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
DOING IT RIGHT
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
2) Glenoid maintained in
optimal position for joint congruence and less shear.
3) Maintain good length-tension relationship for humeral
Joint Structure & Function: Norkin and Levangie
What if there is no Assist
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
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.
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.
- Good posture: head forward,
- 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.
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!