If you’re as old as me, you can probably remember the annual physical test in PE, which included the obligatory stop underneath the pull-up bar. There are multiple reasons that schools used to incorporate this exercise and that it’s still a staple for the military and in CrossFit. The pull-up tests movement competence in the arms overhead position illuminates any deficiencies in shoulder and thoracic spine mobility and requires you to stabilize your spine as you move several large muscle groups through a full range of motion. It’s also a great way to build upper body and grip strength.
If you’re doing it right, that is. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t. The movement errors people make in the pull up might seem innocuous on the surface but if left uncorrected they can lead to injury, chronic stiffness and the grooving of a faulty motor pattern. Here are three common mistakes and how to fix them:
Tucking Your Legs Up
This is probably the most common mistake people make during pull-ups: tucking their legs up behind them. It’s often combined with crossing the feet. The issue here is this misaligns your pelvis, which in turn throws off your spinal position, which buggers up your shoulder mechanics. It can also cause a localized hinge in the middle back. Stop it! The correct position for a pull up is what’s called a hollow hold. To get used to it, lie down on your back with your feet together and arms extended behind you. Raise your heels and arms off the floor a few inches so you’re in a “banana” position. Now hold for as long as you can while maintaining proper form. Rest for a minute and repeat twice.
Now walk to your pull up bar and as you raise up to the top of the pull-up position, mirror the hollow hold position you obtained on the ground. Your legs should be out in front of you a little and fully extended, with your toes pointed. Maintain this in the up and down portions of the exercise. This will help you develop a more sustainable hollow position that’s useful in many sporting contexts.
To help get your powerful lat muscles (the fan-shaped ones that are exaggerated in swimmers, weightlifters rowers, and gymnasts with that V-shaped upper body) involved you need to think about a much smaller part of your body: the humble pinkie finger. Most people white-knuckle their grip on the pull-up bar with this digit barely engaged above its top joint. This not only disengages the lats but also puts an irregular strain on the shoulder joint by biasing the medial side (inside). We also see people shortchanging themselves by allowing the thumb to just hang out, which makes their forearms fail quicker. This is a simple two-part fix. First, get your lower pinkie knuckle (the one closest to your palm) over the bar. Next, make sure you’re using your thumb to lock your grip in tight.
If you watch someone doing a pull up from the side, you often notice their shoulders hunching forward as they come up towards the bar. This places undue stress on the shoulder joint itself and creates unwanted tension in the muscles of the chest, neck and upper back. Over time it can lead to injury, particularly if we add speed or extra weight (with a dip belt or weighted vest) into the equation.
Again, this is a relatively quick and easy fix. You just need to better engage your scapula, aka the steering wheel for the shoulder. To practice, hang from the bar (using you newly improved grip from tip #2, of course) and pull your shoulder blades back and down. This is known as an active hang. Once you’ve gotten used to it, apply the same tactic to your pull up, particularly in the “up” portion of the exercise. You can also try maintaining scapular activation as you slowly lower yourself down from the bar, which will also correct a fourth mistake: being passive as you allow gravity to pull you back down to the starting position. You don’t need to do slow-lowering pull-ups that exaggerate the eccentric portion of the movement (i.e. the muscles lengthening under tension) on the way down every time, but adding in more motor control will benefit you when you do decide to add more speed in either regular or kipping pull-ups.