5 Core Exercises That Will Make You Better at Pull Ups

Performing perfect pull-ups requires a lot of core strength and stability. Add these 5 exercises into your workouts to start improving your pull-ups!

When it comes to performing pull-ups, whether it’s doing your first pull-up ever, or hitting a new PR for reps or with weight, core strength, and being able to stabilize your hips and spine can absolutely make or break your results.

When many people perform pull-ups, and this includes people of all fitness levels, ages, abilities, and backgrounds, it’s extremely common to see glaring breakdowns in form in the lumbo-pelvic region.

This is especially true when the ‘’pull’’ is being initiated in the bottom position, and during the eccentric/lowering portion of the movement.

You will frequently notice hyperextended lower backs, flared ribcages, and a lack of tension in general.

This will absolutely make each rep significantly tougher to do.

Keeping Your Core Engaged During Pull Ups

When I refer to the core, I’m talking about all of the muscles in the torso that are around the spine. In short, being able to keep your hips and spine in an intentionally rigid and stable position will help you maintain proper body positioning, will help prevent you from swinging and moving deadweight, and will help keep your path to the bar as short and efficient as possible.

To be clear, I’m not implying that you need to generate a maximal amount of tension in your core like when you are performing a max squat, deadlift, or other exercises where a max or near max weight is being used.

Tension and bracing will vary from person to person, and from exercise to exercise. But having a strong core, and bracing properly for the movement are both important. The pull-up is not just an upper body exercise, and an exercise where you can essentially disregard the rest of your body. The pull-up is a full body exercise. So remember, a strong core absolutely matters.

Here are 5 innovative and effective exercises for strengthening the core muscles and improving lumbo-pelvic stability. There are MANY exercises that will help you achieve this goal, and that can accommodate people of virtually all fitness levels.

Editor's note: Examples of workouts that incorporate these exercises are available in The Ultimate Pull-Up Program. More information about the program can be found at the bottom of the article.

1. Ab Wheel Roll-Outs From Bear Crawl Position

This unique roll-out variation trains the core muscles to resist the extension of the spine. This exercise also develops shoulder and scapular controlled mobility.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Key Points:
  • Get into a bear crawl position. Your head, torso, and hips should be in a stacked position.
  • Place your thighs so they are in a vertical position, bend your knees, and keep them a few inches above the floor.
  • Grab onto the ab wheel. Your shoulders should be above your hands.
  • Before each rep, take a deep breath in (360 degrees of air around the spine), brace your core (360 degree brace), tuck your ribs towards your hips, and squeeze your glutes.
  • Now roll the wheel to a range where you are able to maintain proper form. Once you hit your end range, perform the reverse movement and return to the starting position.
  • For the duration of the exercise, your head, torso, and hips should remain in a stacked position. Do not let your lower back hyperextend, ribs flare, torso or hips rotate, weight shift from foot to foot, and do not let your hips pike or collapse. Maintain the “canister” position. I love to use this analogy.
  • In terms of breathing, do what works and feels best for you. I prefer to steadily exhale as I am performing the rollout, and will inhale as I am returning the wheel to the starting position.
  • Make this exercise easier by decreasing your range of motion, or by performing the exercise from the knees.
  • If you think you are ready to step it up, here is a more advanced variation of this exercise:
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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2. Dead Bugs With Landmine Anti-Rotational Flies + Single Arm Kettlebell Lowering

This extremely advanced dead bug variation accomplishes a lot! The landmine fly component makes the exercise tremendously anti-rotational in nature as your core muscles must work to prevent your torso, spine, and hips from rotating.

The kettlebell lowering component requires a lot of shoulder stability, and is extremely anti-extension in nature as your core muscles must work to prevent your spine from hyperextending, and your ribcage from flaring.

