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I am a tennis player by training, but have been incorporating weightlifting and body weight workouts into my training. I have never really felt my back be tired from any tennis training, on the court or in the gym, however I have always noticed that I don't really feel like I'm pulling from my back when I do pull-ups. It feels more like I'm pulling from my shoulders/chest. Asking around a bit a found that this is not normal. I highly doubt that I don't feel it in my back or lats because they are much stronger than the supporting muscles of the lift.

What should I focus on to get more back/lat activation on the pull-up?

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I don't have all the informatoin, and would need to see you do pull-ups before knowing for sure, but this sounds like a case of not properly (knowing how to) activating the back muscles during the pull-up movement.

Is your scapula retracted for example? Do you go down all the way on each rep? Have you tried pulling your chest towards the bar rather than just pulling up in a straight line?

These are key elements of a proper pull-up that I would recommend you try to focus on in order to get a better back activation.

I have a moderately easy way to learn how to activate your back without doing a pull-up. Lay flat on the floor, with your back slightly arched so your head and chest are not touching the floor. Grab a towel like it is a barbell, and row/pull it towards your chest.

See pictures below for reference:

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Assuming that you are right that your supporting muscles aren't too weak, the only reason I can think of that this may be the case is that you are not leaning backwards when performing the pull-up. It's a mostly unstated fact about pullups, but if your body is not diagonal, your head cannot clear the bar since your center of gravity is right underneath it. So, the only way you will find of doing that is using your chest and shoulders to rotate around the bar.

Hanging from the bar, you should try holding a diagonal body position at the bottom to fix your alignment; Your chest should be right underneath the bar.

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This is a difficult topic of discussion, because it could be any number of reasons.

Firstly, just because you don't 'feel' it in your back at the time or doing the rep, doesn't mean that your back is not 'activating properly'. If i'm being pedantic, if your back was not 'activating properly' your body would be incapable of doing a pull up.

Most likely it's down to your technique. For example, How do you perform pull ups? is your grip close? shoudler width? wide?. Is your grip overhand? underhand? neutral? If you wanted to specifically target your lats, i would tell you to do a wide grip pullup(overhand).

You stated that you 'feel it' more in your shoulders and chest, this doesn't mean that they are doing the bulk of the work, or any. It could be the case of them being tight, and you hanging causing these muscles to stretch. Which is where the sensation could be coming from.

I wouldn't worry too much about what you can 'feel' during the reps themselves. In my opinion a better measurement would be something more tangible, like can you do 2 more reps than last month? If that's the case then you've gained some strength in your back, as that is the primary mover of the pull up.

To give another example, if you were to perform a barbell squat, you'd most likely feel soreness in your quads the next day. But not so much soreness in your glutes or hamstrings. That doesn't mean that your glutes or hamstrings weren't activating properly.

Another thing worth mentioning is what your rep and set scheme look like for pull ups in your workout and how often do you do this workout? For example, if you were to just do 10 pull ups once in between your tennis matches, one per week. It would not be surprising that you're not sore. Whereas if you were to do 10 sets of 10 reps twice a day i imagine your back would permanetly be sore. (please don't do that it was hyperbole).

As an anecdotal note, i rarely feel a 'back pump' when i'm doing pullups. I usually feel it more the next day when i'm sore.

  • I think there are a few misconceptions in this answer. A squat primarily targets the quads, so they will be more sore than glutes and hamstrings. A pull-up primarily targets the back, so it should be more sore according to your analogy/metaphor. Also, you can do a pull-up without your back being activated properly. It can't be done without your back being activated at all, but it can surely be activated in a wrong or minor way and still do pull-ups. Also, you should worry about not feeling a pump or activation during the workout. – MJB Aug 15 '19 at 13:22

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