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Strength Training Programs: Are Pull-ups THAT Essential?

Written on February 24, 2012 at 10:45 am, by Eric Cressey

The pull-up is among the most sacred strength exercises in the history of weight training programs, ranking up there with squats, deadlifts, and bench and overhead presses.  This is one reason why I expect there to be burning Eric Cressey effigies in various strength and conditioning circles after they read the following sentence:

Some people would be wise to leave out pull-ups - at least temporarily.

Before you rip me a new one, please give me a few minutes to explain.

First off, I get it: pull-ups train the lats, and the lats are huge players in athletic function and the quest to get strong and gain muscle.  They’re the biggest player in force transfer between the lower and upper body, and play key roles in core stability and breathing.  Specific to my baseball work, lat recruitment is higher during acceleration in professional pitchers than amateurs, showing that reliance on this big muscle helps generate increase pitching velocity, too.  I actually wrote an entire article back in 2006 about just how extensive the lat’s role is, if you’d like to read more: Lats: Not Just for Pulldowns.

However, the “expansive” presence of the lats – running from the thoracolumbar fascia all the way up to the humerus – can make them a problem as much as they are a solution.  To that end, here are four reasons you may want take a break from pull-ups/chin-ups/pulldowns in your strength training program:

1. Heavy pull-ups can make the elbows very cranky – This is really the shortest and least complex of my arguments, so I’ll get it out of the way early.  My personal best three-rep max chin-up is 321 pounds, at a body weight of about 188 pounds (so, the external load was 133 pounds).  My best raw three-rep max bench press is about 330 pounds, but what you might find surprising is that going heavy on the bench press is dramatically easier on my joints (particularly my elbows) than pull-ups/chin-ups are.  What gives?

First, when you bench press, you’re doing a full-body movement.  There is leg drive and loads of core stability involved on top of the upper extremity activity that’s taking place – so the stress is more easily distributed.  When you do a pull-up, your upper extremity is relatively isolated, so the stress is more concentrated.

Second, a pull-up is a traction exercise; it pulls the humeral head out of the socket, and essentially pulls the lower and upper arm apart at the top. When you lose bony congruence – one of the most important, yet overlooked components of joint stability – you have to pick up the slack with the active restraints (muscles/tendons) acting at the joint.  Low-level traction can be tremendously helpful in situations like external impingement at the shoulder, or intervertebral disc issues.  However, under extreme load, it can be pretty darn stressful to the soft tissue structures around the joint.  Conversely, a bench press is an approximation exercise, so you can actually draw some stability from the joint alignment itself to take some of the stress off the soft tissue structures.

I remember Jason Ferruggia writing recently about how heavy chin-ups/pull-ups can really beat up on older lifters – and it’s safe to say that the reason isn’t so much tissue degeneration, but simply that it took time for them to build appreciable enough strength to get to the point where the overall stress was too much.

2. The lats overpower the lower traps - The overwhelming majority of the baseball athletes I see (and most extension/rotation sport athletes, in general) live in lordotic postures.  The lat is a strong extensor of the spine – but it also attaches to the rib cage and scapula on the way to the upper extremity.  The end result is that many lordotic athletes wind up with a very “gross” extension pattern.

The rib cage flairs up, and the lower traps do little to pull the shoulder blades back and down on the rib cage – because the lats have already gotten an athlete to the position he/she wants to be in via lumbar extension.  You can see from the picture below that the line of pull of the two muscles is actually very comparable – but given cross sectional area and length, the lat will always have the upper hand, especially if it’s constantly being prioritized in a strength training program due to exercise selection and faulty lifting technique.

Effectively, we need to learn to move our scapulae on our rib cage, as opposed to just moving our entire spine into extension.  Interestingly, you’ll find a lot of flexion-bias in the Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) and Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS) schools of thought because they clearly appreciate that getting folks out of “gross extension” is a way to get/keep people healthy.  Having ultra short/stiff lats can cause issues ranging from extension-based back pain (e.g., spondylolysis) to shoulder pain (e.g., external or internal impingement).  As I’ve written previously, too, this global dysfunction may also be the reason we’re seeing more femoroacetabular impingement in athletes.

As another interesting aside, I see a lot of throwers with low right shoulders and incredibly short/stiff lats on that side.

This is secondary to faulty rib positioning and the scapular anterior tilt that ensues (as per the PRI school of thought), but one additional thing we’ve found (thanks to great feedback from physical therapist Eric Schoenberg) is that overhead shrugging variations on the low shoulder have helped these throwers to not only feel better, but minimize these asymmetries.  Effectively, creating a bit more stiffness in the upper trapezius helps it to counterbalance the aggressive downward pull of the lat on the scapula.

