The most common applications of the upper body pull are rows and pull-ups. Both exercises are compound in nature, which means multiple joints are in motion to perform the movement. In both rows and pull-ups, the shoulder joint ends in an extended position, and the elbow is flexed, which means various muscles in the upper and middle back and upper arm need to contract in order to move the joints. For the most part, we assume these exercises are “see and do.” Watch and learn, then get after it. However, compound means complex, so there’s more to these than we might assume.

Most of us do not perform compound upper body pulls properly until we receive proper coaching. In order to troubleshoot, here are some common issues with pulls.

  1. Biceps-centric versions that fail to fully engage primary movers in the back, such as lower and middle trapezius, latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and teres major and minor. Symptoms include a lack of range of motion and/or a pronounced sensation of biceps “pump” or “burn” with little fatigue in major back muscles.
  2. Unstabilized glenohumeral joint that leads to excessive stress on non-primary movers, like rear deltoids and smaller glenohumeral stabilizers. Symptoms include shrugged shoulders at the completion of a pull and/or anterior or posterior shoulder pain during pulling.
  3. Spinal flexion that places dangerous stress on bone and tissue related to the spine and prohibits the activation of muscles in the upper and middle back that move the scapula and stabilize the spine in a neutral position. Symptoms include posture with shoulders pulled forward or rounded upper back, upper or middle back pain, and/or lack of activation of primary movers in upper and middle back during pulls.
  4. Overcompensation in an attempt to move past a healthy angle of shoulder extension that results in a forward rolled humerus head, cervical extension, and/or lordotic posture. Symptoms include lower back or neck pain and/or pain and instability in the anterior of the shoulder.

    Try to identify some of the issues from above in these photos.

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Can you personally identify with any of these symptoms of improper compound upper body pulls? If so, you are missing out on all the benefits of this fundamental and essential life movement, and you are putting yourself at a great risk for injury, whether you train regularly or not at all. It’s worth it to take the time to correct your issues now!

Here is a step-by-step process to pulling properly.

  1. Select an exercise and load that is appropriate for your level of ability and strength
  2. Grip the implement firmly
  3. Stabilize your spine in a neutral position with complete core tension
  4. Begin the movement by moving your scapula in the proper direction
  5. Complete the movement with a squeeze in the primary movers in the upper and middle back and stop your elbow(s) in a neutral position (that is upper arm parallel with torso)
  6. Slowly return to the starting position extending your arm(s) completely
  7. Maintain enough tension throughout your body to stabilize your spine and scapula in between repetitions.

    See these examples of proper pulls.

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That is a lot to think about while your body is experiencing stress during a set of pulling. Here are some helpful que’s to think about. Begin by focusing on the que that will address your most pronounced issue first. As you improve over time begin to address secondary flaws that can improve.

  1. “Stabilize a neutral spine!” – pull your chin inwards for anterior neck tension, create abdominal tension to prevent ribs from flaring, and squeeze your glutes tight (pull-ups or inverted rows) to keep your hips extended and lumbar spine neutral.
  2. “Breathe and brace!” – Inhale through your nose and expand your belly. Brace to create tension throughout your body and initiate the pull. Repeat the inhale and expansion process as you return the starting position and brace before each pull.
  3. “Bend your elbows last!” – Initiate your pulls by moving your shoulder blades in the proper direction first.
  4. “Pull to a neutral elbow!” –  Move your scapula to the proper finishing position (depending on the exercise) and stop your elbow when your upper arm is parallel with your torso.
  5. “Shoulders down!” – When you finish a pull, the top of your shoulder should be squeezed down towards your hip, not shrugged up to your ear.
  6. “Finish with a squeeze!” – For rows, squeeze your shoulder blades towards the middle of your back; for pull-ups, squeeze your shoulder blades down towards your hips.

Finally, regress the exercise If you can’t keep in line with the rules for proper upper body pulls. Figure out the best place to start and the path to progress back to advanced pulls, like pull-ups.

As simple as upper body pulls may be, there is a lot happening beneath the surface in order to power these complex movements. Moreover, everyone has need for troubleshooting related exercises, like rows and pull-ups. Find someone to help you identify points you can improve and come up with a plan to work through them towards a goal. You’ll feel healthier and significantly stronger for taking the time to do it right!

By: Fred Munzenmaier