Bodyweight Exercise Pull Ups

Save Yourself Some Pain — 3 Common Pull Up Questions Answered

Written by John Belkewitch

It’s not just that pull ups are hard.

For a lot of folks, they’re uncomfortable.

In fact, I’d say that 8 out of every 10 pull up questions I get center around managing pain while performing the exercise.

If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense.

Each of us leaps up to that pull up bar carrying different baggage.

For starters, the structure of your shoulder may not look like the structure of your training partner’s shoulder. Or like the shoulder of anyone else in the gym, for that matter.

This means what ‘feels good’ for one dude, may produce pins and needles for another dude — which, by the way … if you’re getting pins and needles … please, hop off the bar, and go see your doctor.

Another aspect of your baggage is how well your muscles are working.

Injuries, profession and personal habits all affect the function of your muscles. As a matter of consequence, some muscles may be overworking. While others are totally turned off.

For instance, your lats might not be working at all. Yet you’re still able to do several sets of pull ups.

How can that be?

Another muscle (or several) are then forced to pick up the slack. This can make them very angry. And that anger is usually voiced as pain.

Maybe you’re having pain with your pulling as well.

And just maybe that pain is affecting your pull up numbers. And perhaps it’s carrying over to other areas of your training.

If that’s the case, then you’ll want to read on further …

Below, I’m going to cover the 3 most common questions I get about pull up pain. And I’ll give you a few tips on how to address them.

How high should I go on my pull ups?

I remember taking the standardized fitness tests in high school.

If you didn’t get your chin above the bar it didn’t count as a rep. Half reps stood for nothing.

Nowadays I recommend chin above the bar — chest to bar being the ultimate goal.

However, partial reps do hold value. There’s a danger in labeling them as inconsequential.

When I first started working with Doug he mentioned that he always got head aches after Back-Day.

We walked through his Back-Day exercises and everything looked good. Until we got to the pull ups.

It turns out that he was fond of Turtle Pull Ups.

In case you’re not familiar with the exercise here’s how it goes …

Turtle Pull Ups are a rather simple drill to perform. Grab the bar. Pull yourself up. And just as you’re struggling to get eyes above the bar … stick your neck out and thrust that chin up and over the bar to complete your rep.

Like a turtle poking his head out of his shell, Doug was ‘making his reps count’ just like he was taught in high school.

His prize was a constantly stiff neck. And nagging post-Back-Day head aches.

Unlike high school, partial reps do count for something.

So … Don’t do Turtle Pull Ups. Save yourself the pain in the neck.

Again, how high should you go?

Only as high as your technique will allow.

And that might mean not getting your chin over the bar — or chest to bar. And that’s OK.

A simple adjustment to helping you get over the bar without resorting to the Turtle is to change up your grip.

Speaking of grip …

Which pull up grip is best?

The most common grip questions seem to go a little something like …

Is there any optimum hand position for doing pull-ups? I seem to be having elbow pain.

The short answer is that the “best” grip is the one that’s the most comfortable for YOU.

Hmmm … that sounds mighty familiar to the last suggestion, John.

Let me explain …

You hear a lot of mixed comments about selecting a pull up grip.

Some folks claim that an underhand grip can cause more elbow pain. Others claim that an overhand grip can cause more pain.

Maybe a neutral grip is best then?

Same thing goes for wide and narrow grips. If one aggravates your elbows, the other aggravates your shoulders.

And what about your thumbs?

Should you wrap the thumb around the bar? Or should you monkey grip it?

As you can see, there’s a lot to think about.

Now, we could launch into an anatomy lesson. And talk about what muscles the different gripping schemes put more emphasis on.

Underhand grip hits the biceps a little better. Overhand grip hits the lats and pecs deeper. Why a neutral grip is easier on the wrists. Stuff like that.

But we’re not talking body-sculpting today.

And the deeper you go into that kind of stuff, the more confusing things tend to get. Especially if you take into account that personal baggage we discussed earlier.

It’s easy to get so caught up in focusing on your grip that you lose sight of the rest of the technique.

A lot of folks refer to the pull up as the upper body squat.

And if that’s the case, then grip placement is akin to foot placement. It’s your root point. And adjustments to it will make the drill more comfortable, manageable and effective.

With that in mind, here’s two simple things to help you judge your grip against when experimenting …

1. Keep your shoulders away from your ears.

When you begin your rep, make sure your shoulders are pulled down and slightly back.

A lot of dudes clip out reps with their shoulders up by their ears.

Your neck won’t appreciate that too much. But neither will your elbows.

