Some 8 years or so ago now when I first started doing pull ups, the task was simple: get my chin above the bar.
Not that I even used a bar back then – I used the roof of my extension doorway. Improvisation at its finest.
5 reps killed me but I could ‘do pull ups’! Ever since then, right up to this very day, I stuck with the trusty old cue: chin above bar. I didn’t give a moment’s thought to how I did so; what muscles I used and in what ratios…..say what?
It’s funny because although it was 2013 and far from the dark ages, there wasn’t half as much information available as there is now. YouTube and the internet is littered with tutorials, information and guides regarding pull ups and anything really. It’s probably harder to find things you can’t learn on YouTube than things you can.
Such is the age of information we live in.
I never watched any tutorials on pull ups at all. ‘I could already do them’. I just needed more of them. I wanted muscle ups and levers and all the cool intermediate/advanced stuff.
Years rolled by and I got stronger and stronger. I remember nailing my first bar muscle up, ring muscle up, back lever, lengthy L-Sit hold, semi-respectable handstand & front lever.
Come 2020 I hit a 60kg+ pull up and 90kg+ dip. I’d also done a 20kg bar muscle up and 30kg ring muscle up. And yet I still never gave a moment’s thought to how I do a pull up.
I don’t mean I didn’t know a full range of motion or what muscles were involved, I did. I just never built the right foundation and it’s what I want to share with you in this post: where I went wrong, what I’m doing going forward & the implications of doing the wrong pull up style over a prolonged period of time.
What’s even crazier is I wrote a super detailed post all about pull ups over 2 years ago (EVERYTHING You Ever Needed To Know About Pull Ups – Getting Your First, Improving Reps & How To Make Them Superhuman)……
Back then I still touched on the key point of today’s post yet over the years since, as I’ve added more and more weight, I’ve got sloppier with my technique and slipped out of good habits. So this is as much an education to me as it is you. We’re going to learn together. And it highlights brilliantly how no matter your experience, you can slack and fall into bad habits.
A pro golfer will need to revisit his swing every now and then, a tennis player will have to re-evaluate their serve from time to time and a snooker player will have to continuously work on and refine their cue action throughout their career.
QOTD: BACK dominant or ARM dominant pull ups?
My style has always been arm dominant, not back dominant.
Why and how?
My pullup & pulling in general became heavily hollow body based (for muscle up carryover) and I didn’t do enough non-hollow body (retracted/arched back/scap engaged) pulling to balance it out. Worse still I wasn’t rowing enough and when I was there wasn’t enough awareness for it to count for anything.
In old clips of my heavier pull ups you can see even though I clear the bar with my chin quite well, my shoulders aren’t depressed and my spine is in a hollow, flexed-like state. Obviously as weight and intensity grow, form can be expected to degrade somewhat but my mechanics were off and even in ‘lighter’ pull ups. I had a lazy style.
Anatomically speaking this means my arms, pecs and internal rotators are working more than my scapula muscles and upper back musculature. This is bad news; you’re overloading one group at the expense of another. The back is huge and the muscles can take a real beating. They can handle a fairly high frequency and respond well to being trained.
It all makes sense now. I remember being so obsessed with my daily workouts, I’d find a new one from a new website everyday. And each time I’d exhaust a website, I’d find my next toy. One day I saw ‘inverted rows’ in one of the routines.
I had no idea what they were.
I didn’t even have anything to do them on. I had to use an old frame that we hung a hammock on. I couldn’t even get my chest to the bar at a measly 45 degree angle and my rep count was lower than my pull up count!
No retraction strength at all. Plus how tight I’ve always been in the thoracic spine – when I first ever tried a bridge (wheel pose) I could barely even get my head off the floor! My lats, shoulders, pecs and biceps were all tight as hell.
Even though I could ‘pull up’ I couldn’t pull up, if that makes sense?
Implications of ‘backless pull ups’
Having had shoulder impingements on both sides and elbow issues, it’s safe to say the arms and pecs have been overworked as a result of screwed up movement patterns, which has distorted my posture/structure, which then caused injuries and issues.
