Ever wondered, “Why Do Pull Ups Hurt My Lower Back?”
Pull ups are clearly a great exercise, especially when it comes to getting stronger and bigger lats.
However, pull ups don’t come without potential problems.
One of the most common complaints is that you feel pain in your lower back whenever you do pull ups.
So, why exactly does this happen and what can you do about it?
Why Do Pull Ups Hurt My Lower Back?
The main reason that pull ups hurt your lower back is because you’re not activating your core beforehand. The core is actually the most activated and involved group of muscles during pull ups. You should also do pull ups with your feet in front of you, as opposed to the “conventional” way of having them behind you. You are more likely to hyperextend the lumbar spine with your feet behind you, thus applying more pressure to the lower back.
1. You’re Not Activating Your Core
The most common reason for lower back pain during or after pull ups is because you’re not activating your core.
I typically view pull ups as a full-body exercise rather than merely an upper back and arm movement.
Basically, I literally have every muscle in my body contracted and ready to be worked.
And one of the most important groups of muscles is the core.
Practically every exercise you perform will typically start from the core.
Therefore, it makes perfect sense to have the core muscles activated and stimulated prior to doing any exercise.
I’ve recently written the article, “Why Are My Abs Sore From Pull Ups?”
In the article I mention a study conducted in 2018 by the Journal of Physical Fitness, Medicine & Treatment in Sports.
The results of the study showed that the core muscles were actually more activated and involved during pull ups than the lats, biceps, and traps.
In other words there’s a lot of core work going on during pull ups.
So, if you’re not activating your core muscles you’ll be applying a lot of pressure to the surrounding area.
And of course, one of the first places that will take the brunt of this additional pressure is the lower back.
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2. You Have Weak Core Muscles
I guess it makes perfect sense that weak core muscles could be the reason for your lower back pain.
In fact, let’s forget pull ups for a moment, as weak core muscles are potentially the number one reason that most people suffer lower back injuries.
As I’ve already mentioned, most exercises will involve the core muscles.
Plus, pretty much every single movement we make originates from the core.
Therefore, weak core muscles could spell disaster for you with just about every movement you make, never mind an exercise as tough as pull ups.
Additionally, I’ve also stated above that the core is most prominently used muscles during pull ups.
So, any hint of weakness in this area will once again put the strain straight onto your lower back.
If this is the case, you can still continue to do pull ups (with care), but you’ll also want to do some more direct core work to overcome this weakness.
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3. Your Feet Are Behind You
Now this may come as a shock to you, but the “traditional” foot position during pull ups is what could be hurting your lower back.
Most of us will typically perform pull ups with our legs bent at the knees and our feet crossed behind us.
In fact, this may sometimes feel like the only choice you have.
This is especially true if you perform pull ups at home.
For most of us, we have a pull up bar attached to a door frame, which unfortunately doesn’t leave us much vertical room.
I’m sure many of you will actually be taller than the level of the bar.
So, immediately this means that you need to do something with your legs so your feet aren’t coming into contact with the ground during every rep.
And of course the main way that we have all learned to do this is to bend at the knees and have our feet crossed at the ankles behind us.
However, this can unfortunately place additional pressure on the lower back.
Going back to my article about pull ups and ab soreness, I mentioned that you almost perform a type of hollow hold during pull ups.
And this of course immediately activates and stimulates the abs.
Once again, soreness in the abs could be down to weak core muscles.
With that being said, this is probably the ideal way to “hang” your body when performing pull ups (obviously if you have enough vertical room).
So, your arms are extended above your head, you are bent forward slightly at the hips, and your legs are held out completely straight.
However, as I’ve said, you may not always have enough room vertically to hold your body in this manner.
Nevertheless, if you are experiencing pain in your lower back from pull ups then you should definitely have your feet in front of you.
I’ve included a great video below from Jeff Cavaliere.
Jeff actually talks about foot position during pull ups in relation to lat activation.
But, the same principles apply when it comes to protecting your lower back.
Check the video out specifically at 2mins 27secs as well.
You’ll see Jeff alternate between having his feet behind him and then in front of him.
Take a look at the position of his lower back with both methods.
You’ll immediately understand why having your feet behind you is placing stress on the lower back.
Best Pull Up Leg Position
4. You Are Hyperextending Your Lower Back
Another reason your lower back may hurt from pull ups is because you’re hyperextending your lumbar spine.
Basically, you have a curvature of the lower back.
This could be happening completely naturally without you realising it, and then again it could be due to the apparatus you’re using.
I don’t wish to get into the “politics” of the perfect pull up.
Some will say that you simply go vertically up in a perfect straight line until your chin passes the bar, and then you lower yourself along the same trajectory.
Others will say that your chest should touch the bar, which will involve you leaning back slightly.
Plus, if you’re using a completely solid bar then it’s going to be difficult to go straight up and down without leaning slightly backwards.
Basically, the “straight up and down” pull up can only really be performed if you’re using a frame that has separate pull up handles.
A solid bar means that you have to move your face and torso out of the way in order to avoid hitting it.
However when it comes to the “lean back” pull up there is a tendency to hyperextend the lower back.
This can actually be exaggerated if you have your feet behind you.
In effect, your body forms a banana-shape from head-to-toe.
This is once again placing a huge amount of stress on the lower back.
Plus, if you hold this body position during pull ups and you have weak core muscles you’re just asking for trouble.
So, be aware that you’re not over arching your lower back when doing pull ups.
Yet again, having your feet in front of you will stop this from happening.
So, I hope you have a better idea of why pull ups hurt your lower back.
In the main this comes down to your core.
You’ll know whether this is due to you not activating your core or having weak core muscles.
You should also ensure that you keep your feet in front of you to take the pressure off your lower back.
Plus, make sure that you’re not hyperextending your lower back during pull ups either.
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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.
5 thoughts on “Why Do Pull Ups Hurt My Lower Back? (Here’s 4 Reason Why)”
Great tips. Thanks!
Thank you for the feedback, it’s much appreciated
I didn’t know that the way you place your legs has so much importance for the lower back in pull ups, now i see it’s important, thanks.
good info! recently strained/injured my lower back and, upon reviewing any new activity that i hadn’t partaken in for awhile, had recently started pullups and dips. connecting the dots w the timeline has me thinking there’s at least some connection. cheers.