You do not need to use much resistance to make this exercise challenging.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Key Points:
  • Lie on the floor. Grab onto a kettlebell and extend your arm so it is in a vertical position and is in line with your armpit.
  • Set up a barbell so it is lengthwise and is resting against a secure (or no slip) surface. If you have a landmine attachment, you can use that. Make sure the barbell is in line with your armpit.
  • Lift up your legs so they are in a vertical position, straighten your knees, and point your feet towards you (dorsiflex). If you lack the flexibility in your hamstrings or if you are unable to maintain proper form, you can keep your knees bent at a 90 degree angle. Make sure they remain at a 90 degree angle for the duration of the exercise.
  • Keep your chin tucked and neck in a neutral position, and tuck your ribs towards your hips (close the space in your midsection).
  • Before you go, take a deep breath in (360 degrees of air around your spine). Now steadily exhale through your mouth, contract your anterior core muscles as hard as you can, and simultaneously slowly lower the arm that is holding the kettlebell backwards, perform a fly with the arm that is holding the barbell, and lower one leg towards the floor. Return to the starting position. Reset and repeat.
  • Make sure you ONLY use a range where you can maintain proper form. This applies to the arm that is performing the fly, the arm that is lowering the kettlebell, and the leg that is lowering towards the floor.
  • For the duration of the exercise, do not allow your lower back to hyperextend, ribcage to flare, or pelvis to move. Maintain the “canister” position.
  • Keep your legs relaxed so they do not dominate.
  • Make sure your knee remains in a fixed position and that the movement occurs from your hip.
  • I tend to notice that if your shirt remains wrinkled, it likely means you are in the right position, and are breathing and bracing correctly. If your shirt suddenly becomes smooth, it likely means you have lost the correct position and have flared your ribcage and hyperextended your lower back.
  • Make this exercise easier by using lighter weights (barbell and/or kettlebell).
  • Make this exercise more challenging by using heavier weights (barbell and/or kettlebell).

3. Ipsilateral Bird Dog + Single Arm Rows

This innovative and challenging bird dog variation develops lumbo-pelvic stability, shoulder and scapular controlled mobility on the side that is performing the rowing movement, shoulder and scapular stability on the side that is planted, and to some extent, upper body strength. This exercise is extremely anti-rotational in nature.

If you are performing this exercise correctly, the muscles in your mid and upper back, not your arm, should be doing the majority of the work.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Key Points:
  • This exercise is significantly tougher than it looks, so start out using about 25-50% of the weight you would use to perform regular bent-over rows.
  • Kneel with one leg on a bench, and place the hand of the same side of your body on the bench. Make sure your shoulder is directly above your hand. Spread your fingers, and pretend you are suctioning your hand to the bench.
  • Extend your leg on the same side of your body as the rowing arm so it's backwards and is parallel to the ground.
  • Set your body so your head, torso, hips, and leg are in a straight line, and maintain this position for the duration of the exercise. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend, or ribcage to flare. Conversely, do not allow your spine to go into excessive flexion. Make sure that your torso stays square to the bench, and that it doesn’t rotate.
  • Before you initiate the row, take a deep breath in (360 degrees of air around your spine), brace your core (360 degree brace around your spine), tuck your ribs towards your hips (close the space in your midsection), and squeeze your glutes. This will help stabilize your pelvis and spine.
  • Initiate the movement by using the muscles in your mid and upper back and draw your shoulder blade in towards the spine (retract). Do not initiate the movement with your arm, and do not use excessive momentum.
  • Do not allow your elbow to flare out; instead keep it close to your side.
  • Lower the weight with control, and make sure you keep your shoulder from collapsing. During the lowering/eccentric component, do not keep your shoulder blade pinned. It is meant to move, and should perform the reverse movement (protraction) as it did during the rowing/concentric component.
  • Pay attention to your non-working/supporting side. Push away from the bench and protract your shoulder blade. Do not mindlessly hang out.
  • For the duration of the exercise, your head, torso and hips should remain in a stacked position. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend or round, ribcage to flare, hips to collapse or pike, neck to collapse, or torso or hips to rotate. Maintain the “canister” position.
  • Exhale right after you have initiated the rowing movement; you may inhale/”reset” as your arm is returning to the starting position, or hold your breath for the duration of the rep, exhaling, inhaling, and re-setting between reps. Figure out what works and feels best for you.
  • Make this exercise easier by using a lighter dumbbell, or by performing the contralateral variation where the hand and leg on the opposite sides of your body are on the bench.
  • Make this exercise more challenging by using a heavier dumbbell, or by performing negative reps and taking 3-5 seconds to lower the dumbbell.

