Pull Ups Leg Placement (Should You Cross or Not?)

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I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s thought about the ideal leg position when performing pull ups.

The standard “go-to” method seems to involve crossing your legs at the ankles with your feet behind you.

In fact, during my first few years of performing pull ups I always had my legs crossed behind me.

However, I eventually discovered that this wasn’t the most optimal or effective place to have your legs during pull ups.

Here’s what you need to know.

The best leg position for pull ups will require you to keep your legs straight, knees locked, and toes pointed. However, this isn’t always possible depending on how tall you are or the height of your pull up bar. If you can’t keep your legs straight, due to height restrictions, then you can bend at the knees and cross your legs behind you. That said, you should be wary of arching your lower back in this position, as it decreases the effectiveness of pull ups. In fact, you would be better off having your legs in front of you, which provides more core activation.

The Best Leg Position For Pull Ups

Two Men Performing Pull Ups While Two Other People Look On

The ideal pull up position will involve having your legs completely straight.

Pull ups are actually a full-body exercise.

Okay, I’ll admit that they are upper-body dominant.

So, you would typically perform pull ups to increase size, strength, and power in your upper back, lats, traps, rhomboids, erector spinae muscles, and biceps.

However, there are many more body parts which come to the fore when performing pull ups.

In fact, there are various muscles you should contract and keep tight with every single rep.

And for some of these muscles I’m guessing that you may never have considered doing this before.

So, the best leg position will see your legs ramrod straight.

Your knees should be locked and your toes pointed towards the ground.

Plus, you should also contract your core, quads, and glutes.

In effect, your entire body is completely straight and various muscles are squeezed tight.

Then as you pull yourself up and lower yourself back down all of these muscles will play some part during the movement.

Therefore, I would say that your legs shouldn’t be crossed when performing pull ups.

I know this may be difficult to accept at first.

I mean, everywhere you look people typically perform pull ups with their legs crossed at the ankle and their feet placed behind them.

This has literally become the “traditional” way to perform pull ups.

However, this is definitely not the ideal way to complete the exercise.

With that being said, I understand that it’s not always possible to maintain completely straight legs during pull ups.

So, what should you do then?

Don’t Arch Your Lower Back When Crossing Your Legs

There will be times when you can’t use the “ideal” leg position for pull ups.

Basically, you don’t have enough room to hold your legs straight.

Perhaps the pull up bar is too low, as is the case with most door frame pull up bars.

Then again, you may just be very tall, so your feet are always going to be in contact with the ground.

In truth, it is probably because of these reasons that the cross-legged pull up was born.

Obviously, placing your feet on the ground after every rep will mean that pull ups won’t be as effective.

In effect, you will no longer maintain constant tension throughout your set.

So, you will need to do something with your legs to avoid this happening.

As I say, this is probably why the cross-legged pull up came into existence.

This way you can still perform pull ups, while maintaining constant tension on the working muscles.

However, by having your legs crossed you will alter the movement and shape of pull ups.

This will actually change the way in which the muscles are recruited.

Plus, it can have a detrimental effect on building muscle and strength.

In fact, cross-legged pull ups can actually prevent you from progressing to harder exercises.

One such exercise that comes to mind is muscle-ups.

Your body shape and the angle at which you approach the bar when your legs are crossed will never work for muscle-ups.

Why Cross-Legged Pull Ups Can Be a Bad Thing

However, the most negative aspect of crossing your legs is what happens to your lower back.

Basically, as soon as you cross your legs your pelvis rotates forward.

And this in turn will typically mean that you arch your lower back.

Your upper body almost takes on a banana-shape, which will change the angle at which you approach the bar.

A Man Performing Pull Ups With an Arched Lower Back - Don't Arch Your Lower Back During Pull Ups

Furthermore, you’ll also end up performing pull ups with a reduced range of motion.

With that being said, if you do have to bend at the knees and cross your legs there is a quick fix to help you avoid arching your lower back.

You should tuck your tailbone in and contract both your core and glutes.

Realistically, your core and glute muscles should always be contracted irrespective of leg position.

What you specifically want to avoid is sticking your butt out, which will automatically cause your lower back to arch.

Are Pull Ups a Core Exercise?

Now here’s something you thought you’d never read.

The Journal of Physical Fitness, Medicine and Treatment in Sports conducted a study on pull ups and three similar exercises.

The study which took place in 2018 wanted to compare muscle activation of pull ups, negative pull ups, seated lat pulldowns, and kneeling lat pull downs.

And low-and-behold, the study concluded that it was in fact the core muscles that were most activated and involved during pull ups.

Basically, pull ups are more of a core exercise than they are an upper back, lats, traps, or biceps exercise.

However, as soon as you cross your legs behind you during pull ups you lose much of the core activation.

Don’t get me wrong, your core will still be stimulated to some degree, but nowhere near as much as the ideal straight-leg protocol.

This is why I believe that if you have to bend at the knees during pull ups you would be better having your legs in front of you.

So, in effect, you could hold the hanging knee raise position.

Then again you could bend at the hips and keep your legs straight, similar to a hollow hold position.

Finally, you could perform an L-sit pull up.

All of these options will work the core muscles even harder, which means that pull ups become even more of a full-body exercise.

Plus, when your legs are in front of you there is far less likelihood of you arching your back.

So, it’s a win-win situation.

Common Myths About Leg Placement During Pull Ups

There are so many myths and misconceptions in the world of fitness and exercise.

Often, these are well-intentioned but lack scientific backing.

And this is definitely true when it comes to optimal leg placement for pull ups.

While having your legs crossed may seem like the natural thing to do, it’s important to understand what is true and what isn’t when it comes to performing injury-free pull ups.