These folks sit in scapular depression, and for that reason, we’ll often leave out any exercises (e.g., deadlifts, dumbbell lunges) that involve holding heavy weights in the hand until scapular positioning is better controlled.

3. The humeral attachment portion of the lat is part of a significant zone of convergence at the posterior shoulder – The back of your shoulder is another one of those claustrophobic areas in your body.  You’ve got tendons for the lat, teres major, teres minor, infraspinatus, long head of the triceps, and posterior deltoid all coming together in a very small area, creating friction over each other as their individual forces come together (regions like this are called “Zones of Convergence” by myofascial researcher Luigi Stecco.

The latissimus dorsi is, without a doubt, the largest and strongest of all the involved structures.  It also has the longest tendon, which makes it the biggest candidate for nasty tissue quality in the region.  The problem is that muscles/tendons don’t deform evenly; rather, they move a lot where the tissue quality is good, and very little where it is dense.  So, when you’re super dense in the posterior shoulder and try to go do pull-ups, as I noted earlier, the entire shoulder girdle wants to move (humeral extension and internal rotation, and scapular depression) together, as opposed to a nice synergy of the humerus with the scapula on the rib cage.  When some is stiff in the posterior shoulder and wants to use the lat for everything, a seated cable row looks like this.  Notice how the elbow winds up behind the body, and the scapula anterior tilts – and also how old the video is; I look like I am 12 years old and weigh 120 lbs.

Rowing like this over time will eventually irritate the anterior shoulder.  However, watch this standing one-arm cable row where the humeral head (ball) maintains a good alignment with the glenoid fossa (socket) as the shoulder blade moves on the rib cage.  The humerus doesn’t extend unless the scapula moves with it.

4. Overactive lats can decrease the subacromial space – The lat extends, adducts, and internally rotates the humerus.  In order to get overhead the right way, we need flexion, abduction, and external rotation of the humerus.  So, you can see that it’s a direct antagonist to healthy, overhead movement.  If you think about your biggest players for pain-free overhead movement, two of them have to be the posterior rotator cuff and lower trapezius.  The lat overpowers both of them in a “gross” extension pattern.

Here’s a test: position yourself supine, bend the knees, flatten the lower back, and then let your arms hang freely overhead.  Then, have someone take a picture looking down at the top of your head.  A “pass” would be full shoulder flexion with no arching of the back, and no shoulder pain along the way.  A fail would be pain, or something that looks like this:

If your photo looks like this, you better hope that you have outstanding posterior rotator cuff and lower trapezius function (adequate stiffness) to overpower some very short lats if you intend to train overhead pain-free (especially with overhead pressing).  Otherwise, your shoulder flexion will really just be lumbar extension and forward head posture substitutions (this one has a nice left rib flair, too).

In other words, you need adequate anterior core stability and good recruitment of the deep neck flexors, too, but those are blogs for another day.

Closing Thoughts

This post has gone on far too long, and to be honest, I’ve probably just used the last 1300+ words to piss a lot of you off.  You’ll be happy to know, however, that we still use a ton of pull-ups/chin-ups in our strength training programs at Cressey Performance.  In fact, they’re a mainstay.  Here are some modifying factors, however:

1. The risk:reward ratio gets a little out of whack once you get very strong with pull-ups.  You’d be better off adding sets and reps, as opposed to adding load – and you may want to push the heavy stuff less frequently than you would with compound exercises.

2. Get regular manual therapy at the posterior shoulder and entire elbow to stay on top of tissue quality. At the very least, make sure you’re foam rolling a ton and using The Stick:

3. Strengthen the anterior core and deep neck flexors so that you don’t substitute lumbar hyperextension and forward head posture, respectively, for shoulder flexion.

4. Strengthen the lower traps so that the lats can’t overpower them.  I like wall slides at 135 degrees abduction, as it allows one to work in the direct line of pull of the lower traps.  Make sure to cue “glutes tight, core braced” so that folks can’t substitute lumbar extension (“gross extension”) for movement of the scapulae on the rib cage.  Make sure there is no forward head posture, too.

Prone 1-arm trap raises off the table are also a popular one.  Just make sure you continue to cue “glutes tight, core braced, and no forward head posture.”

4. Maintain adequate length in the lats. In warm-ups, I like the bench t-spine mobilizations and side-lying internal external rotation as a means of getting some shoulder flexion.

