Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Common Objections to Pull-Ups

With any great exercise like pull-ups, squats or deadlifts, you will always have people that look to find something wrong with them. Sometimes this is because they are lazy and they want an excuse to not work hard. Other times, they have legitimate concerns that need to be correctly addressed to minimize injury risk and maximize the benefits.

"I'll just do lat pulldowns"
Sitting down and pulling a bar attached to a cable down towards you is way easier and far less effective than pull-ups. I have no problem with beginners who are not remotely close to being able to do pull-ups on their own starting with pulldowns (especially if they are overweight). I also have no problem with advanced bodybuilders using pulldowns to "isolate" specific parts of their back if they find it helpful. However, for the majority of people, pulldowns are a far inferior alternative.
It is also important to note that pull-ups are classified as closed chain (you pull on the immovable bar and your body moves) while pull-downs are open chain (you sit and the bar moves). This is very different to the nervous system so doing pulldowns will not help very much with getting good at pull-ups and thus you will miss out on a lot of the benefits.

Aren't pull-ups "old school"?
Yes, but that does not mean you should not do them? My philosophy is to look at one's goal and let that determine the program. I don't try to be old-school, but the more I have learned and the longer I have been in this industry, the more I keep coming back to exercises that are now considered "old school". I do this not because I don't know about the new stuff, but rather because I do know. I have tried it and it doesn't work as well. Always be evidence-based with your training. Yes, pull-ups are as old as dirt, but I'll keep doing them until a "new discovery" proves to deliver superior results.
Great development, bad posture

Can Pull-ups lead to bad posture?
Yes. That is why it is important to do a lot of rowing and some other accessory exercises that emphasize scapular retraction. If pull-ups are your only back exercise, your posture is in trouble. Pull-ups emphasize shoulder extension and adduction which are primarily done by the lats. While the lats are back muscles that are used in pulling exercises (i.e. the opposite of pushing motions which we typically think of contributing to poor posture), they also assist with internal rotation. As a result, if the lats are over-developed in relation to the retractors and external rotators, they can contribute to poor posture. If you study the posture of most elite male gymnasts, you will find not only amazing muscle development, but also less-than-ideal posture as gymnastics typically does not work scapulae retraction strength very much.

Aren't pull-ups hard on the joints?
They can be. That is why it is important to vary the grip width and hand positions. For example, if you have shoulder issues, you might find that a wide, pronated (palms facing away from you) grip bothers the shoulder joint, but a closer, neutral grip (palms facing in) feels much better. Wrist issues may be aggravated by doing chin-ups (palms facing). Also, using rings is one of the more joint-friendly (and challenging) pull-up variations (click on my ugly mug shot below for a video demo of ring pull-ups).

“I have an injury”This is potentially a good reason not to do pull-ups. If this is you, be sure to see an appropriate therapist or health care professional and follow his/her advice. If that means laying off pull-ups until you rehab with other exercises and get better – do it!

"But I can't even do one pull-up"
To write all this and then not help you get good at pull-ups would be unkind. Stay tuned for more information on how to get good at pull-ups coming soon...

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