Horizontal Pull-Ups Are Harder Than Normal Ones, See Why

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A man hanging horizontally from a pull-up bar with a fearful facial expression.
Eric performing horizontal pull-ups with his knees bent.

After doing research, I noticed that horizontal pull-ups are commonly performed with the feet on the ground. However, this would be considered an inverted row, not a pull-up.

Out of curiosity, I decided to test my horizontal and vertical pull-up maxes without touching the ground to show which of them is easier.

Fully horizontal, or front lever pull-ups are harder than regular pull-ups as there is more gravitational pressure since the entire body is parallel to the floor. This requires the back, core, and forearm muscles to work harder to stabilize and lift toward the bar.

Read on to watch me test how many horizontal pull-ups I can do and then explain the main reasons why they are more difficult than regular ones.

Why Horizontal Pull-Ups Are Harder Than Vertical Ones

What makes horizontal pull-ups more difficult than vertical ones is the relationship between gravity and the position of the body. With either version, the upper and lower body are in a relatively straight line.

However, this line is parallel to the floor during horizontal pull-ups. This means more gravity is pushing against the lower body and torso, which makes the core work harder to maintain the position alone.

Essentially you’re trying to prevent gravity from swinging your legs and torso downward into a vertical position. If gravity were to “beat you” so to speak, you’d be doing a vertical pull-up instead.

During this “fight”, you’re also trying to pull yourself up to the bar using your back muscles. You’re going to accumulate metabolic fatigue much quicker as there is a high energy demand to maintain the static horizontal position while also pulling up.

Conversely, with vertical pull-ups, your body is in a straight line, perpendicular to the floor. There will be less reliance on core stability since the legs and torso are essentially hanging below the arms.

The fight against gravity is also reduced as you only resist the downward pushing force on your head and shoulder blades, while still lifting your entire body weight of course.

Learn more about the differences between vertical and horizontal back exercises in another article I wrote.

To see just how much harder horizontal pull-ups are, I did AMRAP (as many reps as possible) tests.

On Thursday 10/12/23, I was only able to crank out FOUR reps of horizontal pull-ups with atrocious form.

I couldn’t even maintain a completely straight line between my upper and lower body. Gravity kicked my butt as I swung downward like crazy.

It was extremely difficult to stabilize and maintain rigidity in my body to avoid this swinging. My lower back and abs were being pushed to the max to try and hold the positioning.

Not to mention there was a painful level of elbow cracking and bicep tension.

I then rested for a day and did regular pull-ups on Saturday 10/14/23, and completed ten reps, but the form was iffy on the last few.

As someone with minimal calisthenics experience who only does vertical pull-ups once or twice a week, the horizontal version was definitively harder.

Here are the muscles I felt working extremely hard with horizontal pull-ups:

  • Core (Abdominals and Spinal Erectors)
  • Triceps
  • Forearms
  • Biceps

However, when done with pristine form you should be able to pull using your lats, traps, and rhomboids too. I was just struggling to keep myself in the position so focusing my efforts on the actual pulling aspect was difficult.

Conversely, with regular pull-ups, I pride myself on my ability to use my back muscles. They were working extremely well throughout the AMRAP test and I only noticed bicep involvement toward the end.

These are the muscles I felt more during the regular pull-ups:

  • Lats
  • Rear delts
  • Traps

Horizontal pull-ups aren’t on my bucket list of exercises to master. However, if you’re someone who does want to be able to do them properly, start with an easier version and scale up from there.

4 Ways To Make Horizontal Pull-Ups Easier

Below are four easier variations of the horizontal pull-up. The first one is an inverted row since the feet are going to be planted on the ground for assistance.

1. Plant Your Feet on the Ground

Keeping your feet planted on the ground won’t require you to fight gravity from swinging you downward. You’ll have a solid base of support to practice engaging your core and back muscles since you’re not in a free hang.

There is also more room for error since you won’t incur as much fatigue or have to worry about your legs suddenly jerking toward the ground. This variation is usually easier than regular pull-ups too depending on the angle you position yourself at.

2. Perform Isometric Holds in the Bottom Position

You could also just hold yourself in a horizontal straight line while keeping your elbows extended. This is known as a front lever.

Your grip and core stability will be challenged while practicing maintaining the proper starting positioning before incorporating the pull-up.

3. Have Your Legs Horizontal and Torso Vertical

Once you’ve got the foundation built you can add in the pull-up component. As I mentioned earlier, this is going to increase the level of fatigue you accumulate.

To reduce this and still improve core stability, extend your legs parallel while holding your upper body perpendicular to the floor. Essentially, this is a cross-breed between a horizontal and vertical pull-up.

4. Keep Your Knees Tucked Towards Your Chest

After you’re able to perform 6-8 solid reps using the technique from step 3, advance to the horizontal pull-up, but keep your knees tucked into your chest.

Your core will still be heavily engaged, but you won’t have to fight gravity as hard as you would if your legs were fully extended. Do this until you can do 6-8 reps with good form again, then try a fully horizontal pull-up.

When To Use Horizontal Pull-Ups Instead of Normal Ones

When targeting the back, horizontal pull-ups aren’t my go-to option over their vertical counterpart. Mainly because they have an increased likelihood of error, which can reduce tension on the lats and traps.

However, they can be an effective replacement if you have a low-hanging bar that isn’t high enough off the ground for vertical pull-ups.

Horizontal pull-ups are an effective bodyweight exercise for targeting the lats and upper back to improve various movements of the shoulder blades. They also challenge and strengthen the abdominals, lower back, forearms, and elbow flexors.

Since my forte is strength training and not calisthenics, I’ve provided a weight-focused back workout that incorporates horizontal pull-ups. They’re placed at the start of the workout to maximize your performance with them.

  1. Horizontal Pull-Ups: 3 sets x 5 reps
  2. Bent-Over Row: 4 x 10
  3. Dumbbell Lat Pullover: 3 x 15

Do one of the modified versions I mentioned above if you can’t perform horizontal pull-ups yet.

Eric De Cremer
Eric De Cremer

Eric is an NCCA-accredited Certified Personal Trainer and competitively trained powerlifter. Feel free to contact him anytime at edecremer@wildnswole.com!