In terms of static stretching, a lat stretch in the power rack is great.

If this gives you an impingement feeling, regress it a bit, stabilize the scapulae with the opposite hand, and gently dip into a wall lat stretch with stabilization.

Many folks will also benefit from this classic overhead stretch in order to reduce stiffness in the long head of the triceps, a synergist to the lats in humeral extension.

5. Make sure you’re including plenty of horizontal pulling (rowing) strength exercises as well – and executing them with the correct form.  This means moving humerus and scapula together on rib cage, not just yanking the humerus into extension on a fixed scapula.

6. If you have terrible shoulder flexion and can’t get overhead without substituting forward head posture and lumbar hyperextension, spend some time addressing the underlying issues before you start cranking on pull-ups.  We actually don’t do any pull-ups/chin-ups with some of our professional baseball players for 4-8 weeks following the season, as we need to spend time building rotator cuff, lower trap, and anterior core strength. I like to use the back-to-wall shoulder flexion exercise as a “pass/fail test.” If you can get the thumbs to the wall without losing the flat-back posture on the wall or bending your elbows, then you can probably start going to pull-ups.

7. Above all else, listen to your body, and hold back if pull-ups/chin-ups hurt.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post and your experiences with heavy and/or high-volume pull-ups/chin-ups in the comments section below.

For more information on the role of the lats in upper extremity health and function, I’d encourage you to check out our Optimal Shoulder Performance DVD Set.

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118 Responses to “Strength Training Programs: Are Pull-ups THAT Essential?”

  1. Ben Says:

    Hey Eric,

    I’m as big a fan of pull-ups as you’ll probably find, but I really like this post. As much as I personally like pull-ups, I always tell people that if I had to choose between pull-ups or rows, I think rows would win out. I also agree with you that as you get stronger at pull-ups, it’s a good idea to move away from adding weight and turn to move volume. I’ve also been playing around with tempos and things like that to make them more challenging without the need for tons of external load, and while I haven’t been doing it long enough to form a staunch opinion, so far I like it. Nice post.

  2. Mieke Says:

    Thanks! I am working towards a 1-arm pull up, and this was a great checklist to review my list of ‘how to get there’ things with.
    Very clear, and very much in depth. Great job.

  3. Greg Yankee Says:

    I have irritated my shoulder before doing heavy pull ups. ATM, it’s a moot point for me as I haven’t been released to do pull ups post distal bicep reattachment surgery.

  4. Tim Peirce Says:

    I’ve been a bit of a pull-up nazi with my own strength training program. Mostly because I suck at them. I’ve found that when I start getting beyond a certain number of pullups in a given session done week after week the elbows and shoulders get a bit cranky.

    For me, I know the issue is getting my scaps seated correctly. I have a series of corrective exercises that addresses that.

    My Graston guy has never drawn blood before! Youch.

  5. Rick Kaselj Says:



    Epic post.

    Like the point about lats over powering lower traps.

    Rick Kaselj of


  6. Darren Says:

    Excellent article Eric, one of your more technical sure, but packed with useful training advice and an important reminder for balanced programming requirements.

  7. john Says:

    Hi Eric,

    For those with good balanced shoulder mobility, are overhead squats a good complement to pull-ups, or is the shrug necessary?

  8. Jim Says:

    Good point on the elbow wreckage this exercise can wreak. Of all the sacrosanct exercises, this one is probably the least specific to any sport – except perhaps gymnastics and rock climbing.

  9. Jacob Wasilewski Says:

    Hi Eric,

    Question: In terms of moving the scapula round the thoracic spine during horizontal pulling – should the scapula move into pronation/retraction or should I keep my scapula retracted the entire time?


    Jacob Wasilewski

  10. Dave Says:

    Great post Eric! I had a question concerning chin-ups or pull-ups using gymnasts rings or a TRX. Do u find that you have the same shoulder and elbow issues when u have the ability to move freely during the movement, instead of being in such a fixed position?


  11. Quint Says:

    You pretty much just described the entire program you wrote for me, Eric. Great post!

  12. Darren T Says:

    Can vertical pulls be dropped entirely or would that lead to an imbalance? If they cannot be dropped, what could be done for vertical pulls instead of pullups?

  13. Tom Says:

    Great article Eric, although you lost me at some parts where it is too technical for my english skills and first time I get to know the Graston technique. I will certainly reread it to understand it better! What I am wondering is if that’s maybe also an issue for my difficulties doing an overhead squat?! – my arms always move forward the lower I go with my hips.

