Pull-ups are hands down one of the single best exercises for upper-body strength and development. You can get a great workout by just doing a few sets of pull-ups. The pull-up has been around since the late 1700’s, and became a popular exercise for calisthenics training and for military purposes. The main muscles that are targeted during a pull-up is the back and arms. Specifically the latissimus dorsi muscle, biceps, forearms, and rear shoulders. The latissimus dorsi muscle is responsible for the v-taper you commonly see on those who perform pull-ups often. You would be surprised just how well you can develop the upper-body by just performing pull-ups.
However, a common issue many people experience during pull-ups is shoulder pain. I know how frustrating it can be when shoulder pain prevents you from doing certain exercises. Shoulder pain is very common among weightlifters. Many people experience shoulder pain during exercises like the pull-up or even bench press. Read my article on shoulder pain while benching here. This article is going to discuss the main reasons why your shoulder hurts during pull-ups, and simple ways you can fix this issue.
The Main Causes of Shoulder Pain During Pull-Ups
- Shoulder Impingement
- Rotator Cuff Tendinitis
- Shoulder Bursitis
- Rotator Cuff Tear
- Repetitive Stress Causing Inflammation
The most common cause of your shoulder hurting from doing pull-ups is due to improper form causing shoulder impingement. Shoulder impingement is when the upper arm bone (humerus) is pinching the tendons and bursa within the shoulder joint. This is actually very common, especially in today’s society with everyone hunched over with poor posture. Shoulder impingement can cause the rotator muscles to become pinched and irritated which contributes to the pain you experience during pull-ups. It is best to address the issue now, before a more serious injury like a rotator cuff tear occurs.
People often perform pull-ups without considering correct shoulder engagement and positioning. This can be damaging to the shoulder joint and rotator cuff musculature. It is important to properly engage the shoulder blades and back muscles prior to initiating a pull-up. The shoulders are not designed to take a lot of load during exercises like the pull-ups. People often have very weak rotator cuff muscles, which can easily be damaged when doing pull-ups incorrectly. It is important to rely on the much stronger back muscles to do most of the work.
Fix Your Form During Pull-Ups
One of the most common reasons for shoulder pain during pull-ups is due to incorrect form. With improper form you are relying on the weaker shoulder muscles to do most of the work, whereas you should be using the back muscles which are much stronger. I see this happen all the time, even experienced weightlifters often do pull-ups incorrectly. You may not experience shoulder pain right away doing pull-ups with improper form, but it will catch up to you eventually.
First, I want to discuss hand positioning. People often do pull-ups with too wide or too narrow of a grip. Both of these positions put your shoulder in a poor position, and creates excess torque on the shoulders. It is best to position your hands on the bar about shoulder width apart, or even just slightly wider than shoulder width apart. However, don’t go much wider than that, because it will put the shoulders in a compromised position. A grip that is too wide will not allow you to properly engage the shoulder blades prior to initiating the pull-up. A grip that is too narrow will put too much of the workload on the biceps and forearm musculature as opposed to the back.
Use An Open Grip
You should be using an open palm grip. Commonly called a suicide grip or thumbless grip. This will allow you to use more of your back muscles as opposed to muscles like the forearms and biceps. Also, with an open grip you will have more range of motion when trying to pull the bar to your chest. When you grip the bar with a full fist grip you get crammed into the bar when pulling, and have less freedom. Trust me, try an open palm grip. You will feel the difference when trying to do the pull-up.
Set Your Shoulder Blades
This is one of the most important steps before initiating pull-ups. I see it all the time, people never set their shoulder blades into position before doing a pull-up. That is going to be damaging to the shoulder, and puts the shoulder in a dangerous position. The shoulder is most protected when the shoulder blades are properly engaged “down and back”.
Look at this image you can see the picture on the left is dead hanging on the bar, which is not the position you want to start pulling in. First, you want to set the shoulder blades like in the image on the right. You can see that the shoulder blades have been pulled down and back, without even bending the arms. It will take practice, but this step is crucial in preventing shoulder pain during pull-ups.
Engage Your Lats
Engaging your lats is another crucial step when performing the pull-up. You need to use the big latissimus dorsi muscle “lats” when doing pull-ups. Instead of relying on smaller much weaker muscles around the shoulder. A good tip I like to use is pretending like I am trying to break the bar in half. If you act like you are going to break the bar in half, it will help engage the lats and chest.
This will take practice, but try to act like you are going to break the bar in half while gripping on the pull-up bar. You will see how this engages the lats, and will keep your elbows in good position. Another tip is to try to push your hands in towards one another while you are gripping the bar. This is another way you can engage the lats and chest to set yourself up in a good position.
