When done correctly, pull ups are one of the biggest “bang for your buck” exercises you can do to strengthen your back, shoulders, arms and core muscles. They require minimal equipment (none if you have a local park or a suitable bar you can hang off nearby) and are extremely effective. The biggest problem with pull ups, however, is that so many people perform them incorrectly, or lack the mobility to perform the movement properly, therefore load up their connective tissue and end up getting injured as a result.
I’m going to break down the most common injuries reported from doing pull ups and how you can avoid them.
Shoulder Pain from Pull Ups
This is by far the number one complaint from people who think pull ups have “caused” their injury. Let me be clear… pull ups do not cause shoulder pain. Lack of shoulder mobility that restricts movement and then loading up a joint with compromised mobility? That causes shoulder pain. You can also read my other article about shoulder pain and pull ups.
The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons within your shoulder joint area that stabilize the movement of the arm into the shoulder socket. It’s a commonly injured area and symptoms are usually an annoying ache that worsens as you raise the arm away from your body, particularly under load. Once rested after initial injury, there are a bunch of simple and effective rotator cuff exercises you can do to strengthen this area. I incorporate rotator cuff work in to my weekly strength program as a preventative type exercise.
A common reason for incurring rotator cuff injury when performing pull ups stems from simply “jumping in too soon”. A proper pull up means you are carrying the entire weight of your body… if you haven’t prepared your muscles and connective tissues for that sort of load, you are setting yourself up for failure.
Spend some time gradually building up to a full bodyweight pull up by using assist bands to begin with. Incorporate stability work in to your regular workout with a focus on range of movement rather than heavy lifts.
Elbow Pain from Pull Ups
I’ve experienced this one myself and it’s a pain in the ass (as well as the elbow). Elbow pain usually means you’ve caused a form of tendonitis within the elbow region. Usually, this is in the form of what is commonly known as tennis elbow. In some cases, it can also be a result of golfers elbow.
As with all injuries, if a certain movement is causing you pain, stop doing it! There is no point in “pushing through” an injury and aggravating something that is already inflamed. Seek professional advice to get a correct diagnosis and the appropriate rehabilitation exercises you can undertake.
Most elbow injuries are a result of poor technique and a lack of mobility in the shoulders, resulting in excessive strain being passed along to the elbow joint. You may find that you are able to perform pull ups with a neutral grip without pain, which could be a work around solution while you address any underlying issues that are resulting in your elbow problems.
Neck Pain from Pull Ups
I often cringe when watching people move heavy weights in the gym because of the angle of their neck. Its’ easy to forget correct spinal alignment when you’re focused on performing a challenging exercise or getting those final couple of reps out, but once you’ve had a back of neck injury, you won’t forget it in a hurry. Be mindful of where your head is sitting to avoid straining you neck during pull ups.
Wrist Pain from Pull Ups
Pull ups don’t often cause wrist pain, but can exacerbate an existing injury simply due to the load. Common wrist problems such as triangular fibrocartilage complex (TFCC) tears don’t do well with the forearm being rotated inwards (so the palm faces upwards) and under load. Generally speaking, chin ups (with an underhand grip) are considered an easier movement to perform in comparison to pull ups (with a wider overhand grip), however when it comes to TFCC injuries, the underhand grip is a big no-no. Try traditional overhand pull ups, but if you experience wrist aggravation, I’d suggest moving to a neutral grip and even lessening the load by using resistance bands. Wrist injuries can be problematic if not addressed. See your health professional.