  14. Benjamin Says:

    Do horizontal rowing variations present any of these problems or some entirely different ones once you get beastly strong on them?

  15. Mik Says:

    The seated row video you show contradicts most of the other instructional videos that demonstrate how to do a seated row.

  16. Paul Valiulis Says:

    This is more concentrated sweetness than Minute Maid in a can. Nice!

  17. Manu Says:

    Great post Eric. I don’t want to sound like I am plagiarizing Ben and Rick, but I like the points about increasing volume over external load and lats overpowering the lower traps.

  18. Ted Says:

    Hi Eric

    I really like the post! I play professional golf and recently spent two weeks in Phoenix working with physical therapists Ben Hagar and Allen Gruver due to chronic SI pain and hip pain. There are a couple other things as well. They are both phenomenal at what they do and have a backround in PRI. I have a pretty excessive anterior tilt of my pelvis and one of their main points of emphasis was tight lats particularly my right lat as I am a right handed golfer. As a result of the trip I’ve had to basically reconsider my entire strength training program as many of the exercises I’ve been doing although good exercises (ex. squats, deadlifts, PULL UPS) promote extension in my lower back and reinforce my bad pattern. Its been kinda tough because I love doing these exercises but I’ve had to consider my proirities. Golf is what I like most and as I’ve learned excessive anterior tilt is not conducive to an efficient and powerful swing. I like how you suggested horizontal pulling as a subsitute for pull ups as I have found that its much easier to maintain a nuetral pelvis or even a slightly posteriorly tilted pelvis in a horizontal position. Horizontal pulling also seems to be easier on my elbows as you again mentioned. I’ve been dealing with golfers elbow in the right elbow which is probably in part related to the loaded pull ups that I had been doing on a regular basis. If you have any other strength training recommendatins that would be helpful in regards to improving upon anterior tilt please let me know. Keep the blogs coming!


  19. Cian Lanigan Says:

    Fantastic article. Very well rounded with some really interesting points.

  20. tim Says:

    Probably my favourite article you’ve ever written, and I say that having watched optimal shoulder performance, and as a lover of all things pull ups. Fantastic work Eric, Thank you Part 2, the force couple between rhomboids, serratus and low traps. I even have a name for you.. Are rows THAT essential? Bench pressers will love it.

  21. Tom Riley Says:

    Great Post. Many strength coaches get caught up in fitting their athletes into their program rather than customizing the program to the needs of the athletes.

  22. James Cipriani- CFT Says:

    I’m a big advocate of Pull-ups, but I’m not of the ilk that got “pissed off” by you teaching against that grain. I find your knowledge eye opening and I often find myself learning quite a bit from your posts.

    As great as my business is, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that a part of me wishes I lived near Boston. I would have loved to come work for you. I can only imagine how much there is to learn working “live” with you.

  23. Wayne Says:

    As much as i wanted to totally disagree/rebuke this article, being a pullup fanatic, I find myself walking away more enlightened for lack of a better word. Very insightful

  24. Dr. John, DPT Says:

    Great post Eric.

    The lats are often overactive in overhead athletes leading to internal rotation and adduction which you discussed.

    Here are a few more thoughts on your closing comments:

    #3: I agree, the anterior core has been forgotten due to excessive neutral spine and worries about dangerous compressive forces. Unfortunately, the compressive forces when you go to the bathroom is higher than during flexion-bias. Neutral spine has lead to extreme weakness of the anterior core and overactivity of the lumbar extensors via the lumbodorsal fascia. When working the anterior core (and scapular stabilizers) it is important to ensure no low back movement occurs with flexion-bias; prevent cheaters from overacting!

    #4: In the overhead triceps stretch, I recommend performing the stretch with the shoulder blade blocked. As we all know, overhead athletes have excessively mobile shoulder blades and this stretch feeds into the mobile shoulder blades without providing a stretch. If the athlete blocks the shoulder blade on the wall or ground, then they can feel a stretch with a stable shoulder blade.

    Just my thoughts.

  25. Mike Heidinger Says:

    Awesome article. Not to mention how many people over use the traps on pull ups

  26. Eric Cressey Says:

    Dr. John – great contributions! We often do the triceps stretch up against the wall, but I’ve cut back on it because of the tendency for athletes to go into forward head posture. Instead, we’re doing them more free-standing, and just cueing athletes to stabilize the scapula. Thanks for your post!

  27. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, James and Wayne for the kind words!

  28. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Tom! It’s true; you can’t jam a round peg in a square hole.

  29. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks for the feedback and idea, Tim! That one might be a video one!

