Coming at you with the the final part of our two-part series for ensuring healthy shoulders while improving your pull-ups. In this part we’re talking about how to develop appropriate strength in the appropriate areas. For those of you who missed it, part one is super important and I highly recommend reading that before moving on with part two. For those of you who are caught up, let’s get after it.
Part II: Strength
In any training program, it’s important to make sure your movements are balanced and that your shoulders are working in multiple directions (ex: vertical pulling, horizontal pushing, horizontal pulling, etc). The pull-up is an excellent example of a vertical pull strengthening exercise. With most pulling exercises, your body is primarily moving through two movements: elbow flexion and shoulder extension. This means your primary shoulder extension (latissimus dorsi, teres minor, post delt) and primary elbow flexion (biceps brachii, and brachialis and brachioradialis) muscle groups need to work synergistically to perform this movement appropriately.
Unfortunately this synergistic relationship isn’t normally the case. More often than not I find that people way over utilize elbow flexion and underutilize shoulder extension. When this happens bad things happen and those bad things usually end up manifesting themselves as pain along the front of the shoulder. As you can tell in the picture above, the long of of your biceps tendon crosses the shoulder joint and when you rely too much on elbow flexion with pulling based exercises, you can end up agitating that tendon, which leads to shoulder pain.
I see the aforementioned situation happen all the time in athletes who do a lot of kipping pull-ups vs strict pull-ups, specifically in those who don’t have the requisite strength to perform consecutive strict pull-ups but are repping out 15+ kipping pull-ups at a time. Now I’m not saying kipping pull-ups are bad or that you shouldn’t do them, but kipping pull-ups should be an expression of strength, not a way to avoid a weakness.
To ensure you’re not overusing your biceps while doing the pull-up you want to have strong, engaged lats (latissimus dorsi). To make sure this is the case, check out our top 3 exercises below for improving shoulder lat strength and control.
Drill #1: Active Hangs
This drill is an all time favorite of mine for a couple of reasons. First, it allows you to feel how your lats should be contracting while you are going a pull up. Second, it allows you to strengthen your shoulders in a vulnerable/weak position. You’re only as strong as your weakest link and being strong in a weak position is a great way to prevent injuries.
Drill #2: Lat Pull Over
This one is a great example of “killing two birds with one stone” because not only are you able to improve lat strength with this drill, but because of the long eccentric phase (muscle contracting while lengthening) of this drill, it’s also a great way to improve shoulder mobility.
Drill #3: Single Arm Banded Lat Pull Downs
Breaking up a bilateral movement (using both arms) into a unilateral movement (using one arm) is a highly underutilized training modality that allows to balance out weaknesses. Plus, as an added bonus, you’re able to perform a vertical pulling drill at a slightly different angle which, as we talked about above, is how you train for healthy shoulders.
If you have shoulder pain while doing pull-ups, or want to prevent pain from coming, this two-part post is a great place to start. Ensuring appropriate mobility and then building appropriate strength is a common occurrence in the rehab world.
If you’re in the Atlanta area and are interested in working with a unique professional that can help you optimize your health in all of these areas, we need to talk. Being proactive and staying on top of your health will help you avoid serious health problems down the road.
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Thanks for reading,
Dr. Jacob, PT, DPT, CSCS
Dr. Danny and staff's views on performance improvement, injury prevention, and sometimes other random thoughts.