being systematic in your progression is to track your workouts.
This pull workout is available 100% free in our workout tracker app. Just download it with the buttons below, go to the Programs & Workouts tab, and search for “Pull Workout”.
Download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below:
How to Make the Most Out of Your Pull Days
We’re almost done. Let’s just take a quick look at some things that can help boost your results even further.
Eat Properly for Muscle Growth
The training triggers growth, but your food provides the means. If you don’t eat enough, your body won’t have the building blocks to add muscle size.
If you’re unsure of what to eat, check out our guide on how to eat for muscle growth. It will cover all the most important things you need to know.
Protein is one of the key nutrients for muscle growth, and getting enough protein is a simple way to get better training results. Use our protein intake calculator to calculate your daily need.
If you are looking to lose fat but want to build or at least maintain your muscle mass while you’re at it, you should definitely check out our guide on how to lose fat.
In addition to eating well, sleep is also highly important for your training results. Most adults require between seven to nine hours of quality sleep per night.
Consistency is Key
Doing one workout is good, but it is not enough.
Getting good training results is all about stringing workouts together without letting too much time pass between them.
Hold yourself to a schedule, or a routine, in which you repeat this workout regularly. If you do it once per week, twice per week, or something in between is not the important thing.
The important thing is that you show up and that you do so regularly. Everybody misses sometimes, just don’t miss two times in a row.
Track and Progress Your Workouts
Finally, I’ll repeat what I said about progressive overload. It is the missing key in most people’s workout routines, and without it, they spin their wheels for years without making any progress.
Dedicate yourself to writing down your weights and reps, and fight hard to increase them in your next workout.
Our app StrengthLog was built with this important concept in mind and is designed to help you succeed.
As mentioned, you can find this pull workout available for free in the app. You just need to start the workout, add the weights you are using in your first workout, and then try to beat them the next time.
Download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below:
Thank you for reading, buddy, and good luck with your training!
- Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2017, 39(5). Large and small muscles in resistance training: Is it time for a better definition?
- J Strength Cond Res. 2023 Jan 18. Which ROMs Lead to Rome? A Systematic Review of the Effects of Range of Motion on Muscle Hypertrophy.
- J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073-1082. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jul;30(7):1805-12. Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men.
- Sports Med. 2009;39(9):765-77. Rest interval between sets in strength training.
- Pflügers Archiv volume 367, pages137–142(1976). The time course of phosphorylcreatine resynthesis during recovery of the quadriceps muscle in man.