Pull The Bar To Your Chest
When doing a pull-up it is important to act like you are pulling the bar to your chest. Pulling the bar to your chest is a great cue to get the back muscles properly engaged. Instead of “pulling yourself up to the bar”, “pull the bar to your chest”. This will keep your shoulders in good positioning and protect them from injury.
Pulling the bar to your chest is much better than pulling straight up into the bar. By pulling straight up into the bar, you get crammed into an awkward position. This will put your shoulder in an awkward position as well. It will feel a little weird at first, but once you get the hang of it you will notice a huge difference. You can see in the image above what this looks like. It is not a drastic change, you simply lean back slightly and pull your upper chest towards the bar. You can see how her back is properly engaged, her shoulders are in good position, and she is using an open palm grip.
Keep Your Core Engaged
Another key to fixing your form during the pull-up is to keep your core engaged. I often see people flopping around trying to get up to the bar. First off, this looks stupid, and it is a good way to injure your shoulders. You need to keep your core engaged throughout the entire movement. You may actually find it is easier to do pull-ups with your core engaged. A lot of energy is lost when your legs are flopping around. To engage your core keep your pelvis tucked forward with your legs straight underneath you.
Warm-up is often neglected prior to exercises like the pull-up or push-up. People think just because it is only bodyweight that they can skip warming up. Let me tell you that is one of the worst things you can do. Let’s use a 200lb man for example, that is like doing a 200lb Lat pull down or a 200lb bench press without warming up. Most people would warm-up prior to those exercises, so why not warm-up before doing pull-ups?
A proper warm-up should consists of dynamic movements that target the areas you are going to be working. So for pull-ups you want to focus on the back, shoulders, and arms. A good 10 minute warm-up is enough to get your heart rate up, break a sweat, and lubricate your joints. Lubricating your joints is a crucial part of the warm-up, and it is simple. To warm-up the synovial fluid within your joints you simply must move and get the blood flowing!
A Good Warm-Up Before Pull-Ups:
- 1 Minute Horizontal Arm Swings– To do this simply alternate your arms by swinging your arms straight across your body back and fourth. This will help warm up your back and posterior shoulders.
- 1 Minute Small Arm Circles– These will help lubricate the shoulder joints, and prepare the shoulder muscles for pull-ups. Start with forward circles then switch to backward circles.
- 1 Minute Big Arm Circles- The big arm circles are a great way to dynamically stretch the shoulder capsule and surrounding musculature. Start with forward circles then switch to backward circles.
- 1 Minute Air Punches- Air punches will help get your heart rate up and lubricate the joints of your shoulders.
- 1 Minute Jumping Jacks– I like to incorporate a full body dynamic movement like a jumping jack into my warm-ups. These are a great way to get the blood flowing, spike the heart rate, and lubricate the joints.
Strengthen Your Rotator Cuff
Keeping your shoulder strong and healthy is crucial for weightlifters. If you want to protect the shoulders and prevent injuries you must keep the rotator cuff muscles strong. The rotator cuff consists of 4 muscles that all serve different roles in helping the shoulder move. However, these muscles can easily be damaged during movements like the pull-up. Especially from shoulder impingement which can cause inflammation of the rotator cuff muscles.
One of the easiest and best ways to strengthen the rotator cuff is to use resistance band. The resistance band will allow you to do a quick and easy rotator cuff strengthening exercise. One of the best exercises to do with a resistance band is external rotation. Look at the image above for an example on how to perform this movement. It is important to go slow and stick with higher reps of about 15-20reps. You could do 3 sets per arm at 15-20 reps. This exercises should be performed 2-3x a week for the best results.
So remember it is important to perform pull-ups with correct form. This will help keep the shoulders in proper positioning and protect them from injury. Follow my tips listed in this article to fix your form during pull-ups. It will take practice, but you will get the hang of it. Once you get the correct form down, I guarantee your shoulder will not hurt during pull-ups. Make sure to incorporate a proper warm-up before doing pull-ups. It is crucial to get the blood flowing and lubricate the shoulders before doing the pull-up.
I recommend purchasing a resistance band to use for rotator cuff exercises. If you want to remain pain-free and exercise long-term then you cannot neglect the rotator cuff muscles. The exercises will not take long, and you can incorporate them at the end of your workouts about 2-3x a week. Keeping the rotator cuff muscles strong will help reduce and prevent your shoulder from hurting during pull-ups. Give these tips a try, and let me know in the comments below if they helped!