Myth 1: Crossed Legs Make Pull Ups Easier

Many individuals believe that having their legs crossed provides a more stable base and also makes pull easier to perform.

While there is some truth to this, there are certain factors you should be aware of.

Firstly, crossing your legs alters your body’s centre of gravity, shifting it forward slightly, which in turn makes it harder to maintain a neutral spine.

As I’ve mentioned, the cross-legged method typically leads to posterior pelvic tilt and a curvature in the lower back.

This typically leads to having to compensate for this in some way, which means that you’re likely to compromise good form and hinder proper muscle engagement.

The Reality: Straight Legs Enhance Proper Form and Muscle Engagement

Contrary to popular belief, you can promote optimal form and proper muscle activation patterns by keeping your legs straight, and slightly elevated, while maintaining a neutral spine.

From this position, you’re able to engage your core more effectively, which stabilizes the body and will prevent excessive swinging.

Furthermore, this allows for a more natural and efficient pull up path, thus allowing you to maximize muscle engagement in the upper back, lats, and arms.

Myth 2: Crossed Legs Stimulate Lat Activation

Another common misconception is that crossed legs will enhance lat activation.

Initially, this sounds great, as the lats are the primary muscle group targeted during pull ups.

However, this isn’t actually true,

Lat activation during pull ups is primarily influenced by scapular retraction (drawing your shoulder blades together) and shoulder depression (pulling the shoulders down towards the hips).

Therefore, crossing your legs will not impact the retraction and depression of the shoulder blades, so it is an ineffective tool for greater lat activation.

The Reality: Crossed Legs Can Actually Lead to Decreased Lat Activation

So, you’re now aware that lat activation primarily comes through scapular retraction and depression.

However, I’ve previously discussed how crossing your legs behind makes it far harder to maintain a neutral spine and will typically lead to a curvature of the lower back.

Unfortunately, with a curved lower spine you actually reduce the stretch in the lats in the bottom position of the pull up.

If you think about it, with a completely straight body, and therefore a neutral spine, your torso also remains straight.

This allows you to get a complete stretch of the lats.

But, with a curved lower back your torso takes on that familiar “banana-shape”, which means that your lats are no longer being stretched to their fullest.

Myth 3: Straight Legs Prevent Beginners From Performing Pull Ups

Many trainees believe that straight-legged pull ups are too challenging for beginners, and thereby make them impossible.

However, in reality, avoiding straight-legged pull ups as a beginner means that you won’t be focusing on proper technique.

Realistically, if you can’t perform proper straight-legged pull ups it makes more sense to focus on assisted pull ups initially and then look to progress from there.

The Reality: Progressive Training is the Best Way For Beginners to Achieve Straight-Legged Pull Ups

I’ve mentioned assisted pull ups, which should be the starting point for beginners.

Whether this involves using an assisted pull up machine or performing band pull ups.

This ensures that you can still use proper form and technique and then gradually reduce the assistance provided until you’re able to perform full straight-legged pull ups.

I have previously provided many examples of how to use progressions to achieve your first 10 pull ups.

By using this type of progressive approach you can build up, and gradually challenge yourself, without the risk of injury.

Bodyweight Exercises to Prepare For Straight-Legged Pull Ups

A Woman Performing Inverted Rows

We’ll often look for easier exercises to perform that can help build muscle and strength to perform harder exercises.

And pull ups probably come near the top of that list.

Basically, many trainees look for ways to improve strength in their upper back, lats, and arms in order to help them do pull ups.

In fact, I’ve even previously spoken about whether lat pulldowns will help with pull ups.

Now, while strengthening these muscles can certainly help, I still think that performing pull ups, whether assisted or negative, is the best way to get better at pull ups.

That being said, there are certain “non-related” bodyweight exercises you can perform that will help with pull ups.

However, these are mainly concentrated on strengthening your core and improving shoulder stability.

But, in truth, it is generally these two things that hold you back from performing pull ups with great form and full lat activation.

There are 3 exercises that I would suggest that you concentrate on.

Firstly, planks are one of the most popular ab and core exercises, and with good reason, they work.

However, not only will planks strengthen your core, they also require you to keep your entire body tight throughout.

So, this is a great way to practice contracting your abs, quads, and glutes to strengthen your core.

Next, there are hanging leg raises, which provide two main benefits.

Obviously, you’re training your abs with hanging leg raises, which once more allows you to strengthen your abs and core.

However, the fact that the movement involves hanging from a pull up bar will initially get you used to holding onto a pull bar for a set amount of time.

Furthermore, this can help to increase shoulder stability, plus you get to practice shoulder retraction and depression too.

Finally, you’ll want to perform inverted rows.

Realistically, these are often viewed as an easier way to train your upper back and lats with your own bodyweight.

So, you get to strengthen your lats, which will definitely help with pull ups.

Additionally, you’ll typically perform inverted rows with straight legs and you’ll need to keep your abs, quads, and glutes tight throughout.


Final Thoughts

So, I hope you have a better understanding of whether you should cross your legs when doing pull ups.

The ideal pull up will see your legs completely straight, locked at the knees, and your toes pointing towards the ground.

However, due to height restrictions this may not always be possible.

In fact, this is probably why many people choose to cross their legs behind them.

That being said, pull ups activate and involve the core more than any other muscles.

Therefore, you could actually increase core activation by having your feet in front you.

You can bend at the knees similar to the hanging knee raise position.

And if you prefer to keep your legs straight, then you can maintain a hollow hold position or perform an L-sit pull up.

Next, check out what I have to say about ring pull ups being harder than regular pull ups.

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