What Muscles Do Pull-Ups Work?
The pull-up is the world’s most under-appreciated way to develop your abs—and every other muscle in your midsection. And that alone is why so many people struggle to perform pull-ups. While most people will try to strengthen their back muscles and arms -- which are an essential part of the movement -- upper body strength is not what's holding you back.
The proof? Most people can lift more weight with their back and arms, but that rarely directly translates to doing one (or many) pull-ups.
This approach is probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen before when it comes to pull-up strength. But, if you are struggling to perform a pull-up -- or want to perform multiple reps -- this approach will be the program that changes everything and makes you stronger (and more capable of doing pull-ups) than ever.
For Your First Pull-up: Why Your Abs Are Key (and What To Do)
Even if you have a powerful back, you will struggle with pull-ups if you have a weak core. It’s why specific “back” exercises -- like lat pulldowns or rows -- can feel so much easier than pull-ups. It’s not that your abs aren’t involved in those movements; instead, it’s that your core is so involved with pull-ups that while your back gets stronger and stronger, your core strength still stands as a barrier.
The secret? Something called “core stiffness,” or being able to create tension throughout your torso. Here’s why: your shoulder blades are connected to your torso. A stiff, stable core gives your arms something strong to pull on. And that can have a massive impact on your ability to lift your body.
So if you are struggling with increasing the number pull-ups you can do—or can’t do a pull-up at all—train your core with these bodyweight exercises.
Hollow Body Hold
Start by lying on the floor. Lift your arms overhead (biceps in line with your ears), keeping your elbows straight.
Cross your hands and your ankles. Then press your hands and ankles into each other to create tension, and lift into the hollow body position.
Let’s talk about the idea of “hollow” for a second. You might hear it and think: “belly button to spine.” But, that's not the best approach.
If you're doing the hollow position correctly, you'll brace your abs if you were about to take a punch. Take a breath in and squeeze. If anything, your abs will move slightly outward.
Start by holding a hollow body position while pressing your hands into each other and pressing your ankles into each other. This setup builds some of the body tension that will help you when you're hanging from a bar and need to pull your weight.
Hollow Body Horizontal Pull-ups
Next, you’re going to use a dowel or broomstick. Hold it in both hands as if it were the pull-up bar.
Start with your arms straight and elbows locked out as if you were hanging from a pull-up bar. Then, while you hold the hollow position, bend your elbows to pull the bar across your face and toward your chest line, mimicking the pull-up movement.
The goal here is to maintain the core strength requirement while including an arm movement that replicates the pull-up — all while trying to breathe.
Hold the hollow body and try to complete 8-10 reps, breathing out as the bar comes to your collarbone.
Hollow Body Leg Raises
You can increase the challenge to your core by doing a leg raise. Keep both knees locked out and cross one foot over the other. Pull down on the stick and lift your toes toward it. You may even be able to touch your toes to the bar, depending on your level of strength and control.
The big thing to remember here is to maintain tension throughout your lats to help pull your torso up. Squeeze the bar as hard as you can in your hands and think about pulling down on the bar as much as you are pulling up with your legs. This tension in your arms, back, and core will help you lift your legs more easily.
Perform a set of 5-8 reps.
Stability Ball Rollouts
The stability ball rollout is another exercise that develops core stiffness. There are two ways you can perform the movement, and both are helpful to your pull-up quest.
Option #1: Try to keep your abs tensed and press your hips forward, allowing your arms to extend out as you move. Then pull back with your hips. This version will place more emphasis on your abs and lower back while taking some of the work off of your shoulders
Option #2: Do the same thing as you did in option #1, but use your lats to try and pull the ball back with your elbows to return to the starting position. In this version, the shoulder angle is changing, which means the muscles that control your shoulders will be under higher load.
Complete 5-10 reps of either option or both if you’re a little crazy.
Before you start pulling, it’s helpful to build your skill hanging from the bar.
You might struggle at maintaining a dead hang from the bar due to grip strength. Hanging for 10-30 seconds can be a simple and very effective way to build the grip strength needed to perform pull-ups.
Hanging Shoulder Shrugs
When you can conquer that challenge with ease, your next goal is pulling your shoulders down and tight to your ribs while holding the same hollow body position you used on the ground.
Hold that position for 5 seconds per rep, breathing out forcefully with each contraction.
Hanging Leg Raises
Can you master the hollow body hang? Awesome. Now, you can add in some leg raises to make the movement harder.
Start with a bent knee leg raise. The key is not to sway.
If that’s no problem, try a straight leg raise. Again, you want to avoid rocking back and forth. The movement should be slow and controlled.
Try to hit ten amazingly good reps total. To do that, you might need to perform five sets of 2, or 4 sets of 2-to-3, or 3 sets of 3, and so on.
Pull-up Training: Mastering the Movement
These exercises are the final step to becoming better at pull-ups, whether you're trying to do more reps than ever -- or be able to do your first bodyweight pull-up.
Flexed Arm Hang
To perform the move, grab the bar and jump up. Keeping your chest as close to the bar as possible, hang there as long as you can tolerate. When you start to feel yourself coming down, fight the lowering for 3-5 seconds so you can get some eccentric strength development out of the move.
Try to maintain 10 to 30 seconds per hold, accumulating up to 30 seconds in a workout. For eccentric reps, try to keep it to a max of 5 reps of 3-5 second eccentric lowering unless you want to look like a T-Rex for a few days after your workout because you’re too sore to extend your elbows.
Band Assisted Pull-ups
Once you can do flexed arm hangs (and the 3-5 second lowering) with skill and control, you should be ready to try the pull-up.
If you want to ease yourself into the movement, start by using a band for assistance.
The thicker the band, the more assistance it provides. Similarly, placing two feet in the band versus just one gives you more help when you perform the move.
Start with the thickest band you need to execute the move, then work down to smaller, thinner bands over time.
Your Pull-up Program
Follow this pull-up routine 3-4 times per week. There are just three moves per session, which means you can add this small sequence to your current training program. Pull-ups may never be easy. But by training for them specifically, you’ll soon be able to do a lot more than you think.
- Hollow Body Holds – 4 sets x 5 reps/set x 5-second hold per rep
- Bar Hangs – 4 x sets x 6 reps/set x 5-second hold per rep
- Flexed Arm Hang – accumulate 30 seconds
- Hanging Shoulder Shrugs – 4 sets x 5 reps/set x 5-second hold per rep
- Hollow Body Horizontal pull-ups – 4 sets x 8-10 reps/set
- Hanging Leg Raises – 10 total reps
- Hollow Body Leg Raises – 4 sets x 5-8 reps of smoothe controlled tension
- Eccentric pull-ups – 4 x sets of 4-5 reps working on 3-5 second eccentrics
DAY 4 (Pull-up day)
If you can’t do a pull-up, perform...
- Band Assisted Pull-ups: aim for a max of 3 reps per set
If you can do pull-ups, then...
- Pull-ups: start with a single max set, then perform 3 sets of 50% of this number. For instance, if you do 6 on the first set, do 3 sets of 3.