Pullups are one of the best exercises you can do. It can be done almost anywhere with no equipment except for a bar, branch, or an under open set of stairs.  If I were told I could only do 3 exercises the rest of my life, they would be one, along with Pushups and Squats. It incorporates a lot of muscle, trains and maintains valuable joint range of motion, and integrates the shoulder complex in a way that encapsulates true human strength. It is an extremely difficult exercise to do, very few people can accomplish it, and even fewer execute it correctly. Machine manufacturers have built ‘assist’ machines, which in effect subtract weight from your body allowing you to learn the correct joint movements, the motor patterns involved, and progress appropriately. The majority of people attempting to incorporate Pullups into their routine end up jumping, bouncing, swinging, and contorting their bodies in attempt to get their bodies up to the bar any which way they can. This is not effective and has no way at marking improvement. Results are limited, injury possible, and, well, everyone knows and sees that you are cheating!




The Mechanics


The first thing to understand, learn, and feel is joint motion. Most people are unaware of the movements of the shoulder blades using only their arms and the shoulder joint (technically called the Glenohumeral joint), to produce force for the upper body. The shoulder complex is composed of the Humerus, (upper arm bone), the Clavicle, (collar bone), and the Scapula, (shoulder blade). Coordinated movement of these three segments, called Scapulohumeral Rhythm, is essential for proper force production, optimal skeletal range of motion, and correct seating of upper limb which prevents unwanted posture, compensation, degeneration, and pain.

In a Pullup, the shoulder blades rotate upward and downward as the body goes up and down and the arms bend. I instruct clients to practice using the shoulder blades in all movements: up-down (elevation-depression, aka. shrugging), forward & back (abduction-adduction or protraction-retraction), and upward –downward rotation to become aware of their movements and note any current compensation. The next step is to perform a Pullup/Pulldown motion without any resistance focusing on shoulder blade movement ensuring the elbows point down and head toward the sides of the body. Scapular Motion is so important to master as it comes into play with many other exercises and is essential for optimum posture and undue stress on the shoulder joint.


Quotes by Smart People:


“The ultimate function of scapular motion is to orient the glenoid for optimal contact with maneuvering arm, add range of motion to arm, and provide stable base for rolling-sliding of hum head.” -Kapandji


Scapulohumeral Rhythm is a pattern of concomitant and coordinated movement that serves 3 purposes:

1) Distribute motion between the GH & ST joints permitting range of motion without compromising stability.

2) Glenoid maintained in optimal position for joint congruence and less shear.

3) Maintain good length-tension relationship for humeral muscles.  

- Joint Structure & Function: Norkin and Levangie




What if there is no Assist Machine?

Make no mistake, Pullups are hard! You are lifting you’re lifting the weight of your entire body against gravity. Another way to put it is, if you weight 180 pounds, the law of gravity states that you have to be able to pull that weight down before you can pull it up. On a Pulldown machine, that would equal 18 plates. If you can’t pull it down, you can’t pull it up!



Progressing to the point to be able to accomplish a Pullup can start at the Pulldown station. Pulldowns incorporate the same joint motions as a Pullup except the hands move toward the body instead of the body toward the hands. We call this reverse action. Training yourself and the motion performing Pulldowns is a great way to move toward the Pullup. Exercises that train the same muscles and synergists to the Pullup can also be trained using a barrage of exercises: seated row, reverse fly, arm curl, etc.


Using a Spotter to assist you with what you need to perform a Pullup is also a great way to progress. Keeping knees bent, the spotter would assist you on the way up and monitor for correct form.


Doing It Right

Torso straight, elbows in the same plane as the grip angle you choose. Full-range is sometimes goal dependent, and training a shortened range may be part of your progression, but getting down to the bottom and eyes above the bar is typically the description of a Pullup. The motion should be straight up and down/vertical with no ‘heaving’ or ‘jerking’ back and forth just to get above the bar.


Variations ~ Grips ~ Tips

Many Pullup bars or stations offer a choice of a few different grips. There will be a wide/overhand grip and typically a Neutral/palms face in-each other grip. Often there is a very narrow grip and you also have the option of reversing your hands and performing a chin-up. I avoid Chin-ups for the simple fact that it imposes an unnatural position of the shoulder. I know-I know, they have been done for years and G.I. Jane and the rest of the military still does them, and yup, they are easier, but by simply raising your hand overhead, (like you are going to ask a question in grade school), you will notice your hand faces forward, not backward as in the bottom of the range in a chin-up. Turn your hand to face backward and notice the feeling in the shoulder. Without getting into the intrinsics of mechanics of shoulder/elbow/wrist mechanics, I will just tell you that Neutral Grip and Wide Grip Pullups are best.


How Wide?

If you put your arms straight out to the side, and bend your elbows to 90 degrees, this is your optimal grip for doing Pullups. Varying the grip a few inches in or out in both the wide and neutral grip versions is warranted, but excessively wide or narrow does not target any particular muscle more than another….despite what the big bodybuilder says! It will shorten range, wreak havoc on the wrists, and force you to go out of plane.


Other Tips

- Good posture: head forward, chest up.

- Start light: lots of assistance on the assist machine or from a spotter.

- Focus on shoulder blade movement of upward-downward rotation

- Practice at least a few times a week to engrain the process

- The Overhead Press, the opposite direction of opposed resistance, with 2 dumbbells standing, is also a great way to rehearse scapular motion.


The Shoulder Blade must upwardly rotate 60 degrees to support, stabilize, mobilize, and provide a foundation for the arm.

A Chin-Assist Machine.

A great ay to progress

in to doing a Pullup.

Terri performing a Pulldown showing the proper form: Appropriate grip width, eyes/head forward, shoulders downwardly rotate, elbows in toward sides, and proper range.

The Urban Caveman in Costa Rica utilizing the local gym equipment!