Cranky Elbows During Pull-ups?

When it comes to fitness and performance, everyone seems to love the pull-up.  Every one either aspires to do one, or to do as many as humanly possible in one shot. 

Image taken from:

Image taken from:

But from my experience, I find that a lot of people don't have the necessary mobility and scapular control needed to proficiently perform pull-ups.

So what?  We all go to the gym to workout - not spend countless hours on mobility training and corrective exercises, right?  How else are we to burn the calories of last nights buffet?

You are right, you should be working hard in the gym.  But you shouldn't be forcing exercises into your workouts because they look cool and make for better Instagram posts.

Having poor mobility of the shoulders and doing pull-ups won't effect you today, or tomorrow.  However, subjecting your shoulders to the same stimulus over time will surely wrech havoc on your joints years from now.

Here are 3 faulty areas I typically see with painful pull-ups.

1) Lack of Full Overhead Mobility 

The inability to fully reach overhead is an automatic red flag for me when it comes to training the pull-up.  If you can't get 180 degrees of shoulder flexion without arching your back, you will be compensating every rep you do. 

Typically, these people have to arch their back and/or bend their elbows to make up for the remaining range because the bar is going to force their arm into positions they can't actively control.

2) Lack of Forearm Pronation and/or Supination

Check your forearm range of motion with your elbows bent at 90 degrees. Do you have 80 degrees of both supination and prontaion?  If no, stop right there - chin-ups and pull-ups are not in the cards for you.  You may be able to get away with neutral grip pull-ups, but that's assuming you have enough overhead range of motion.

If you say yes in this position, let's check to see if you can maintain it while bringing your arms overhead.  If you can - all systems are a go for pull-ups.  If not, you may have to be careful what variety you choose. 

3) Scapular Stability 

The ability to retract, protract, elevate and depress your scaps (think scap CARs) in an overhead position is important for proper technique.

It is amazing how many people can't move their scaps with their arms at their sides, yet do exercises as advanced as pull-ups.  If you cannot at least depress and elevate your scapulae while hanging from a bar, it will be hard for you to pull your weight up with good scap positioning and not overwork your grip/rotator-cuff muscles.  These are the people who come see me with all sorts of tendonitis issues at the elbow and shoulders. 

If you attack these three things while smartly programming, you can earn the right to do pull-ups all while making steady gains in the gym.

Move Well, Stay Strong.