Last updated on November 1st, 2022 at 10:35 am
Ever wondered, “Why Do I Feel Pull Ups in My Chest?”
Pull ups are viewed as primarily an upper back, lat, and bicep exercise.
So, realistically whenever you perform pull ups you should feel it in these muscles.
With that being said, a common complaint is that many people tend to feel pull ups in their chest.
So, what exactly is going on here?
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Why Do I Feel Pull Ups in My Chest?
There are various reasons why you may feel pull ups in your chest. Firstly, it’s important to realise that the pectoralis minor plays a role in pull ups. The pec minor is attached to the shoulder blade and you should retract the shoulder blades when performing pull ups. So, in effect, you will stretch the pec minor. Additionally, the chest muscles can contract and extend for a number of reasons. These include, if your hands are close together, if you maintain a hollow body position, or if your elbows are in front of you.
1. The Pec Minor Plays a Role in Pull Ups
The most common reason that you feel pull ups in your chest is because you activate the pec minor.
The pec minor is a small, triangular-shaped muscle which is located in the upper part of the chest.
It just so happens to lie beneath the pec major, which is the main chest muscle.
However, the pec minor also happens to be attached to the shoulder blade.
Now, whenever you perform pull ups one of the first cues should be to retract your shoulder blades.
In effect, you want to pull the shoulder blades back and towards each other.
This provides additional support in the shoulder girdle, which allows you to perform pull ups with perfect form.
So, whenever you retract your shoulder blades you are actually stretching the pec minor.
If you think about it, when you pull yourself approximately halfway up your upper and lower arms are bent at the elbow, and are at 90 degrees to each other.
This is exactly the same position at which you would start on the pec-dec machine.
So, you are basically stretching the chest to some extent.
With that being said, the major roles of the pec minor include aiding posture, breathing, and movement of the shoulder.
Therefore, you wouldn’t specifically train the pec minor and expect to build strength and size in the chest.
However, you can actually perform pull ups in a variety of ways that would target the chest muscles to greater effect.
I will cover most of these now.
Perhaps you are unconsciously doing some of the following things which will explain why you feel pull ups in your chest.
2. How Close Together Are Your Hands?
Where your hands are placed on the bar will have an impact on chest activation.
You will typically stimulate the chest muscles more the closer your hands are together.
I know many people believe that the further your hands are apart, the more likely you are to “stretch” the pecs.
But, this isn’t strictly true.
The closer your hands are together, the more you will contract the chest muscles.
I want you try the following:
Stand up and hold your arms shoulder-width apart in front of you and parallel to the floor.
Now tense as many muscles in the upper body as possible.
Pay special attention to your chest, shoulders, and upper back.
Now bring your hands slowly towards each other and you should notice your chest muscles contract.
Basically, your chest muscles should tense up and your chest will be pushed forwards.
Okay, try exactly the same thing with your arms in the air.
In effect, have your arms overhead in the same position you would for a pull up.
Once more, tense all the muscles in the upper body and slowly bring your hands closer together.
You should notice the exact same thing again.
Your chest muscles contract and your chest gets pushed forwards.
So, irrespective of where your arms are held, as you bring your hands closer together your chest muscles will contract.
Admittedly, you aren’t specifically working the chest in the same way as you would with the bench press or push ups.
However, you are still performing a contraction of the muscles.
And this could explain why you feel your chest during pull ups.
3. Are You Maintaining a Hollow Body Position?
I have previously spoken of leg position during pull ups, more specifically whether you should cross your legs during pull ups.
And once again, this could have an effect on chest activation.
The ideal position for pull ups would be to have your legs completely straight, locked at the knee, and toes pointing towards the floor.
However, this position isn’t always feasible depending on the height of the bar, or indeed how tall you are.
Many people opt for the cross-legged pull up if this is the case.
But, in truth, in terms of keeping your movement pattern on-point you should really have your feet in front of you.
As soon as you have your feet behind you during pull ups you alter the angle at which you approach the bar.
And this will also mean that you may not work the target muscles as well.
One of the best options is the hollow body position.
In effect, your body is shaped in exactly the same way as if you were performing the hollow hold exercise on the floor.
So, arms extended straight above your head, slight bend at the hips, and your legs extended out straight.
However, when you take this position during pull ups you are almost mimicking the movement of a couple of other exercises.
Basically, if you raise your arms above your head and pull down you will yet again contract the chest muscles.
This is true of lat-based exercises like straight-arm pulldowns and dumbbell pullovers.
So, even though both of these exercises are typically performed for the lats, they also happen to contract the chest muscles at the same time.
And the exact same thing is happening when you perform pull ups while maintaining a hollow body position.
4. Are Your Elbows in Front of You?
I mentioned earlier the impact on your chest when you perform pull ups with your hands closer together.
The chest contraction you get from having your hands close together is actually increased during chin ups.
So, rather than having your palms facing away from you, they face towards you.
What happens here is that your elbows are typically fixed in front of you.
With the conventional pull up (hands facing away from you) you typically pull your elbows backwards.
However, when performing chin ups your elbows always remain in front of you.
You can actually practice this hand position without a bar.
So, place your arms overhead with your hands in chin push position and close together.
Now, tense all the upper body muscles and slowly pull your hands down in front of you.
You should immediately notice that the chest muscles contract once more and your pecs get pushed forwards.
So, if you’re performing close-hand chin ups this could explain why you feel it in your chest.
5. Are You Mistaking Core Activation For Your Lower Chest?
I’ve actually previously spoken about the core muscles during pull ups in my article, “Why Are My Abs Sore From Pull Ups?”
In the article I have linked to a 2018 study which concluded that the muscles most activated and involved in pull ups were actually that of the core.
In effect, pull ups are more of a core exercise than they are a lats, biceps, and traps exercise.
I’m sure that will come as a surprise to many of you.
This is why I explained earlier that having your legs behind you, typically in the cross-legged position, changes the angle of movement of pull ups.
Basically, you are activating the core to a lesser degree.
So, what you may believe to be “feeling your chest”, especially your lower chest, could actually be your core.
More specifically, your upper abs are contracting hard during pull ups.
How to Engage Your Abs Properly During Pull Ups
The pec minor is involved in pull ups, as it is stretched when you retract your shoulder blades. Your pecs are also contracted more if your hands are closer together, or if you perform chin ups. Plus, when your feet are in front of you during pull ups you will once again contract the muscles of the chest. You should also be aware that there is a great deal of core activation during pull ups. So, you may actually be “feeling it” in your upper abs, as opposed to your chest.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.