The Pull-Up or other vertical pulling variations are great movements for developing strength in the upper back and arms. Many times, people struggle to perform them or perform them with proper form.
When performing a vertical pulling variation, many people lack the anterior core strength and stability to maintain a neutral spine. As you approach the bar, your spine begins to go into lumbar hyperextension, which makes the movement easier by getting their chest/chin closer to the bar.
Even though it makes the movement easier, it can cause orthopedic issues at the lumbar spine, elbows, shoulders, and even the neck. Performing one repetition incorrectly may not cause an injury but continued performance of the movement like this over time can cause issues long term.
To improve the core position, we need to focus on improving anterior core strength. Exercises such as planks and positions that focus on maintaining a neutral spine work well to improve core strength and stability.
However, if you want to improve your core strength to perform a perfectly executed pull-up, you need to take your anterior core training to the next level.
Use the following exercises to get your anterior core ready for pull-up success!
1. HOLLOW BODY HOLDS
2. SWISS BALL ROLLOUTS
3. STIR THE POT
4. REVERSE CRUNCH
5. HANGING LEG RAISES
Once you have been consistently performing these anterior core movements, we need to make sure they are implemented when performing the pull-up or variation thereof.
When initiating the pulling, we want to make sure our abs are “on” and braced so that when the pull is initiated, gravity won’t cause the lumbar spine to go into extension. By performing the pull-up with a slightly flexed hip position, this will keep the low back in an optimal position. Se the Hips Flexed Pull-Ups below:
ARMS VS UPPER BACK
Another area of concern during vertical pulling variations is that the arms are the primary generator of force and movement. What that means is that instead of creating force using the upper back musculature, people will start the pulling movement by using their biceps/arms.
Here is what it looks like:
Not only is this not optimal from a performance aspect, it can also cause orthopedic issues as well. Performance-wise, the participant will not be able to perform as many repetitions because the smaller muscles of the upper body (biceps, brachialis - depending on variation, etc.) will become fatigued faster than the upper back musculature.
From an orthopedic standpoint, this places an increased amount of stress on the forearm, elbow, and shoulder musculature because it is having to work harder to generate force to move the body vertically instead of the larger musculature of the upper back.
The next technique flaw somewhat goes hand in hand with the previous one. At the bottom of the movement, many people will have a tendency to completely “relax” their upper back and arm musculature and just “hang” from the bottom position:
Both from a performance and orthopedic health standpoint, this can cause issues. Performance-wise, it causes the athlete to have to reset each repetition and get back into a better position to be able to pull from. Orthopedically, the bottom position of the pull-up is where a large traction force is being placed on the glenohumeral joint, rotator cuff, and the labrum. By completely allowing the glenohumeral joint to distract and scapulothoracic joint to fully upwardly rotate, it places those aforementioned structures in a poor and unstable position. Long term, this can create issues at the shoulder.
Instead of allowing the arms/shoulders to completely relax and not initiating the movement from the shoulders/scapula, consciously remind yourself to initiate the pulling from the scapula:
Now, if you’ve tried the first 2 tips and still can’t complete 1 repetition of a pull-up or chin-up, don't lose hope! Sometimes people don’t possess the requisite arm, upper back, or core strength to perform one.
Try performing these regressions to help enhance your vertical pulling strength:
1. TRX Assisted Pull-Up
Start in a seated position on the floor. Your arms should be fully stretched overhead to start. Initiate the pull through the upper back and pull your chest to your hands. If this is too difficult, adjust seated position and shorten the range of motion.
2. Band Assisted Pull-Up
Attach a Super Band to the pull-up bar and the other end under your knee or foot. The tension in the band will assist in pulling you up. The hardest part of the movement is assisted by the band and as you pull yourself up, more work is put on the participant due to less tension in the band.
3. Slow Eccentric Pull-Up
Holding onto the bar, carefully jump up into the finished position of a pull-up. Then, slow and controlled, lower your body. Start with 3 seconds and work your way up to 10-15 seconds. Make sure to maintain proper form as mentioned above.
4. Inverted Rows
Make sure to keep a neutral spine. Initiate the movement from the upper back and pull your chest to the bar.
PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER
So there you have it. Vertical pulling can be extremely helpful in building upper back strength and stability which can have huge carryover for other lifts such as the deadlift, squat, etc.
If you think you can’t do a pull-up or a chin-up, put the work in and it will pay off. My wife put the work in and it shows here:
Give these tips a try and start incorporating some vertical pulling into your routine.
Andrew Millett is a practicing physical therapist in the field of orthopedic and sports medicine physical therapy. He helps to bridge the gap between physical therapy and strength and conditioning. By evaluating and treating his clients using multiple lenses, such as the Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA), Postural Restoration Institute (PRI), the main goal for all of his clients are for them to move and feel better and to keep their body functioning at high levels.
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Tim DiFrancesco, PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS spent 6 seasons as the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and is the founder of TD Athletes Edge. He is nationally renowned for his evidence-based and scientific approach to fitness, training, nutrition, and recovery for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.
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