  30. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Cian!

  31. Eric Cressey Says:


    Thanks for your post. I’d just encourage you to remember that, above all else, flexion TO NEUTRAL from extension is different than flexion TO FLEXION from neutral. You’re just learning where you really should be, not just going to where you’re comfortable (and dysfunctional). I think you’ll find that you’re still able to do a lot of your “sacred” exercises pretty soon – but you’ll be doing them from slightly different, and safer, postures – and with different coaching cues. Good luck!

  32. Eric Cressey Says:

    That’s a funny way of putting it, Paul; thanks!

    Manu – not plagiarizing at all. If something is important, it deserves to be reiterated!

  33. Eric Cressey Says:

    Mlk – that was the point! It’s incorrect technique that I’m showing!

  34. Eric Cressey Says:

    Benjamin – they’d only present a problem if they are performed with the faulty technique I outlined. However, any heavy gripping work combined with elbow flexion can definitely make the elbows cranky over time.

  35. Eric Cressey Says:

    Tom – these may be part of the issue, but it could also be poor thoracic, hip, or ankle mobility, so it’s tough to say for sure!

  36. Eric Cressey Says:

    Darren – They can definitely be dropped, especially if they provoke symptoms! Lots of people don’t overhead press, either, you know? Fit the program to the lifter, not vice versa.

  37. Eric Cressey Says:

    Quint – Ha! Yep, you’re a bit of a case study – although your upper traps have plenty of stiffness, too!

  38. Eric Cressey Says:

    Dave – I’d expect it to be a bit better with those implements because it’s harder to add external load (more instability present). Some of the same compensation patterns could occur, though.

  39. Eric Cressey Says:

    John – Yes, I’d say that would suffice, assuming no issues. Overhead shrugs would be something I’d use with someone with a pronounced scapular downward rotation syndrome (really downsloped shoulders).

  40. Eric Cressey Says:

    Jacob – it should move through protraction/retraction, not just stay in retraction. You want them to work in harmony, not isolation.

  41. Trevor McDonald Says:


    I have read every single baseball related and some non-related articles on T-Nation that you have wrote! Love how you put everything together and how you think differently. Furthermore, I was wondering as to what an overhead shrug would look like. Simply hands over head and shrug or reach while maintaining posture? Thanks Eric

    Trevor McDonald

  42. Steve Says:

    I can’t thank you enough for the invaluable information you share, Eric. You are a gentleman and a scholar sir, thank you.

  43. Kenneth Barnhart Says:


    Nice post. Been doing pullups for years and never with external load because of the stress on the elbows. Best info I have heard about correct pullup form is to hang from the bar and start the movement by pulling the scapula down and in toward the spine. Do you agree?

  44. Mohammed Akif Says:

    Sorry this isn’t completely relevant, but I cannot find a way to get a hold of you for an important question that I haven’t seen addressed yet.

    When performing the Valsalva manoeuver (in an attempt to increase intra-abdominal pressure) during lifts – namely squats, deadlifts, power cleans and presses (and pull-ups, to make it more relevant to the article) – what kind of breathing do you advise? I know that the “proper” way to breathe during day-to-day life is diaphragmatically, but is that also the correct manner to breathe when using the valsalva and lifting heavy weights or does it simply not matter? An advantage I can see one would gain by breathing “up” the shoulders/back/chest area and not the belly is that it may provide a more solid “shelf” for back squats. Also, I associate diaphragmatic breathing with being relaxed, which, depending on the lifter, may be the opposite state that one would want to trigger during a training session.


  45. Eric Cressey Says:

    Kenneth – I don’t think it is necessary to initiate the movement that way. I’d rather have everything synced up smoothly.

  46. Jake Moore, DPT Says:


    I love this post! I’ll share a different experience with pull-ups. I used to get pain in the scalene triangle on the right after doing weighted pull-ups. Pretty much a sure thing that I’d have an elevated first rib to go with it. When trying to grind out some heavy reps I was loosing my scap stability while still pulling with the biceps, bringing the scaps into a shrug with anterior tilt. This elevation of the shoulder girdle then pulls on the first rib through the scalenes. This compensation seems to be pretty common in those who are near max effort in weight or reps. The solution has been to pretty much eliminate heavy pull-ups, instead doing body weight pull-ups on tempo and focusing on scap position through the movement. My shoulders and neck seem to do much better with this.

