Pain Free Pull-Ups

On any given day when you walk in to NSS, it’s a safe bet you will see at least one client doing pull-ups. We consider this upper body pull movement one of the staples of a quality, comprehensive strength training program. But, when done improperly, not only is your performance going to be limited, there is potential that pull-ups can lead to pain and discomfort. With the biceps and upper traps having a tendency to ‘take over’, and be easily over used, this can lead to a host of issues, including nagging elbow discomfort and neck and shoulder stiffness/soreness. That’s why today we are going to look at some options for generating the most pull from the latissimus dorsi (primary pulling muscles) while doing pull-ups. Thus, minimizing your potential for pain, and making sure you can keep rocking pull-ups for years to come.


There are three base pulling grips we incorporate at NSS; over hand (pull-up), under hand (chin-up), and thumbs toward you (neutral grip). Of these three, the best variation to isolate the lats, and reduce elbow discomfort with pulling, is the over hand grip pull-up. This minimizes inclusion of the biceps more than the other grip options. By diminishing the biceps role and keeping them as assistants to the pull (not the main focus) you will be able to engage more fully through the lats. Now that you are working proper pull-up grip try the following ideas:


1 - Work on the scapular pull down (think reverse shoulder shrug). This can be a great warm-up and activation drill or used on its own for a strengthening exercise. To do this, grab the bar in the over hand grip, with the elbows fully extended and let yourself hang completely. Without bending the elbows, pull your shoulder blades downward (as if you are putting them in your back pockets). This will fully engage the lats, while subsequently turning off the upper traps. Repeat for multiple reps, making sure to push your shoulders away from your ears as much as possible. Getting good at these should be your first priority!


2 - Utilize a visual cue, by facing a mirror or have a training partner watch. This is to see if you are shrugging your shoulders up while pulling to the bar. This is a pretty obvious ‘cheat’ that people will utilize, sometimes without realizing it, that is in direct opposition to scap pull downs. The upper trapezius muscles will jump in to assist whenever they can. By watching in a mirror, or having someone watch for you, you can determine if this shrugging is happening (especially in the latter reps) and adjust. Per Pavel Tsatsouline, “Think of your shoulders as poison to your ears.”


3 - Take a wider grip on the bar. In the traditional pull-up, taking a wider grip is going to allow you to get an optimal angle of pull with the lats. This angle will put you in an ideal position to finish the movement by “closing the armpits”. This closing of the armpits will help to prevent the elbows from floating out in front of your body, (which will crank up the biceps).


4 - Drive your hands ‘outward’ while pulling up to the bar. After you have pulled the scapulas to your back pockets, and you begin your pull, think about spreading your hands apart or driving them outward on the bar. The hands will not actually move, but the concept of pulling them open will help to keep the lats engaged and shoulders down.


5 - Use a slow descent on your reps. Once you have lifted your chin to the bar, pause for a second (making sure the shoulders aren’t shrugged) then begin a smooth, controlled drop (up to 5 seconds) back down to the floor. While dropping (and keeping the scaps in the back pockets), push your head through the bar, and drive your elbows to the sides. Meaning, that once you have cleared your head from the bar on the way down, push it directly under the bar while pointing your elbows outward. This repositioning of the elbows out to the side of your body will help to target the lats and minimize bicep involvement.


6 - Use a thumb-less grip to enhance the ‘hands as hooks’ concept. This will decrease the pull from your hands and place more emphasis on pulling form the lats.


7 - Drive the elbows out to the side. Focus on pointing your elbows out to the side, instead of in front of your body. This again puts your body, and angle of pull, in a better position to recruit the lats. As the elbows float to the front of the body biceps will pick up more work.


8 - Use rings or a TRX. Using a non-stationary bar can allow a slight rotation of the hands and shoulders to take stress off the elbows. A more natural ‘screwing down’ of the shoulders as you pull can be advantageous to maintain strong pull from the primary movers.


If you are still running into issue with elbow pain or upper trap involvement, try going to an assisted variation with a band. This reduces the amount of body weight you need to pull, especially at the bottom of the movement (right when you are looking to pull the scaps to the back pockets). Secure the band to your bar then sling it around your knee or foot. If you don’t have a band, trying using a slight push off a bench or box, or using an assisted pull-up machine. This way you can focus on the above mentioned points under a load less than body weight.


Spend time the next two weeks focusing on each of the above mentioned ideas, practicing with perfect form, minimizing fatigue and creating a great mind to muscle connection to your lats and we are certain to see you at NSS cranking out picture perfect, pain free pull-ups, for years to come!

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