The pull up is a “should-be” universal tester of upper body strength.
Truthfully, I’d even settle for the overhead press, but the sad truth is, most people idolize the bench press, butchering its form in the process.
It’s true, all lifts have their measure of importance in a relative sense, but we have to think about the reasons why the pull up may outshine the latter two in its quest for prominence in the gym.
1. Pullups promote healthy shoulder function: It’s an overhead pulling movement, which makes the muscles of the rotator cuff contract and control the shoulder and scapulae. Not only does this mean back strength, it means shoulder health too.
2. Pullups are a spinal decompressor: Because of the fact that you’re hanging off the bar, the spine gets to undergo decompression and distraction. It’s a welcome change from the constant compression most pressing exercises can place on the spine.
3. Pullups train the posterior chain: Another welcome change from the world of front-side-dominance we live in.
For both good and bad, however, there are things to consider when examining the pull up.
Often times they get glossed over as a “do-no-wrong” exercise. But every smart coach and lifter knows that the truth is, it’s all subjective.
These are a few points that most textbooks won’t tell you.
1. CHEST-TO-BAR MIGHT BE IMPOSSIBLE
Most schools of thought on proper pull up technique emphasize the importance of clearing the bar with your face until your upper chest makes contact (or comes very close to doing so). For your typical 5’10”, 180 pound dude, that may be a piece of cake and well within the realms of possibility. For others, not so much.
Consider basic musculoskeletal anatomy. Knowing that when properly done, the lat is a prime mover for the pull up exercise, it’s worthwhile to consider where they attach – high on the upper arm (humerus). When you apply this to a 6’5” guy who has arms that don’t just have a wide circumference, but are longer than average also, you run into a problem.
The lats, at their point of peak contraction, won’t necessarily bring the elbow as close to the body as they would for a guy who’s 7 inches shorter, with a 10 inch shorter wingspan.
Second, because of the upper arm thickness, the arms may “block” the range of motion being asked. This isn’t on account of immobility; it’s on account of possibly being too muscular to pull it off.
Think of it this way: It’s more difficult to squat fully ATG (calves completely covered by the hamstrings) when you have very large calves, quads, and hamstrings.
To explain my point in demonstrative form, watch the video below:
If you try to force things and make the extra effort to make the bar touch the chest, just know that if you fall into the category I listed above, there’s a good chance you’ve let other muscles (like the biceps) kick in, and contribute to the movement – possibly more than ideal.
2. IF YOU HAVE BAD POSTURE, PULL UPS CAN BE DANGEROUS
That sounds like a huge oxymoron. Pull ups are a back exercise. That means they should fix bad posture.
True, but there’s a caveat.
When it comes to forward shoulder posture due to weakness in the upper back and tightness in the anterior chain, exercises that hit the upper back –including pull ups – can be instrumental in creating or restoring balance from front to back. With that said, a person who exhibits kyphosis and the oft-resultant shoulder immobility should be examined as a special case.
Kyphosis refers to a rounding of the spine in the mid back region (most directly affecting the thoracic vertebrae). Looking at things from this perspective, it can directly affect the positioning of the shoulder blade on the ribcage, along with their function and freedom of mobility.
To get the hands overhead, plenty of compensation is a regular occurrence for a lifter who suffers from a kyphotic spine. Long story short, it can be damaging to the delicate structure of the shoulder when you force your arms overhead and tether them to a pull up bar that you hang directly underneath.
Remember: The arm can’t get there on its own without the body undergoing compensation – usually in the form of the hands moving wider apart and the low back overarching. What appears to be a “good” starting form due to the constraints we’ve now applied can actually be a wolf in sheep’s clothing for shoulder health.
In such a situation, row variations are probably the more effective and safer option. Check out the video for a demo:
3. IF YOU WANT TO DEVELOP YOUR BACK, YOU’D BETTER ARCH IT
I’ll be honest, I’m a little tired of the “hollow body” cue when it comes to pull ups and chin ups, because it can be a touch misleading for people who know how to train and want to develop their backs.
Anyone in the weight room worth their salt as a lifter knows that for the upper and mid back to do work, one critical step has to precede every pull: the shoulders need to be set first. That comes by way of the scapulae moving downward and inwards to properly engage the muscles of the back.
Not doing this leaves the back far less inactive and shifts the emphasis towards the arms and various other muscles of the body.
“Hollow body” refers to the legs pointing straight down or even slightly forward when in the pull up start position. The abs are completely engaged and braced, the spine is completely neutral, the pelvis is posteriorly titled due to a strong glute contraction, and the bar makes it to the chest on your pull (I’ve already gone over that cue in a section above).
I get it from a building overall general strength perspective. The hollow body cue can train tension, general contractile strength, and neuromuscular coordination necessary to make the body perform such a compound movement and develop the pattern.
The thing is, an intermediate trainee who’s after hypertrophy and lat development via pull ups won’t get much benefit from using this method. Remember what I said above about setting the shoulders to engage back tissue? Well, try doing that without your back arching. Spoiler: You can’t.
There will be a measure of thoracic extension and a natural lumbar extension when you do this. And to be honest, if your back muscles are the ones in question, it’s my belief that this should be happening.
Training to develop a foundation is different than training when you’re already strong.
Training for hypertrophy is different than training for strength.
Training as a 6’8” 275lb lifter is different than training as a 5’7” 160lb lifter.
Like I said at the outset, when it comes to exercise, the real go-to answer should be “it depends”. The pull up is both underrated and overly glamorized at the same time.
It would do you right to know when to use it, and how to use it to attack your goals. This should help your cause.