  47. Chris Says:

    I’ve been plateauing with pull-ups lately (hard to tell – I’ve put on weight), and have intuitively been starting to train heavy rows more, instead. I’ve been aware for some time to move the scapula in harmony with the rest of the shoulder, and this article makes a lot of sense to me in terms of explaining in more detail what is probably going on in my shoulder. I’d like to be able to do many pull-ups, but I’m aware that if I focus only on them, muscle imbalances are likely to develop that will only get in the way of my progress.

    Thanks for the article!

  48. Martin Koban Says:

    Eric, thank you for this detailed article. Valuable input on how to how to keep a balanced back and very helpful on the (long) way to one-armed chins.

  49. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Jake! Great point.

  50. kedric Says:

    Hey Eric,
    Great post you have up hear and its really good on how you broke down various part of how the whole pull-up functions and the way it effects our muscles. However, Im not really an expert on the whole physiology of muscle and I don’t really understand the 3rd point where you compared the seated cable rows and 1 arm cable row,can you further explain so that it can help improve my technique?


  51. Barry Says:

    Eric – This was a great article. After two years I still have medial epicondylitis from increasing my volume of pull-ups too quickly. I have revamped my thinking on this. The “grease to groove” mentality works poorly for those of us over 40. I have seen overuse injuries in this population in the people I train and have adopted a substantially more cautious attitude towards things like this. I wish I read this two years ago. Best article you have written to date. Thanks much.

  52. Eric Cressey Says:


    In that third point, it was to show you that if you overuse lats relative to the scapular retractors (specifically the lower traps), you’ll just extend the arm instead of moving the scapula as well. You can tell because the elbow ends up behind the body, and the scapula is anteriorly tilted.

  53. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Barry! Over 40, the risk of degenerative changes goes sky-high. Volume management is definitely extra important.

  54. OFWGKTA Says:

    Eric can you please write an article detailing how to deal with overweight individuals? My mom is 47 and really could use some exercise tips?

  55. Janila Says:

    Wow. Such an excellent post. I’m no fitness professional, but I do love reading your blogs! This one was very informative. Definitely noticed via the mirror and performing some of those exercises that my left scapula is more winged than my right.

    Rock on, Eric!

  56. Alex Kraszewski Says:

    Sterling work as always Eric! Just a couple of things on my mind;

    1) With regards to horizontal rowing in encouraging synergy between scapular gliding and humeral extension, do you have any preference towards pronated or neutral grips, or wider bars vs a V-bar (for cable rows in this instance)

    2) Any further reading around on rib flare? Something I see banded around quite a lot but haven’t found a decent source of info from an anatomical/biomechanical standpoint.

    Thanks a lot!

  57. Andrew Frezza Says:

    Very interesting article! I will stick with my weighted pull ups for now but will definitely keep those things in mind as I progress.

  58. Eric Schoenberg Says:

    Good stuff as always EC and thanks for the mention above.

    Just wanted to add a couple more observations that we see in a lot of our overhead athletes. In addition to the lats “winning the battle” and pulling the scapula into depression, just as important is the downward rotation piece. The lats need to function, but not at the expense of the upper and lower traps, serratus, etc. These are all upward rotators and their proper function is critical for a baseball player to help avoid anterior shoulder and elbow pain. If the lats dominate, the scap. will be pulled into downward rotation and depression, spine will excessively extend, glute function will decrease, and velocity/power will come from the anterior shoulder and medial elbow. (most common sites of injury)

    The body will take the path of least resistance and if the lats lock the scapula down, the body needs to get movement from somewhere (lumbar hyperextension, excessive anterior pelvic tilt, anterior humeral glide, increased elbow valgus, etc.) Obviously, this is not all due to pull-ups, but just observations.

    Finally, I’ve yet to meet a baseball player with weak lats. I have never seen lack of strength in the lats lead to an injury, however I have seen excessive stiffness and decreased length of the lats be a component of almost every injury that we see.

    Thanks again EC!

  59. Tony Says:

    Hey Eric:

    As always, great information. I can hardly wait for a chance to apply for an internship at your place so I can learn more. A couple of thoughts re. the pullup/lat article:

    1) First, great great insight on the complex interplay between the lats and the rest of the thorax. My thinking had only evolved to include the role of the lats on the contralateral hip/inominate. Thanks for that–I followed up the other two sites, e.g. DNA and the postural site.

