Injury Free Pull Ups

There has been more talk about doing pull ups of late and I have been seeing more people give them a go in the gym.

What I have seen has kind of scared me.  People jumping off stability balls, using other people’s backs or just crashing to the floor when trying one.

I asked my friend, Shawna Kaminski, who has created a very cool pull up program to give us some tips on how to do a pull up injury free.  Take it away Shawna.

Pulls Ups and Injuries

You can’t deny the power of the pull up; a beautiful physique can be sculpted with the simple pull up. It broadens and strengthens the back, while sculpting the waist in one fluid easy to understand (but difficult to do) maneuver.

The prime mover for the pull up is the latissimus dorsi. Surprisingly, the pull up engages the core a great deal. The secondary movers and stabilizers for the pull up include the trapezius, rhomboids, biceps, serratus anterior, transverse abdominus and the obliques. You can see how the pull up is a compound movement and can effectively train the core.

As with any movement, it’s imperative to ensure that proper form is used to prevent injury.

Pull Up Body Position

I once made the mistake of overzealous training when training to do the human flag and my elbows and I weren’t on speaking terms for several weeks.

(Shawna asked me about her sore elbows and this is what I suggested to her:)


The pull up is no different. There are a few things that can be done to prevent injury, specifically overuse injury when doing the pull up.

First of all, you need to get your mind focused on the correct muscles in order to get your first pull up. Rather than using the back muscles, many people will try to lift with their arms, chest, shoulders, anything to get their body to move. This will get you NOWHERE FAST.

When doing an assisted pull up, you need to be in the correct position.

You need to get your body UNDER the bar like this:

You need to position yourself so that you’re looking up and you’re ready to engage the BACK muscles, NOT just the muscles of the arms. Your legs will be used to help you but they need to be directly UNDER your hips, not in front of you. If you’re legs are in front too much, it will cause you to lay back and get out from under the bar.

Place the legs directly under your hips for the assisted pull like this:

Using a bench or box directly under you is the most helpful.

It may seem like I’m splitting hairs with the correct position for the assisted pull up. I am.

This is the KEY in order to be successful.

A simple exercise that anyone can do in order for you to FIND the back muscles is to do a simple hang from a suspended bar.

As you hang, look up and think about inwardly rotating your scapula, or squeezing your shoulder blades together. This will cause you to press the chest forward. You should start to feel a slight elevation of your body, even if you can’t move your entire body up to the bar yet.

This improved body position will address the common error of inwardly rotating the shoulders to pull the body up. The back is much stronger and everyone will be more successful when they engage the muscles of the back when doing a pull up.

Pull Up Grip

Another area to be concerned with is the grip. Your grip can lead to some elbow pain and strain. Even though you’re actually ‘hanging on for dear life’ when doing a pull up, try not to use this ‘power grip’ as it actually radiates up the arm and can effect the elbow. Hold the pull up bar more loosely and this will alleviate or prevent elbow pain.

In addition, when you come to a full hang position, you will put strain on the elbow joint. If you’re going to be doing a copious amount of pull ups, it’s best to not fully extend the arm in the hanging position. By keeping a slight bend at the elbow in the extended position, you will work the bicep more and strain the joint less.

One of the best things about the pull up is the variety of ways you can do them. You can constantly change your grip from shoulder width, to narrow grip, palms facing each other or parallel. Every workout you do can be different just by changing up the grip. This helps with overuse injuries as you’ll put stress on different areas of the shoulder/back as well as the elbow/arm.

Pull Up and Eccentric Training

The key to learning how to do a pull up is to work the ‘eccentric’ contraction. The eccentric, or lengthening portion of any movement, is the strengthening phase; this is opposite to what most think.  There are a variety of ways that you can work the eccentric contraction when doing a pull up. You can do assisted pull ups, jump pull ups, suspended pull ups, inverted rows, weighted pull ups (all of these are discussed in my program, by the way).

A caution when training eccentrically: the lengthening phase is the portion of the movement that causes the most muscle soreness. You need to be careful when doing eccentric contractions as you will cause more delayed onset muscle soreness and due to fatigue, there is a greater incident of injury where you strain the muscle excessively. While eccentric training is a great way to start to build up the strength to be able to do a pull up or increase the number of pull ups you can do, caution is necessary to prevent injury.

The pull up is clearly one of the most impressive bodyweight movements that can be done. With proper training with a mind towards injury prevention, you’ll be more likely to succeed at increasing your pull up power and not your aches and pains. You can check out Shawna’s pull up program here.

About Shawna

Shawna Kaminski is in her late 40’s but she can kick most 20 year old’s butt when it comes to pull ups, push ups and human flag.  In order to help people improve their pull ups, she put together a program that helps improve your pull up, gets you to perform your first pull up and improve your push up.  You can check out her Challenge Workouts here.

Shawna is a retired schoolteacher of 20 years who’s found her passion in the fitness industry. She’s been a competitive athlete all her life and has competed nationally in three sports. She’s parlayed her ability to teach and her love of training into programs that you can directly benefit from. Shawna is in her late forties, is a mother of two teenagers and understands how busy life can be. Her workouts are short and intense and often can be done anywhere. She’s always up for a challenge and shares her fitness challenges with you. Currently she runs her own fitness boot camps and coaches clients in person and online with her amazing result getting programs.

 Rick Kaselj, MS