It may come as a shock to some people, but the pull-up actually works your triceps too. The Latin word for triceps is “triceps brachii muscle” which means “three-headed arm muscle”. Obviously, the reason for this name is the fact that the triceps has three heads. Only one of them works heavily when you do a pull-up, chin-up…etc. It’s the long head.
The special thing about the long head is that it originates from the so-called infraglenoid tubercle of the scapula, which essentially makes this portion of the triceps part of the pulling system (back muscles, elbow flexors, rear deltoids)
Whenever you pull something, or yourself upwards, the long head of the triceps contracts which results in pulling of the upper arm closer to you. In brief, the long head of the triceps works really hard during shoulder extension, which is what’s happening during pulling exercises. The activation of the long head is more pronounced when the arms are overhead because the triceps is stretched even further.
That’s why it should not be astonishing to realize that your triceps are sore the day after a pull-up session. It’s natural, the muscle has to work hard during the exercise.
The triceps (long head) is also heavily involved in straight arm pulling exercises such as: pull-overs and gymnastic front levers. In fact, one of the best way to hit the long head safely without risking too much elbow damage is to do pull-overs instead of skull crushers. When done properly you will feel the exercise in your lats and triceps. During the straight arm version, the triceps has to contract even more intensely to keep the elbow joint extended.
Q: Bro, you are a moron. It’s really simple: the triceps works during pushing exercises and the biceps works during pulling motions. Educate yourself, loser.
A: That may be the general rule, but you cannot deny the fact that the long head of the triceps has to contract along with the lats during pulling exercises. The elbow flexors may be doing tons of work, but the triceps is also involved in the motion because part of it is connected to the scapula. Try exercises like straight arm pull-overs or front levers. Your triceps will be screaming.
Q: Hey, moron! Does this mean that pull-ups will give me big triceps? hahahaha
A: There are more complete triceps exercises such as weighted dips…etc. However, the pull-up, especially when done with solid arch in the back, will definitely make the long head of the triceps stronger. Will your triceps get humongous from that? I doubt it.
Q: Does this mean that the biceps works hard during bench presses?
A: Yes. The biceps provides additional help during the bench press since it’s heavily involved in shoulder flexion. This has even more pronounced effect when the bench press is performed with a wide grip.
To understand this more clearly look at the picture below. It shows a gymnast performing a maltese on rings. During the exercise the biceps works incredibly hard along with the front deltoids, the chest and many other upper body muscles.
In essence, the whole system (biceps, front deltoid and chest) becomes one. The same happens during wide grip bench presses, which is one of the reason many people report biceps tendonitis from the exercise.
Q: I don’t feel my triceps so much, if at all, when I do pull-ups. Am I doing them wrong?
A: Not necessarily. First, the fact that you are not feeling a muscle does not mean that it’s not working. It could potentially indicate that it’s not firing properly, but there is no need to overthink in this particular case. The main movers during the pull-up are still the elbow flexors and the lats.
Developing an efficient mind muscle connection is also very important. The mind can activate/deactivate different muscles to a certain degree. Sometimes that happens involuntarily, while in other cases experienced people may use the technique to hit specific muscles more or less intensely. For example, many lifters have hard time feeling their lats during pull-ups in the first place. After a certain time, you get so experienced at using your lats actively that you can decrease their role and focus more on your biceps and vice versa. It’s the same here. If you have strong mind muscle connection, you are able to use some muscles more or less during a certain exercise.
There was one part of my training career when I was doing heavy (for me) pushing exercises three times a week. As a result I developed some sort of chronic triceps fatigue and deep muscle soreness. Believe it or not my puny triceps would hurt like hell during pull-ups. At that time I was able to alter my form to the point where I was relying less and less on my triceps and more on the back and biceps. How did I do that? I simply switched from pull-ups to chin-ups on rings and focused my mind on pulling with the biceps. In case, you are asking the answer is: “Yes”. My triceps and biceps are still small.
Related article: The Most Complete Pull-up Tutorial On The Internet