    2) I have been doing pullups using a towel for a while. I began doing this after learning more from Gray Cook on the interplay between hand/forearm activation and coactivation of the shoulder girdle. My theory: if I have to squeeze the hell out of the towel, my forearm muscles will be fully engaged and therefore maximize protection of the elbow. So far it has worked and my naggy medial epicondylitis has not been irritated. Using a typical “hook” grip enables me to do far more pullups but, I believe, loads fewer muscles at–mostly flexor–and this may account for disproportionate loads on the elbow. Also, using towel or rope pullups definitely reduces your working load tremendously, another possible form of protection against overloading the lat/shoulder/elbow complex.

    3) Finally, regarding thoracic mobility etc. I have been fascinated by the Suples “Bulgarian Training Bag” and have been dying to hear your take on it. Here’s the link (

    I’ve been using this a few days and have really liked the “loosening” effect it has on my upper body as well as the grip & all around delt conditioning (it really is a whole-body workout).

    It, along with kettlebells, has become a favorite of mine. Naturally, your take on the primary exercise (circling the bag/arms around the upper back) is of great interest to me.

    Okay, long post but hope you answer. Finally, I added the link to this fascinating article on breathing mechanics and kyphosis & abdominal strength. I’m pretty sure you’ve already read this, but just in case :-)

  60. Juan Jose Tovar Says:

    Great article Im a 43 year old male who still trains chin ups/pull ups heavy pain free. I do periodize heavy lifting and use unilateral movements for my lats. Im going to start doing more exercises for my lower traps and foam rolling more.

  61. Eric Cressey Says:

    Great contributions, Eric; thanks!

  62. Jon-Erik Kawamoto Says:

    Great post Eric – really like the forearm massage with the stick on the squat rack – added that one into my warm-up. Cheers.

  63. Brian Cammarota Says:


    I spent the last 12 years as an athletic trainer in professional baseball and definetly agree that overactive and over developed lats often contribute to many injuries in throwers. Very few players are lacking strength in the lats so keeping pull-ups to a minimum, especially in season is important. As you mention, overactive lats often make it difficult to recruit and strengthen the lower trapezius and create the anterior pelvic tilt as the lat acts as a core stabilizer. When the lat is too tight, mechanics suffer and injuries to the elbow and shoulder become much more likely. I would also recommend that any thrower with tight lats or doing pull ups should also do a 30-60 sec hanging stretch (keeping some body weight on floor). I just started reading your site and really enjoy it. I like seeing how you utilize and mention PRI techniques and flexion versus extension. What is your feeling on front versus back squats both for overactive lats and PRI techniques? DO you prefer one over the other? Thanks

  64. Kevin Says:

    Wish I had read an article like this a year ago! As a pullup lover in my 40s, I pushed too many heavy pullups with too little recovery, and I’m still dealing with the elbow pain (medial epicondilytis) that resulted. The manual therapy has been the only thing to work thus far, along with mild eccentric rehab exercises. Pullup lovers would be wise to consider your advice – I know from experience!

  65. Eric Cressey Says:

    Brian – Thanks for your contribution!

    I don’t use back squats with any of our throwers because of concerns with exacerbating internal impingement and the peel-back mechanism at the shoulder. Plus, it’s valgus stress at the elbow when guys are already getting plenty of that!

    So, we use more front squat variations – and that’s when we are actually squatting guys (I’d say that more than half of our pro guys don’t squat at all). On the front squat side of things, I think the arms in front (cross-face grip) actually helps to inhibit the lats a bit, and that helps to explain why the load is slightly less than with the back squat set-up.

    We also utilize the giant cambered bar and safety squat bar quite a bit.

  66. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Tony, for the note. I haven’t seen the Suples stuff, but would be interested in check it out.

  67. Eric Cressey Says:


    To answer your questions….

    1. I’d say supinated grip would be the toughest, and neutral probably the easiest (pronated somewhere int he middle). Also tougher to teach with bilateral rowing, as opposed to unilateral.

    2.…search for zone of apposition.

  68. Eric Cressey Says:


    For me, personally, I’m still trying to breath into my belly. Sucking a bunch of air up into my torso doesn’t make me any more stable under load, as the stabilization effect happens at an area of more cross-sectional area (upper torso). I’d rather have it where I am mechanically smaller (lumbar spine) in order to strengthen the path of least resistance.

  69. Jareth Whelan Says:

    Great article!

    Without a doubt, soft-tissue work on the forearms has proven to be the most effective protocol for reducing (and often eliminating) elbow pain.

    How do chins/pulls on a TRX (or rings) factor into this equation? As I have found them (as well as a neutral grip) to produce significantly less shoulder aggravation.


