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Level Up Your Upper Body Strength!
How to "pull" safely and effectively
Team! Before you say to yourself "this isn't for me" or "I can't do pull-ups" think again! "Pulling" is a universal, functional movement that we do every day and training with pulling movements is a very effective way to build upper body strength, mobility and stability surrounding the shoulder joint - for every day living and for taking your physical performance to another level. No matter what your age, ability or fitness level, this post IS for you! Enjoy! -Carla
Functional fitness, by definition, involves movements that we do to “function” in our everyday lives. These include squatting, pulling, pushing, deadlifting (ex -picking up a bag of groceries), and pressing, to name a few. CrossFit methodology was built upon constantly varied, functional movement.
If you subscribe to the Athletic Aging Weekly Workout, then you have experienced functional movements at work and, hopefully, have observed benefits for your personal fitness and overall physical functioning.
A foundational functional movement that many find very challenging and intimidating is hanging from a bar and pulling the body up to reach the chin over the bar. This is known as a “pull-up”. There are many modifications of this movement with different ways to grip the bar and with varying levels of assistance with a machine or resistance band. In whatever way this movement is performed, there are tremendous benefits for building upper body strength that involve the coordination of several muscle groups to successfully execute the movement.
Why this is important for midlife women:
1 - Builds muscle strength during a time of life when strength declines.
2 - Increases shoulder stability during a time of life when joints become less stable.
3 - Improves grip strength which declines with age. Grip strength is a marker of vitality in midlife women. Poor grip strength is associated with sarcopenia (severe loss of muscle mass and strength), reduced mobility and quality of life.
A recent post in the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) blog written by Kinsey Mahaffee highlights the pull-up and chin-up in a comprehensive review of movement mechanics, benefits, how to stay safe and avoid injury in her post “Chin-Ups vs. Pull-Ups: The Difference, The Benefits & The Muscles Worked”.
Today, we will focus on a variety of pulling movements that suit any level of fitness or ability and how to perform these movements safely and avoid injury.
Pull-ups versus Chin-ups: What’s the difference?
Pull-ups are performed by gripping the bar with the hands positioned shoulder-width apart and palms facing away from you. They predominantly target the muscles of the upper back (lats, rhomboids, and traps) and the back of the shoulders (posterior deltoids).
Chin-ups are performed by gripping the bar with the hands positioned just inside shoulder width with the palms facing toward you. They predominantly target the muscles of the upper/outer back (lats and teres major) and posterior deltoids, but they also heavily recruit the biceps muscles, which takes some of the workload off of the back muscles.
Which is better? Neither! Both of these movements will build upper body strength effectively, just a little differently. Incorporation of both of these movements into your training will provide greater versatility to your upper body strengthening than simply sticking to just one or the other.
For a video demonstration of proper mechanics for the pull-up, click HERE
For a video demonstration of the proper mechanics for a chin-up, check out the video embedded in the NASM blog post linked HERE.
What if I can’t do a Pull-up or Chin-up?
Not to worry! There are many modifications and alternatives that offer the same benefit as the strict form of these movements. Check out the modifications link above for even more options.
Band-assisted pull-up: If you are unable to pull your full body weight above the bar, a resistance band can help! Use a thicker band for more assistance and a thinner band for less. Your gym may also have a pull-up “machine” with a platform you stand on where you can “set” the amount of assistance.
Jumping pull-ups: This is another great alternative to strict pull-ups that targets the same muscles but does not require pulling your entire weight from a hanging position. The “jump” takes much of this load off, but still requires the recruitment of these same muscles to finish with your chin above the bar.
Ring rows: This is an AMAZING alternative to pull-ups because you can make them as easy or as difficult as you need. For an easier pull, position the body more upright. For a more challenging pull, position the body closer to parallel with the floor. For an even greater challenge, you can even elevate your feet on a stable box or bench.
Rings are relatively inexpensive and can be easily attached to a doorway pull-up attachment with no worry about height. Order a pair HERE.
What if I am concerned about injury?
Pull-ups and the many modifications described above can be done safely whether you have never tried this movement before or if you are recovering from an existing injury. Here are the main points to consider:
Establish stability and strength surrounding the shoulder joint before starting a pull-up program: There are lots of great exercises for the small muscles that stabilize the shoulder - Y and T raises, Cuban Presses, scapular push-ups, and many others. My personal favorite shoulder strengthening system is Crossover Symmetry. I can vouch for this system personally because it saved me from shoulder surgery. If you have shoulder pain, another great resource is The Ready State, by renowned physiotherapist, Kelly Starrett.
Prioritize sound mechanics: When learning these movements, team up with a trainer who can supervise your technique until you are confident in performing the exercise unsupervised. If you are familiar with the movements, watch the demonstration videos for a refresher. Another great tool is to video yourself so that you can share it with your trainer who can provide feedback or view it yourself and compare it with the video demonstrations.
Pain-free range of motion and load: If you struggle with shoulder pain, first and foremost, seek evaluation by a healthcare provider to determine if medical intervention is necessary. Experiment with the different options presented here and find an option, range of motion, and level of assistance (band or machine) that allows you to perform the movement pain-free. Then build upon this movement with proper progressions maintaining pain-free movement with sound mechanics as you increase the difficulty.
Don’t overdo it. Shoulder and elbow pain and injury are often a result of overuse with inadequate recovery. If you are new to this movement, focus on it no more than twice per week. Once you become accustomed to this training, build your volume and movement progressions ensuring that you recover adequately with mobility work, tissue care (massage) proper nutrition, and adequate sleep.
Whether you are an elite athlete or beginner, young, midlife, or elderly, there is a wide range of options that will provide the same benefits as strict pull-ups. So don’t let this movement intimidate you! Level up your fitness, strength, joint stability, and upper body conditioning - safely and effectively!