This year I’ve been working my ass off with the 2:1 push pull ratio (covered here: The ‘2:1 Push Pull Ratio’?) to try and balance out my shoulder structure, but that only takes you so far if you’re still doing the big heavy compounds wrong…….
‘Wrong’ being without awareness and attention to what’s happening at the hub of all strength movement; the scapula.
Making sure the shoulders are depressed and ever so slightly retracted at the top of each pull up – and even throughout the whole range. You can think of this as ‘locked in’. Because it will feel like you’re locked in as you’re above the bar. This was/is another thing I SUCK at, holding my chin over the bar regardless of grip, chin or pull, neither are winning any awards.
It’s here most people get stuck, regardless of strength level. Beginners might be able to pull their forehead or nose above the bar but only with elevated shoulders and the disgusting, cat back posture (aka HUNCHBACK). And advanced people will find it really hard to lock their chin nicely above the bar when handling big boy weights.
Cases like these call for today’s fix of ensuring correct scapula position and motion.
Carryover to other skills/moves
It took me over 2 years to get a ‘front lever’ and even then it wasn’t particularly pretty. It was shaky, bowing a little and not held for much more than 5 seconds. I’ve always struggled with front lever despite my apparent pull strength, but it’s not too shocking when you really zoom in on it: the front lever requires strong retraction and depression of the shoulders, 2 things I’ve never been cued to do in my own general pulling despite coaching hundreds of others to do so.
The longer you do something the harder it is to change, as it becomes deeply engrained.
The more I think about this, the more I realise the age old debate that the redditors out there love: whether weighted pull ups and pull up strength in general, carryover to the front lever, is a stupid one.
IT ALL DEPENDS ON THE STYLE & THE INTERNAL CUEING OF THE ATHLETE IN QUESTION.
My hollow pull up style that was perfect for fast muscle ups had poor carryover to front lever. Yet the guy who pulls his shoulders down and back really well even when he has impressive loads hanging off him, will no doubt get a better crossover to the mighty front lever. Far better than mine at least.
But does the depressed/retracted pull detract from the muscle up?
Not at all. Even though the muscle up is a hollow/neutral based pull, and involves flexion of the upper spine, you still want the shoulders depressing and retracting – even more so at the transition. What’s common is the shoulders elevating as they internally rotate which puts unnecessary strain, force and wear and tear on the shoulders, especially when you do hundreds if not thousands of them like this.
I used to be able to stop my body right in the middle of the transition, on the bar & rings, where the forearms are parallel to the floor and this, while looking and feeling bad-ass, needed a nice firm retraction of the shoulders and depression.
Since mid 2020 I’ve all but lost this ability and am working to restore it. A big part of the restoration process is getting in the good habit of pulling the shoulders down and together anytime I pull, row or even dip/push up…..basically anything other than a handstand I’ll have my shoulders depressed.
The legendary Dominik Sky has been vocal about this topic recently as well. He did a video critiquing one arm push ups as he said they’re ridiculously hard to keep the scapula depressed on – and they are – but it got me thinking more and more how many other moves this happens on and at what cost?
Hence this post.
Even in the weeks surrounding my drafting of this post I’ve been playing around with different cues – all pertaining to depressing the scapula – in all moves that require it for ideal execution, and I’ve loved the results so far.
Muscle ups are cleaner and feel less ‘shoulder heavy’. Chest to bar pull ups need less velocity out the bottom to make it all the way up. One arm chin up variations feel smoother as the scapula moves better throughout the whole range. Even ‘basic’ push ups feel a million times better as the shoulders are ‘locked in’ better.
It’s crazy. To the naked eye I could do these moves with my new internal cue and without it, and probably look identical but the difference in feeling is ridiculously different. It just shows how much I was letting my scapula go loose without knowing/being aware.
You may think you’re not doing this yourself but almost everyone I coach does it to an extent. Of course, when you’re maxing out one way or the other, either with reps, weight or both, you’re going to see things get a bit loose. But when you’re training, that’s the time to be brainwashing yourself with the ideal cues and solidifying the right habits.
Doing so will keep you injury free, gaining strength and muscle and ultimately progressing at the right rate; consistently.
In your next training session, check where your scapula is on every set and make sure it’s where it needs to be.
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