Second to the pushup, the pull-up is one of the oldest and most common methods of testing and developing upper body strength and definition. Everything from your grip, forearms, upper arms, back, and core take part in the pull-up. In addition, there are many way one can perform a pull-up with each version focusing on different muscle groups. For the sake of this article will be talking about the standard military style pull-up (palms facing away from you). While effective, the pull-up can cause long-term shoulder problems when executed incorrectly. Many big, strong men fall victim to these issues despite their appearance. Dial in the pull-up and see strong, healthy results over a long period of time.
Mistake #1: Looking up. Stand in any gym and 99.9% of the time you will see someone looking up at the bar when doing pull-ups. Why? You know where you’re going. You know where the bar is. Why do you have to look up? The reason most people look up, aside from wanting to make sure they don’t hit their head, is because it produces a feeling of “strength” when pulling up. They feel as if they’re getting more muscles to work and make the pull-up easier. The truth is when you look up (aka hyper neck extension) you lose strength in your lats (that big muscle that covers the majority of your back). When your head is inline with your spine, such as when you look straight ahead, you create a stronger kinetic chain that enables your back muscles (ie. Rhomboids, lats, lower erectors, etc.) to work together.
Keep your eyes straight. Don’t look up!
Fix this by looking straight ahead as you pull up on the bar. You’ll have a strong urge to look up. Don’t! You should feel a strong “pull” feeling at the base of your neck. This is good! Do not go into neck extension. And, don’t worry about hitting the bar. Your body isn’t that stupid.
Mistake #2: Trying to get chin over the bar instead of collarbone to bar. I’m not sure if it’s mental but for some reason when people think “get my chin over the bar” they use their arms to pull up instead of their back. Yes, your arms are doing work, a lot of work. Your back, however, is not being utilized to its full potential when you think “get my chin over the bar.”
Perfect example of getting collarbone to bar
Fix this by telling yourself to “pull your elbows to your rib cage.” Immediately, you go from ‘arm’ focus to ‘back’ focus. This will help you engage more muscles, especially, your lats which is one of the strongest muscles in your body. As you pull up aim to have your collarbone reach the bar, not your chin. If you stop at your chin then you don’t get the full contraction of your rhomboids (middle, upper back muscles). These muscles tend to be the weak link in a pull-up once your chin gets near the bar. Just when you feel you’ve gone high enough keep pulling and get your collarbone to the bar.
Mistake #3: Hyperextension of low back. I will start of by reiterating the importance of pull-up variations. Different versions require different mechanics. Having a slight extension in the low back is fine. Trying to bend your body in half like a pretzel is not fine (unless you’re a Cirque Du Soleil performer). There are some exceptions and I’ll touch on those at the end. For now, just put in your brain that over arching your low back is bad. Why? It’s a sign you have tight shoulder capsules (i.e. deltoids, lats, serratus, pecs, etc.). A multitude of muscles go into the workings of the shoulder capsule but it’s a delicate balance of keeping range of motion while getting stronger. When you hang from a pull-up bar you place a great deal of load on your shoulder capsules. If you can hang straight like a pencil with little to no arch of your low back then you have great range of motion. If not, then you have limited range of motion. Over time, as you perform pull-ups with poor range of motion, you will begin to aggravate your shoulders. You’ll have shoulder impingement pain and this will make many other lifts excruciating.
Avoid hyperextension of your low back
Fix this by working on your shoulder joint mobility. I know, this is the “unsexy” side of fitness but it is absolutely necessary. Use foam rollers for your lats and lacrosse balls for your rhomboids and pecs. Dig in and get those muscles to loosen up.
Another great drill is called the “dislocate”. Sounds painful but you take a broomstick and hold in horizontally in front of you and attempt to raise it over your head to the back part of your waist while keeping your arms completely straight. Move your hands out wider if you are unable to do so. Perform these mobility drills in between your sets of pull-ups. In addition, use an assisted form of a pull-up (bands, bench, machines) until your range of motion comes back. You’ll still have the opportunity to work your vertical pulling pattern while protecting your shoulder health.
STAY FIT MY FRIENDS!