Who’s wondered, “Why Are My Abs Sore From Pull Ups?”
I’m sure we can all agree that pull ups are a fantastic exercise.
Plus, there are few better upper back and lat builders out there.
And the fact that you can get a great workout with just a bar and your own body weight makes pull ups one of the most accessible exercises.
However, many people typically find that pull ups hurt their abs.
This seems strange as you would expect “soreness” in your upper back or arms.
So, what exactly is going on here?
Why Are My Abs Sore From Pull Ups?
The main reason that your abs are sore from pull ups is because your core muscles will stabilize in order to stop you from swinging. Furthermore, the Journal of Physical Fitness, Medicine & Treatment in Sports conducted a study in 2018 which compared muscle activation during pull ups and three alternative pulling exercises. The results found that the muscles most activated and involved in the pull up were the core, biceps, lats, and mid-to-lower traps (in that specific order).
1. Your Core Should Stabilize During Pull Ups
The most obvious reason that your abs are sore from pull ups is because your core does a lot of stabilization work during the exercise.
Basically, in order to stop you from swinging around during pull ups your core is working pretty hard.
If you’re able to perform at least a few pull ups your body will typically remain very still as you simply move up and down.
Of course, there is the Crossfit-type kipping pull up (I’m not a fan), but in the main there’s very little body movement going on during conventional pull ups.
Something else to consider is your body-positioning as a whole.
For most of us, we will move our head and torso away from the bar in order to avoid hitting it.
This means that your legs and hips will move further in front of the bar to counterbalance the “lean back”.
So, in effect you are performing a hollow hold during pull ups, especially at the top.
And the hollow hold exercise itself will isolate your abs while moving your centre of mass slightly forwards.
The Hollow Hold
2. 2018 Study – The Core is The Most Activated Muscle During Pull Ups
So, we’re now aware that the core is activated during pull ups.
However, you may not know just how much the core muscles are activated.
The Journal of Physical Fitness, Medicine & Treatment in Sports conducted a study in 2018.
They wanted to compare muscle activation during pull ups and three alternative pulling exercises.
Participants in the study were divided into groups who could perform 10+ reps of pull ups and under 10 reps max.
Both groups performed pull ups, machine assisted pull ups, seated lat pulldowns, and kneeling lat pulldowns.
Muscle activation was measured by muscle electrical activity or electromyography (EMG).
The study found that muscles most activated and involved in pull ups were that of the core.
Basically, the core was more involved in pull ups than the lats, biceps, or traps.
It’s also interesting to note that machine assisted pull ups and seated lat pulldowns reduced core activation significantly.
In fact, the lats, biceps, and traps were activated to greater effect during these two exercises.
However, core activation was once again at its greatest during kneeling lat pulldowns.
This means that as a beginner to pull ups you would be better off training kneeling lat pulldowns over the other two exercises.
3. Are You Inadvertently Lifting Your Knees?
Something else to consider is that you may be inadvertently lifting your knees during pull ups.
This would obviously increase the amount of core activation during the exercise.
I would say that this is especially true as you approach the end of your set and fatigue is starting to set in.
There is a tendency to squeeze out a final few reps and this may often involve you using momentum or body English to get yourself up.
I would also say how you allow your legs to hang and your height could be a factor.
The conventional “stance” for pull ups could involve your legs being bent at the knee and feet crossed behind you.
So, this would automatically bring the core and abs more into play.
Furthermore, if you’re particularly tall you may in effect be performing a knee raise during pull ups to ensure that your feet don’t touch the floor.
Once again, this will activate the abs even more during pull ups.
4. Your Core Muscles Are Weak
So, obviously the core has a massive role to play during pull ups.
Therefore, it makes sense that the stronger your core is the better you should be at pull ups.
This isn’t something that many people take into consideration.
In fact, in order to improve pull ups many of us will typically turn to upper back and arm exercises.
This may involve various rowing movements, pulldowns, bicep and hammer curls.
Don’t get me wrong, these are all great exercises in their own right, and they will definitely help to strengthen the target pull up muscles.
However, you should also consider whether your core is your weak-point when it comes to pull ups.
It could be the case that weak core muscles are holding you back from performing more reps of pull ups.
Plus, this could also explain why your abs feel sore after pull ups.
Your core has had a lot of work to do throughout your reps and sets.
So, it makes sense to perform additional core stabilization and strengthening exercises to improve your pull ups.
5. Are You Using Additional Weight?
Your ab soreness could also be explained if you’re at the stage where you’re adding weight to your pull ups.
Basically, everything I’ve already mentioned obviously still stands.
However, with the addition of weight your core muscles will have to work even harder during pull ups.
Not only are you trying to stabilize your core, you now have even more than your own body weight to contend with.
I would even go as far to say that a standard 5×5 weighted pull up workout will work your abs and core better than a 10-minute ab session.
Where and how you hold the weight could also make a huge difference.
Your core is going to be activated no matter what during pull ups.
However, a plate hanging from a dip belt would require more ab and core work than if you were wearing a weighted vest.
And a dumbbell hanging between your feet would require even more stabilization of the core muscles than using a dip belt.
For me, as long as the soreness you’re feeling is general DOMS then there is absolutely no issue.
You are performing pull ups correctly and the right muscles are getting activated.
So, I hope that clears up why your abs feel sore from pull ups.
Your core muscles actually have a lot of work to do during pull ups.
In fact, according to a 2018 study it is the core muscles that are activated and involved most during pull ups.
Therefore, it also makes sense to work on strengthening your core muscles in order to improve and increase your pull ups.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.