The pull-up might be the best indicator of upper body strength.
Your arms and back have to do an enormous amount of work to lift your entire body, which is why being able to perform many reps is an effective way to improve not just the obvious muscles — your back, arms and forearms — but can also help you build incredible core strength.
In fact, as an exercise physiologist and strength coach, I’d go so far as to say that the pull-up is the world’s most under-appreciated way to develop your abs—and every other muscle in your midsection, for that matter.
All of that is great, but there’s one problem: It’s an exercise that gives a lot of people a lotof trouble, regardless of whether you’ve been training for years or just started.
If you are struggling to perform a pull-up — or you wish you could do many more — I’ll share a few simple-to-learn techniques that aren’t taught enough and will change everything about your pull-up performance.
By the time you’re done, you’ll not only be surprised by how quickly you can improve, but also by how many of the methods used to increase your upper body strength aren’t actually pull-ups.
Can’t Do a Pull-up? Start Here
If you can’t do any pull-ups, odds are you’ll blame it on your lack of back strength. To become stronger, you might start doing countless 1-arm rows and other dumbbell or barbell exercises.
While those exercise will make you stronger (and are a part of the solution), they won’t guarantee that you’ll be able to do more pull-ups. That’s because pull-ups aren’t just about your back.
EVEN IF YOU HAVE A REALLY STRONG BACK, YOU CAN STRUGGLE WITH PULL-UPS IF YOU HAVE A WEAK CORE.
Core stiffness, or being able to create tension throughout your torso, is a key part of successfully doing a pull-up.
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 your pull-ups—or can’t do a pull-up at all—train your core with these moves.
(If you prefer to watch all tips, here’s a video breaking down a lot of the progressions we’ll discuss today. In it, you’ll see my friend and fellow coach Tony Gentilcore demonstrating a lot of the moves discussed here.)
Hollow Body Holds
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 up into the hollow body position.
Let’s talk about that term “hollow” for a second. You might hear it and think: “belly button to spine.” DON’T DO THAT.
In a good hollow position, your abs are securely braced, as if they 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 builds some of the body tension related to the position of hanging from a bar.
Hold this position for 5 seconds or 2-3 breaths per rep, maintaining as much head-to-toe tension as you can (more on how to create tension). Take a 5-second break, then repeat for 5-6 reps per set. Over time, you can increase the duration of your holds. If you can maintain tension for a full minute, that’s really good.
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
Are you a boss at the hollow body work? Great! Then it’s time to take it up another notch.
You can create some additional arm stimulus, and 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.