Whether you’ve never stepped into a gym or are a diehard fitness enthusiast, chances are you’ve attempted a pull-up. That’s a good thing! It’s hard to argue an exercise that is more foundational to upper body strength than the pull-up. That being said, for how much I love this exercise and think it is something everyone should be doing (or at least a type of modification), I treat patients all the time in the clinic with shoulder pain related to the pull-up. Whether it be mobility issues, strength, or poor technique, there are a number of reasons why your shoulder can hurt during or after pull-ups and this article is the first of a two-part series that will teach you how to keep hitting your pull-ups pain-free!
Part 1: Mobility
First and foremost, let’s take a look at what exactly is happening at the shoulder joint while doing a pull-up. When you raise your arms over your head to get in the starting position for this exercise, your shoulder joint has to do a combination of two movements: flexion and external rotation. If you're limited in any of these two ranges of motion your body will make compensations to get your arm in position, which will eventually set you up for a higher risk of injury. Think of it this way: If your car tires are out of alignment, nothing will happen right away, but eventually there is going to be uneven tread wear and you’ll end up blowing a tire sooner than later. The same can be said for your shoulder if you're lacking requisite mobility with either shoulder flexion or external rotation. The videos below are great ways to test if you have enough shoulder range of motion, as well a favorite drill of ours to improve any range that needs work.
(Shoulder Flexion Self-Assessment (Performed by Norcal Strength and Conditioning)
(Banded Overhead Opener)
(Thoracic Spine Opener)
2. External Rotation
(Shoulder External Rotation Self-Assessment - Performed by Michael Carroll)
(Front Rack Opener)
To recap, if you have shoulder pain while doing pull-ups, or want to prevent pain from coming, the first place to start is to make sure you have enough shoulder flexion and external rotation to perform the exercise without compensation. Be on the lookout for Part II of this blog post which will dive into the common mechanical flaws and strength imbalances that can lead to shoulder problems with the pull-up.
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Thanks for reading,
Dr. Jacob, PT, DPT, CSCS
Dr. Danny and Dr. Jackie's views on performance improvement, injury prevention and sometimes other random thoughts.