There has been more talk about doing pull-ups lately, and I have seen more people give them a go in the gym. People jump off stability balls, use other people’s backs, or crash to the floor when trying one. What I have seen has kind of scared me. I asked my friend, Shawna Kaminski, who has created a very excellent pull-up program to give us some tips on how to do injury-free pull-ups. Take it away, Shawna.
Pulls Ups and Injuries
The pull-up can’t be denied; it can sculpt a beautiful physique with its simplicity. It broadens and strengthens the back while sculpting the waist in one fluid, an easy-to-understand (but challenging to do) maneuver.
You can see how the pull-up is a compound movement and can effectively train the core. Surprisingly, the pull-up engages the core a great deal. The prime mover for the pull-up is the latissimus dorsi. The secondary movers and stabilizers for the pull-up include the trapezius, rhomboids, biceps, serratus anterior, transverse abdominous, and obliques.
As with any movement, ensure that you use the proper form 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. A few things can be done to prevent injury, specifically overuse injury when doing the pull-up.
First, you must focus on the correct muscles to get your first pull-up. Rather than using the back muscles, many people will try to lift with their arms, chest, shoulders, or anything to get their body to move. This will get you NOWHERE FAST.
It would help if you were in the correct position when doing an assisted pull-up.
You need to get your body UNDER the bar like this:
You need to position yourself so that you’re looking up and ready to engage the BACK muscles, NOT just the muscles of the arms. Your legs will help you, but you need to keep them directly UNDER your hips, not in front of you. If your 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. A simple exercise that anyone can do for you to FIND the back muscles is to do a simple hang from a suspended bar. This is the key to being successful.
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 standard error of inwardly rotating the shoulders to pull the body up. The back is much more robust, and everyone will be more successful when they engage the back muscles 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 radiates up the arm and can affect the elbow. Hold the pull-up bar more loosely to alleviate or prevent elbow pain.
If you’re doing copious pull-ups, it’s best not to extend the arm in the hanging position fully. Keeping a slight bend at the elbow in the extended place will work the bicep and strain the joint less. In addition, when you come to a full hang position, you will strain the elbow joint.
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. This helps with overuse injuries as you’ll stress different areas of the shoulder/back and the elbow/arm. Every workout you do can be different just by changing up the hold.
Pull Up and Eccentric Training
Working the’ eccentric’ contraction is the key to learning how to do a pull-up. The eccentric or lengthening portion of any movement is the strengthening phase, opposite to what most think. There are various ways to work the eccentric contraction when doing a pull-up. You can do assisted pull-ups, jump pull-ups, suspended pull-ups, inverted rows, and weighted pull-ups (all of these are discussed in my program).
A caution when training eccentrically: the lengthening phase is the portion of the movement that causes the most muscle soreness. It would help if you were careful when doing eccentric contractions as you will generate more delayed onset muscle soreness. Due to fatigue, there is a more significant incident of injury where you strain the muscle excessively. While eccentric training is a great way to build up the strength 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 one of the most impressive bodyweight movements that can be done. With proper training with a mind toward 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.
Shawna Kaminski is in her late 40s, but she can kick most 20-year old’s butt when it comes to pull-ups, push-ups, and human flags. To help people improve their pull-ups, she put together a program that helps improve your pull-ups, gets you to perform your first pull-ups, and improves your push-ups. 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 and has competed nationally in three sports. She’s parlayed her ability to teach and her love of training into programs you can directly benefit from. In her late forties, Shawna 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 fitness boot camps and coaches clients in person and online with her excellent result-getting programs.
Rick Kaselj, MS