4. Single Arm Hang + Single Arm Bottoms-Up Presses

This extremely advanced exercise involves performing a single arm hang while performing single arm bottoms-up kettlebell presses. This exercise develops lumbo-pelvic stability, shoulder and scapular controlled mobility on the side that is pressing, shoulder and scapular stability on the side that is hanging, and grip strength. This exercise is extremely anti-extension and anti-lateral flexion in nature.

Do the double arm variation first (basic hangs), and progress to the single arm variation and incorporate the bottoms-up presses ONLY after you have developed the requisite levels of shoulder and scapular stability (your shoulder and scapula are in a fixed position), upper body strength, grip strength, and lumbo-pelvic stability.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Key Points:
  • Set your grip so your palm is facing away from you (pronated). You may also use a neutral grip, where your palm is facing in (for instance, your left palm would be facing to the right).
  • Set your body so it is in a relatively straight line from your head to feet (or adopt a slight hollow body position). Take a deep breath in (360 degrees of air around your spine), brace your core (360 degree brace around your spine), tuck your ribs towards your hips (close the space in your midsection), squeeze your glutes, straighten your knees, contract your quads, and dorsiflex your feet (you may cross one foot over the other). This will help stabilize your pelvis, spine, and legs, and will help prevent you from swinging.
  • On the side that will be performing the hold, without bending your elbow or initiating the movement with your arm, use the muscles in your shoulder blade area and draw your shoulder blade in towards the spine and down towards the opposite hip, and lift your body a few inches. Now hold.
  • Before each kettlebell press, repeat the same breathing and bracing I described above, now perform a single arm bottoms-up press.
  • Exhale after you have initiated the press and as the kettlebell is approaching the top position.
  • “Row” the kettlebell back to the starting position.
  • Do not keep your shoulder blade pinned. It is meant to move.
  • For the duration of the exercise, your head, torso, and hips should remain in a stacked position. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend, ribcage to flare, or your body to flex laterally. Maintain the “canister” position.
  • Make this exercise easier by using a lighter kettlebell, or by performing the double arm variation (basic hang and no bottoms-up presses).
  • Make this exercise more challenging by using a heavier kettlebell, or by performing negative reps and taking 3-5 seconds to perform the lowering/eccentric component.

5. Single Arm Landmine Presses In V-Sit Position

This exercise involves performing single arm landmine presses and while in a v-sit position.

This exercise develops upper body pushing strength, shoulder and scapular controlled mobility, and lumbo-pelvic stability as your core muscles must work to prevent your spine from hyperextending and rotating.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Key Points:
  • Set up a barbell so it is lengthwise and is resting against a secure (or no slip) surface. If you have a landmine attachment, you can use that.
  • Get into a v-sit position. Your legs should be extended (my knees could have been a little more extended), and your head, torso and hips should be in a stacked position.
  • Grab the end of the barbell. It should be close to your body, and in line with your armpit.
  • Before each rep, take a deep breath in (360 degrees of air around your spine), brace your core (360 degree brace around your spine), tuck your ribs towards your hips (close the space in your midsection), and squeeze your glutes.
  • Now perform a single arm press. Make sure to keep the barbell in line with your armpit.
  • Exhale after you have initiated the press and as the barbell is approaching the top position.
  • “Row” the weight back to the starting position.
  • Do not keep your shoulder blade pinned. It is meant to move.
  • For the duration of the exercise, your head, torso and hips should remain in a stacked position. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend, ribcage to flare, or torso or hips to rotate. Maintain the “canister” position.
  • Make this exercise easier by using less weight, by bending your knees (versus extending your knees as the shorter lever will make the exercise a little easier), or by bending your knees and keeping your heels on the floor.
  • Make this exercise more challenging by using more weight, or by leaning back more and lowering your legs more so your body is in more of a hollow body position.

Editor's Note: If you have a goal to improve your ability to do pull-ups, it is highly recommended you check out The Ultimate Pull-Up Program. The program includes 4 phases and is designed to take anyone at any fitness level to the point where they are capable of performing sets of pull-ups.