When your shoulders are in shrug mode, your elbows tend to take up a lot of that slack. If you listen closely, you can hear them whispering the word ‘tendonitis’.

2. Be wary of the partial rep.

Waitaminute … I thought you said partial reps counted for something?

I did. And they do. The truth is that sometimes partial reps count for pain and discomfort.

If you’re going to do pull ups, you really want to try and express as full a range of motion as possible. The day ever comes when you find yourself hanging off a cliff — or at least the gutter of a second story window — you’ll be glad you got full extension on those pull ups.

The elbow is a small joint, with less range of motion than the shoulder or wrist. And when you do those partial reps, the tendency is to carry a lot of the stress at the elbow.

But this time you won’t need to listen closely to hear your elbows whisper ‘tendonitis’. They’re be screaming it loud and clear.

So … when choosing your pull up grip, choose the one that best allows you to keep your shoulders down away from your ears through the whole range of motion. And the one that allows you to express the fullest, comfortable range of motion possible at the elbow.

You’re looking for a smooth, controlled movement.

Speaking of controlled movement …

Should I stop doing kipping pull ups?

Ah, yes. The kip.

Do? Or do not?

I’ve seen fights break out over this debate. Crazy.

I like kipping pull ups.

Just not at high volume.

You can say any movement at high volume puts you at risk for repetitive strain injury.

Some more than others.

And when it comes to kips, most folks simply don’t have the starting shoulder ‘health’ to clip them out at high volume and speed.

My biggest issue with kips lies in the down-phase. The repetitive torque on your shoulders simply isn’t worth it.

I find kips to be an efficient transitional movement … for climbing and scaling let’s say — hanging from that cliff or second story gutter 😉

And that’s how I use them with my clients — as a transitional movement.

But I have two pre-qualifiers which have helped folks avoid shoulder pain in the kip.

1. Can you do a few, quality, strict muscle ups?

This pre qualifier is all about displaying control — especially on that down phase.

2. How does your back bridge look?

This pre qualifier is all about exaggerating the range of motion of the kip. Of creating a safety valve within which to perform the exercise.

High-torquing your way to a range of motion you don’t otherwise have a way of accessing and controlling is a problem waiting to happen.

Nuff said there.

No pain, more gain …

So, there you have it. Three of the most common pull up pain questions I get. Maybe they’ve been on your mind.

You’ll notice a common theme here is doing what feels good for you. And not doing what you’re told you’re supposed to do. Especially if you can’t actually do it.

Which is why I recommend you experiment and play a bit.

Humble yourself on total reps for the time being to save yourself on the pain.

Your workouts are a chance to get to know your body better. And your workouts should always be pain free.

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John Belkewitch

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10 Comments

  • When beginning a pullup program spènd the first month doing negatives with perfect biomechanics to avoid injury
    Most people can’t even do one correct

    • Hey, Robert. The Pull Up is a hard nut to crack for a lot of folks, for a lot of reasons. There are a lot of great assistance drills to help work up towards that first, clean rep. Negatives are a great regression. Good suggestion.

    • J-Siff … Mr. Pull-Up! Glad to see you venturing ’round these parts. Thanks for the comment. Hope all is going well on your end 🙂

  • Did you mean to say “weary” in the section about partial reps? Or did you mean “wary”? (weary=tired, wary=have caution) Didn’t know if you were making a pun. I’ve just heard four different people online and/or on TV using weary when they meant wary and…being OCD like I am…I’m starting to be concerned that people are beginning to make the incorrect usage the norm. So I must be worried and weary of the wary misusage?

    • A most excellent catch, Deborah. In the context of the article, you should be ‘wary of partial reps’. Hopefully, you haven’t become too weary over attempting to decipher my intentions … or wary of checking out future posts 😉 Thanks for giving the post contemplative read through. Much appreciated.

  • Hi! I have been using pullups for decades (I am 59 now) as my main upper body exercise along with pushups and dips. The last few weeks I have experienced “armpit pain”, bilateral, and have gotten to the point where I can only do 5 instead of 15 because of the discomfort. Unfortunately I do not know or remember what changed, however the discomfort did not start overnight, just a slow process which has really dampened my desire to do any. I am considering going to an orthopedist, just to make sure i do not cause permanent shoulder damage. Any ideas are welcome. Cheers. Jose

    • My reply to myself since no one did: The armpit pain was due to a very very hard bed I slept in for 3 weeks, while in Germany. Within 2 weeks it went away. I find at my age it is very easy to lose pull up strength so it is my main upper body exercise.

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