Isn't it nice when a good thing can be better? Pull ups work dozens of upper body muscles. So does the inverse exercise, lat pull downs - which involves pulling a bar down to your chest instead of your chest up to a bar. You can “just do it" and be fairly successful. Or, you can perform these exercises in a way that recruits and fires more motor units, decreasing chance of injury and increasing strength gains.

Placing intention into an exercise increases effectiveness.

Muscles that are strong and able to contract during a pull up will do so automatically to resist force and meet physical demands. The amount of contraction can be altered with your mind. EMG (Electromyography) studies demonstrate that the human being can actively produce more force when putting intention into what muscles are contracting.

This means you can do your pull-ups mindlessly and get 'er done. Or, you can focus on your form and muscle attachments to recruit more motor units, have better symmetry from right to left side, and build better strength. Everybody wants to get more for their money. Make your time at the gym worth it. (Click here to learn about Non-Dominant Side Training).

There are dozens of muscles involved with a pull-up. Knowing where the muscles attach will allow you to “think like a muscle". The more intention you put into your efforts, the more likely you will be to increase strength and tissue growth.

Three muscles to hone in on:

#1 Latissimus Dorsi. One end of the muscle is at the upper third of the bicipital groove on your humerus, which generally faces medial and slightly anterior (front). This attachment is like the end of a dog leash and keeps your arm coming back towards your body when it strays too far. The job of a muscle is to shorten and bring bones together.

The other side of the muscle attaches to the inferior (bottom) of the scapula bone, the last 3-4 ribs on the posterior (back) side, the thoracolumbar fascia (connective tissue for the five lumbar vertebrae) and the iliac crest on the posterior (back) side.

Being able to feel all of these connection points is essential for effective muscle recruitment.

#2 Rhomboids. Picture squeezing a pencil between your shoulder blades and you'll understand the function of this muscle. It attaches to the spinous processes of cervical vertebrae 7 and thoracic vertebraes 1-5 over to the medial border of the scapula (shoulder blade). It brings the shoulder blades together and balances any force coming from the pecs on the other side.

Your muscles play tug of war all day. While the latissiumus dorsi pulls the scapula down, the rhomboids pull it up. The end result is the scapula moving horizontally toward the vertebrae. If you only focus on one of those two muscles, the bones get tugged harder one way than the other.

#3 Rectus Abdominus. Why an abdominal muscle for pulls ups? The lumbar spine naturally curves forward. This muscle helps straighten it out. This muscle attaches from the base of the sternum and costal cartilage to the superior (top) of the pubic bone. It runs superior (up) to inferior (down), so when it contracts it brings the ribs closer to the pubic bone and keeps the spine aligned, avoiding low back arching.

These are just three of the many muscles involved with a pull up/lat pull down. They're a good place to start with for improving your form.

Three form cues to keep your attention:

#1 Bring your scapula down and in, like you're putting them in your back pants pockets. Anchor them. (Your scapula, or shoulder blades, are the two bones on your upper back that are shaped like triangles.)

#2 Elongate the spine. Imagine a tennis ball is hanging above your head and you are trying to touch it with the crown of your head. This visual will fight against the one force that's always trying to bring us down: gravity.

#3 Keep the spine aligned. Contract your abdominal muscles as you perform the exercise. You can achieve this with more ease by knowing where the rectus abdominus attaches and focusing the connection.

Keep in mind, alignment is different for everyone. The best way to know if you're aligned is by tuning into your spine and noticing any areas of tension or pinching. Re-position yourself to reduce those sensations.

Finding symmetry and balance in pull-ups

Pick one muscle to focus on this week. Study the muscle attachments and visualize them as you do the exercise. Can you feel the same muscle contraction happening on both your right and left sides? One side might feel stronger and more connected than the other. Do the exercise slower or with less weight to see if you can get the weaker side to work the same.

Taking the time to slow down and visualize what you're doing will create a better foundation for the exercises when you perform them with more intensity. You don't have to be mindful all of the time when resistance training, but setting the right tone by honing in once in awhile can make a huge difference.

Learn more about anatomy, muscle function and exercise cues with Andy's Anatomy Program.

About the Author: Beverly Hosford, MA is a successful fitness entrepreneur with 15 years of experience. She's the founder of Andy's Online Anatomy Program and author of Fitness Career Freedom. Bev believes that solid foundations in science and mindset are essential for stability in the body and in business. Visit to learn more.

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