T Nation

Pull-ups Are Killing My Shoulders


I'm 36 years old, been lifting for 23 years, and for some reason, it's always been hard for me to do pull-ups. Within the last few years though, I've gotten up to doing 3 sets (20-12-10) at a bodyweight of 240lbs. I guess that isn't so bad, but I'd like to get better. When I do them, I get intollerable pain in both my shoulders and what feels like the brachialis muscle.

My back is strong on other movements like dumbell/barbell rows with no pain doing them even at weights of 365x10 on barbell and 150lb x 15 on dumbells. Sometimes I think I have poor body mechanics for pull-ups. In high school I was athletic and could do 20+ dips and 80+ push ups but my pull-ups always sucked. Am I just born to be mediocre at pull-ups?


Well calling 20 pullups at 240 mediocre is nuts you are incredible at pullups! Either that, or your form is horrific. I'd opt for the latter. Where did you get it in your head that 20 pullups at 240 is bad? Do you go to a full hang then pull your chin above the bar? It sounds to me like you are not dropping into a full hang and sticking within a range of motion that you feel strong. A video would help alot.


I'm 240 and I can only do three pullups (working on it though).

20 is pretty good, IMO.


As others said 20 pullups at 240lbs is quite impressive. Anytime there is pain, I question form and mechanics during the lifts. How are you scapulae positioned during the lift? Are you coming to a dead hang at the bottom of the pullup? If you do, when you reach that dead hang are you losing the contraction from the middle/lower traps and losing the "locked" scapular retracted, depressed, and downward rotated position? If that is the case (which I would guess it is), that will place a lot of excess stress on your shoulders during the lift and take some of the mechanical advantage away from the lats and overload the biceps. A video would help a lot.


Mike Robertson just posted a pullup progression video on his website robertsontrainingsystems.com. Check that out and compare your form to it.


I dont think your mediocre personally. im 180 and dont pull for as many reps but fwiw I had pain in the bicipital aponeurosis (below the front of the elbow, as declared by an ART practicioner) if thats where your having it. a couple sessions helped me get rid of it although it comes up occasionally. They also worked on my proximal biceps tendon and pec.

i also sometimes used to get this pain rowing even after i stopped doing pull ups.


One of these days I'll get around to posting video. And yes, my form is pretty good. 23 years of shitty form doesn't add up. My guess is that I'm just too damn heavy for a lot of pull-ups. I was mainly wondering why I'd feel pain in my shoulder from pull-ups. it seems maybe like a biceps tendon.


Thanks for the feedback. The scapula retracted comment from levelheaded was a good one, because it does help prevent shoulder pain during other movements like bench presses. I don't go all the way down to dead hang on every rep for that reason. It hurts to go too wide, so I keep my grip narrow and close grips hardly hurt my shoulder at all because it's easier to keep my scapulae retracted on those.


The trick with the scapula retraction is that its not something you can really force yourself to do. If you can do it at all, its probably just at the beginning of your reps before you fatigue. Your going to have to cut a bunch of reps off the end of your sets to prevent this.


You can maintain the proper scapular position if you have the proper strength/endurance in the needed musculature, even if you go to a "dead hang". During the dead hang, you do want full shoulder flexion and elbow extension to occur. I hope I don't confuse this more with this but you are going to have SOME level of upward rotation during eccentric phase of the pull up in order to achieve full shoulder flexion. That being said, you DO NOT just want to disengage your lower traps, rhomboids, and other scap retractors/depressors. Think of it this way, you can be at the bottom of the pullup in one of two ways:
1) You disengage the scap retractors/depressors and just let your scap fully rotate upward and you completely hang then with your GH joint in a biomechanically weaker position and primed for shoulder pain/injury.
2) You maintain scap retractor/depressor activation, allow the proper and needed amount of upward rotation to reach full shoulder flexion (or at least 180 degrees), and maintain the proper joint positioning.
Both examples show a "dead hang", but one is much more beneficial than the other.

Great advice here. Generally the smaller muscles that are involve in scap retraction/depression (lower and middle traps, rhomboids, etc) are weak/inhibited. People try to compensate for that with more gross pulling exercises (rows, pullups, etc) but majority of people get caught up in the weight being used or the number of reps being done and do not focus on targeting the correct musculature.

I would recommend starting with some scap retraction/depression activation drills (wall slides, band pull aparts, etc) and then progress to a strengthening based exercise for those smaller muscles, and then progress with pull ups. As Shadow said, you may need to cut back on your pull up reps as I doubt you are keeping the proper scap position during your whole set.

Here is a great article by Mike Robertson on lower trap training which you should find helpful: http://www.T-Nation.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance/top_priority_for_lower_traps

Again think of pulling your scapula into your back pockets at least during all pulling exercises and benching.



I had this issue two summers ago as I liked to train outside in kids park, basically doing tons of pull ups and dips variations. Humumgous pumps, good results, I could bring my sons and workout with them... but it did get me injured.

Three things: I too felt the pain in the shoulder area, but it was a biceps tendon that was the main culprit. Second, the serratus became tight and needed ART. And third, the lats are interior rotators even though they are back muscles. We need to train them less, and train lower traps, rear delts, etc, a lot more.