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The way most of us are doing pull-ups is damaging our shoulders. But we don't need to abandon this useful exercise — just adapt the way we do it.

The pull-up is one of the go-to exercises for strength and strength-endurance. It’s a humbling maneuver too, many a strong bench presser finds that. When you mix proportional strength — strength measured against bodyweight — with the particular range of motion pull-ups require, you find out pretty quick that you weren’t all that ready after all. Add in the fact that pull-ups are the first upper-body exercise most people encounter that uses the whole of your bodyweight, and you can see why they’re a tough proposition.

They’re also famous as an upper body mass and strength builder, and rightly so. All you need is an overhead bar, and you’re away — so from commercial gyms, to serious strength facilities, to teenagers’ bedrooms, everyone is doing pull-ups.

Trouble is, the way many of us are doing them might be damaging our shoulders.

Most people find out pretty quick that they can’t even do half as many pull-ups as they can push-ups. Why?

Firstly, because we’re built to be stronger in lateral than vertical planes. We can bench more than we can overhead press (usually; when that’s not the case it’s usually because one movement has been trained, and not the other), we can row more than we can pull down. Partly it’s because pull-ups use your full bodyweight where push-ups use only about two thirds of it. That’s not a huge difference if you’re already seriously strong, but if you’re not it can be all the difference in the world: many people approach the pull-up bar, grab it firmly  and hang, wriggling like a fish on a hook, face to face with the awful fact that they can’t even do one.

But here’s another reason: Stand erect and hold your arm overhead, as straight as possible. Most people will curve their spines to achieve this, either by Flexing the thoracic spine or by going into anterior pelvic tilt and putting the load in the lumbar spine.

If you keep your spine straight, you’ll find that your arm straight overhead, palm facing forward, is pretty much the end of your arm’s range of motion.

Why Should You Care About That?

Basically because if you’re making a joint perform near its end range of motion, at loads near its maximum, when your form deteriorates your joint will be exposed to injury. At that point, either the joint itself will suffer damage or the body will transfer the load elsewhere, to the spine or the soft tissue structures surrounding the joint. That’s what tends to happen with pull-ups.

How Do I Find Out What’s Limiting My Range Of Motion?

Some people’s shoulders are more mobile than others because of the shape of the inside of the Acromio-Clavicular Joint -which for reasons that should be obvious is usually referred to as the AC joint. This is the joint formed by the head of the shoulderblade and the point of the collarbone. There are three major types of AC joint, divided by how much room there is inside them, from 1  most roomy  to 3 at the least roomy. These could also be classified as "loaded overhead movements?" with the answer being: Type 1: always, type 2: sometimes, type 3: never. Without imaging and tests it’s hard to know which one you are, and there are other factors that limit your shoulder’s range of motion.

These include:

  • Soft tissues in the upper back, including postural issues and local traumas and pulls. For instance, damaged rotator cuffs, poor scapular control or tight lats can all contribute to reduced shoulder mobility.
  • Spinal mobility, which is related to the above — tight lats can also cause kyphosis, reducing shoulder mobility still further, but poor mobility is often a result of dyskinesia, not weakness or short muscle fibers. In other words, learning how to move better can result in better movements (who knew, right?)
So if you think you fit into one of those categories and pull-ups give you trouble in your shoulder, neck or elbow, what should you do about it?
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