Every now and again there are lists published claiming to include the best exercises. Best exercises for whom? Or best exercises for what I’m not sure? But either way these lists always make for interesting discussions.
And one that frequently makes these lists is the pull up. I would tend to agree with the inclusion of the pull up in the ‘best of’ category for exercises. It requires minimal equipment and almost all gyms are set up for pull ups. Heck any park playground will have a horizontal bar to do some pull ups.
Besides the simple equipment needs pull ups are also great because they are a great measure of relative strength. In other words they are an indication of strength relative to body-weight. A lighter individual should have an easier time performing pull ups compared to a more massive person. This is why it’s always impressive to see larger athletes perform multiple body-weight pull ups. If any of you have seen our client and friend Dakota doing pull ups with 45 lbs hanging from his frame you’ll know what I mean.
Pull ups are also great because they incorporate a number of muscles into one exercise. Besides the obvious recruitment of the lats there are also demands on the core, abdominals, shoulders, biceps and grip. More on the core and abdominals in a future blog.
Lastly pull ups are great because they are a self limiting exercise. What this means is that you can either do them or you can’t. There’s no in between. With some other exercises, such as a front squat, you will see changes in form and range of motion in order to complete a rep. With a pull up when someone is hanging from a bar they can either complete a rep or they cannot. There really is no in between.
And while pull ups are a body weight exercise this doesn’t mean the necessity for proper form is lessened. Sometimes individuals falsely believe proper form when training only applies for max lift attempts. They may believe they can get away with less than ideal technique on sub-maximal lifts. And well with body-weight training they may falsely believe there is zero to no risk of potential injury.
Don’t make this mistake of believing that because pull ups are a body-weight exercise that there is no chance of injury. Or that because it is body-weight that we don’t need to do a proper and thorough warm-up.
Look at it this way. If you were going to perform some sprints at the track would you simply set up for your first rep and get started because sprints only involve body-weight? Obviously not as this would most surely lead to injury.
In the same way we need to be respectful of the need to warm-up prior to performing pull ups. And even once we’re warmed up we need to realize pull ups are not for everyone.
What I mean by that is that we need to demonstrate the appropriate range of motion and postural control before we apply the load of our body-weight through the kinetic chain.
In terms of range of motion we can simplify this to looking at shoulder flexion and internal/external rotation. Shoulder flexion can be assessed by laying on the back and reaching the arms overhead. Without allowing the low back to arch or the ribs to flare can the arms reach all the way back and touch the ground? Thanks to Eric Cressey for the video below.
If not there may be a need to work on some shoulder, and possibly thoracic, mobility prior to hanging all of the body-weight off of a shoulder put in a position it doesn’t want to go.
As for the internal/external rotation of the shoulder we need to understand that the pull up requires external rotation of the shoulder. A chin up, with the palms facing the exerciser, requires more internal rotation of the shoulder. When you consider the number of people sitting at desks and typing on keyboards all day there will be a higher proportion of people lacking external rotation at the shoulder. This will cause an individual with this deficit in external rotation to compensate in an attempt to perform a pull up.
In terms of postural control I like to refer to Dan John’s analogy of the pelvis as a bowl of water and the rib cage as a box. The box should sit squarely on the bowl of water. When the pelvis is not level water will leak out of the bowl. Think of that person with excessive arch in their low back and you can imagine water spilling out of the front of the bowl.
As well, and related to the shoulder flexion condition, we want to see the box sit squarely on the bowl of water. If shoulder flexion causes the ribs to flare this would be analogous to a box falling off the back of the bowl of water.
And continuing to the top of the body we should see the head stay neutral when completing a pull up. A common cheat or compensation is to tilt the head back in order to ‘chin up’ over the bar. This might be the worst name for an exercise which encourages and causes people to tilt the head back and thrust the chin forward in an attempt to complete a rep.
Sometimes to encourage a packed neck we coach our clients to imagine holding an apple under the chin and to not drop the apple. You don’t want to excessively push the chin on the chest but it should be held in a neutral, level position and sometimes the visual of an apple under the chin accomplishes this.
In a future blog I’ll give you some tips regarding completing your first pull up or setting a new max rep effort. In the meantime make sure you have the requisite range of motion and can maintain postural control when performing your pull ups.