Many athletic women have a pull-up on their training bucket list. Pull-ups are more difficult for women as they generally have more muscle mass on their lower body in proportion to their upper body and thus more weight to lift. However, with the correct progression exercises and dedication, all women who have a healthy BMI are capable of performing a pull-up.
It's not about arm strength. The power for the pull-up comes from your back and your core.
Strengthening the core is essential for optimal training function and to mitigate the risk of muscular imbalances and injury. Weakness through the upper body in women is generally due to undeveloped core muscles, meaning they can't maintain posture or base. Women who have had babies in particular are susceptible as the abdominal muscles become stretched during pregnancy. Focusing on strengthening the core increases all aspects of upper and lower body strength.
In my previous articles, I touched on the importance of a strong core for upper body strength used for framing and pushing and for building lower body strength for performing deadlifts and squats. This article is focused on strengthening the core in order to perform pull-ups safely and correctly.
4 Core Exercises for Pull-Up Strength for Women
Most people assume that pull-ups are about all about arm strength, but the power for the pull-up comes from your back and core. The latissimus dorsi (lats) are a big, strong muscle group involved in the initiation of a pull-up. If you get the lats super strong along with your core or transverse abdominis to create a strong frame, then you will be more likely achieve a successful pull-up with awesome form.
The exercises below are simple and extremely effective at building core strength through the transverse abs and the lats. Although the focus of this article is these two muscle groups, the movement of the pull-up also involves other main muscle groups such as the biceps and the rhomboids. Grip strength also cannot be overlooked.
Let’s get started.
1. Medicine Ball Rollouts On Knees
Working from the knees is a good introductory exercise to develop the lat and core strength without putting too much strain on the lower back. Throughout the movement, aim to keep a straight shape, from your head to your knees.
- Start on your knees with the ball on your forearms and your arms tucked into your chest while keeping your transverse abs braced the entire time.
- Avoid a 'banana back’ as you roll the ball out.
- Avoid sticking your butt out as you roll the ball back in. You will notice maximum pressure on your transverse abs when your shoulders are fully flexed and elbows are fully extended.
- To roll the ball back in, engage your lats in the same way as you would engage them to initiate and perform a pull up.
- Try to maintain the straight shape and aim for 15 repetitions.
2. Medicine Ball Rollouts On Feet
Rollouts on the feet are a more challenging version since the lever is longer and there is more stability required through the core to maintain that straight shape.
- Start on your feet with the ball on your forearms and your arms tucked into your chest.
- Keep a straight shape from your head to your feet and keep your transverse abs braced the entire time to make sure your spine is supported.
- If you are experiencing 'banana back' when rolling the ball out, start with small movements and only roll the ball out a little way, maintaining a straight shape through the core.
- Aim for 15 repetitions.
3. Lat Pull-Ins with Medicine Ball
This exercise is the most challenging of this series as it requires a lot of strength through the core and lats. The physio ball creates an unstable surface that requires you to use your transverse abs in order to balance, which will assist in creating a strong frame for a pull-up.
- Brace the core and lats to maintain a straight shape when the shoulders are fully flexed.
- Pull yourself back toward the ball so your shoulders are in line with your wrists.
- Aim for 15 repetitions.
4. Army Drags
These are an additional exercise you can do to help build lat and core strength that will assist in the developing strength for the pull-up.
- Start by bringing your arms stretched out in front of you.
- Brace your abs and pull yourself in by initiating the movement through your lats. This is the same movement through the lats that will help initiate the movement at the start of the pull-up.
- Aim for 15 repetitions.
A Strong, Functional Core is Invaluable
For those of us influenced by a fitness industry packed with images of fitness models with broad shoulders, wide lats, and a tiny waist, the importance of having a strong functional core is often lost. But posture, balance, stability, mobility, and strength is directly related to how strong your core is and how well it is operating.
Having a strong core will not only make pull-ups easier to achieve, it will also ensure correct posture and mitigate the risk of any injuries. By performing pull-ups mostly through the arms with a weak core, you place too much stress on your anterior deltoids, which then work overtime to complete the movement.
However, when you pull through your back, you engage your lats and move through to your rhomboids, you're more likely to have a good hollow position and an open chest at the top of the movement.
My focus is on women and new mothers who may not have the ability to go to a gym on a regular basis, but these exercises can be done at home by anyone in search of their first pull-up. Work your way through the progressions and you’ll get that pull-up in no time.
Looking for specific programs for the perfect pull-up? Try, 2 Programs to Build Up Your Pull-Up.