Although they are often considered a back exercise, studies have proven that pull-ups provide an incredible ab workout. To perform a proper wide-grip pull-up, your abs must remain activated throughout both the concentric and eccentric (upward and downward) motion of the pull-up. You can even increase the ab activation potential of your pull-ups by performing them with your legs held straight out in front of you in the “L pull-up” form.
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How Do Pull-Ups Work Your Abs?
A study of muscle activation during pull-ups revealed that the rectus abdominis (the abs) have the highest measured muscle activation across the pull-up variations studied. The reason for this is that your abs are constantly engaged to perform pull-ups without swinging. Maintaining proper pull-up form relies on activated ab muscles throughout both the upward movement and controlled descent of a proper pull-up.
- Your abs are used to steady your body and prevent swinging during pull-ups.
- Ab muscles are engaged throughout the pull-up motion.
- By stabilizing your body, your abs also allow for proper activation of back muscles during pull-ups.
If you perform proper, no-swing pull-ups, you are getting an intense ab workout the entire time you use the pull-up bar. By working your abs to maintain stability, you also ensure the complete engagement of your back muscles, so getting an ab workout out of your pull-ups also helps encourage better total-body fitness. This turns pull-ups into one of the most elite upper body exercises you can perform.
How to Maximize Pull-Ups for an Intense Ab Workout
The standard overhand grip pull-up provides a host of benefits for your abdominal muscles, not to mention the benefits for your back, biceps, and grip strength. However, if rock-hard abs are what you’re after, you can add another layer of challenge to your pull-ups. To do so, start performing L pull-ups. To do this exercise:
- Step up to the pull-up bar and grasp it with an overhand grip.
- Your hands should be about 6 inches (15 cm) more than shoulder-width apart.
- While hanging from the pull-up bar, bring your legs straight up in front of you. Do not bend your knees.
- Bring your legs up until they are parallel with the floor and your body forms an L-shape.
- Perform wide-grip pull-ups while keeping your legs straight out in front in this L-shape.
While standard pull-ups focus on the upper abdominals to steady your body, bringing your legs up in front of you without bending your knees adds another layer of challenge. Not only will this multiply the amount of work your abs will have to do during your pull-ups, but it also increases the activation of the lower abdominal muscles. For an ab-building pull-up, look no further.
How Many Pull-Ups Should You Do For an Ab Workout?
To build ab strength and tone with pull-ups, perform 3–5 sets of pull-ups for 8–12 reps each set. Rest for 1–3 minutes between sets. This set-and-rep range is beneficial for your core muscles as well as the other muscles used during pull-ups.
- Perform 3–5 sets of pull-ups.
- Do 8–12 pull-ups per set.
- Rest for 1–3 minutes between sets.
- This set and rep range applies to wide-grip pull-ups, L pull-ups, and other types of pull-up.
By performing pull-ups in this range, you will train muscles throughout your upper body. Not only will your abdominal muscles gain strength and definition, but so will your lats, grip strength, oblique muscles, and biceps.
How Often Can You Do Pull-Ups for Abs?
Because pull-ups are a compound exercise that works so many muscles in the upper body, we recommend performing them no more than twice per week. Whether you perform wide-grip pull-ups or L pull-ups, allow 3–4 days of rest between pull-up workouts.
- Perform high-intensity pull-ups no more than 2 times per week.
- Allow 3–4 days of rest between intense pull-up workouts.
- Perform a total of 15–20 sets of ab work to build strong core muscles.
- Supplement pull-ups with additional ab exercises for optimal core strength development.
For best results, perform 15–20 sets of abs exercises per week. If you perform two 5-set pull-up workouts per week, you will have already performed 10 sets of ab workouts. Add 5–10 sets of ab-specific exercises such as planks, ab wheel rollouts, hanging crunches, or even battle ropes, to your weekly routine. You will both see and feel a difference.
Do Pull-Ups Build Your Core Muscles?
Pull-ups activate the core muscles, especially the abs, throughout the range of motion of the exercise. This is because abs are essential for maintaining strict form and preventing body sway during pull-ups. When choosing bodyweight exercises for your ab workout routine, make sure to include pull-ups. You will be hard-pressed to find a more effective exercise for engaging your abdominal muscles.