  70. Andrew Eaton Says:

    Well stated, Eric. A question and an observation:

    Regarding the bench press; why would leg drive be necessary? Some of the poorest technique I’ve witnessed in my 20 years training stemmed from bridging during a press. Not only does the bridge change the force angle of the lift, it also artificially stabilizes the scapulae by using friction to wedge them against the bench. IMO, the lifter is better served with heels on the bench to inhibit excessive lumbar extension, resulting in increased RA stability. Bench pressing sans ‘power arch’ also provides an increased opportunity for the lifter to self-stabilize the scapulae.

    Regarding the old rowing video; another limiting factor is the handle / cable attachment. The narrow, parallel grip handle encourages internal rotation at the shoulder, which increases as the lifter moves the hands closer to the abdomen. This results in a rounded shoulder appearance, and also changes the line of pull from linear to rotational. Again, IMO, since the machine being used only provides linear loading, the user’s motion should also be linear. The segments providing attachment to the bar – the forearms – ideally should be parallel, or at least have the opportunity to move without requiring rotation, which a split-handle attachment would provide. (I realize that the rowing video is old, and that you likely know all this already, but it keeps it fresh in my mind to think this through & comment, so thanks for the opportunity!)

    Keep up the great work!

  71. Trent Says:

    Great article Eric! You are the inspiration that I credit becoming the confident, methodical trainer I am today even though you may not know it. Now if only we could get Doctor’s and PT’s to realize these basic movement patterns with there clients and the concepts behind it!
    Also, what are some of the sources you use to keep up on up to date movement pattern research. Again, it seems that your more knowledgable than most MD’s and with the internet I know education is only limited to what your willing to find and explore.

  72. Eric Cressey Says:

    Jareth – I’ve noticed the same thing. I believe it has something to do with the fact that there is more elbow flexion during pull-up/chin-up variations than with TRX rows – so the shortening isn’t quite as pronounced.

    In the case of pull-ups on the TRX, the instability likely just means that you need less external loading for the same training effect, so it’s easier on the joints.

  73. NikoDemus Says:

    Hei, I’ve tried a test described above and what happened was: I got hand to to the floor and felt at first major discomfort in shoulder. However it faded away quickly and after 20-30 sec. was unnoticeable. Also when hands were locked at elbow it produced some minor discomfort, but also faded as soon as it began.

    If it not too much of a burden, could you please analyze this situation and give personal advice.

    Best regards.

  74. Luke Says:

    Thanks for another great article!!!

  75. Catherine Says:

    Great Article! Too bad more ladies aren’t adding replies! Just curious why half your athletes aren’t squatting at all?

  76. Eric Cressey Says:


    I’ve heard that line of thinking a lot over the years, and while it might seem logical, the results just aren’t substantiated among lifters who are actually strong. Guys shoulders get extremely cranky when you bring up the feet and flatten the spine. I think there are three reasons:

    1. I think the flat back posture shifts guys into an abducted scapulae position from the get-go – and it becomes excessive at the top of the press. A similar thing happens when guys have to lift off the racks to themselves to start the lift.

    2. Folks are more likely to go into excessive humeral extension in the bottom position with a “sunken” chest. So, they either jack up the anterior aspect of the shoulder there – or the elbows flare out and we deal with a host of other stability issues.

    3. I’m not convinced that such substantial loads for the upper body alone are a good thing. Smaller joint structures, more mobility than stability, etc. Sharing the load with the lower body tends to better distribute overall training stress.

    FYI, I’m debating the different between “normal lordotic curve” and “feet up,” not referring to the extreme powerlifting set-up approach. That one is all about performance and shortening ROM, not health.

    Regardless, outstanding comments – especially on the rowing side of things.



  77. Joe Birch Says:

    Hi Eric

    Great article. I have a few clients presenting some of the issues raised here. Poor lower trap activation is really common amongst my clients (office workers, shocker). I’ve found a great progression from wall slides, once they understand what tension in the lower traps feels like, is a snatch grip (or narrower for those without pain) Sotts press, preferably with a rope or even a tie (anything that requires tension to remain rigid). Really driving the elbows under the bar (rope) and pressing from behind the head seems to get incredible tension in the lower trap and also requires decent thoracic extension and mobility at the hips. If your interested I could post a video, this description doesn’t do the exercise justice! Also love you Neanderthal no more serious, very useful for PTing London city workers (they really do love sitting down with horrific posture!)


  78. Eric Cressey Says:

    Joe – thanks! Would love to see a video.

  79. yogamaria5 Says:

    Dear Eric,

    Thank you for this post. Very educational. I too have a left rib flair. Both sides use to flair out, but now its only the left. But I can feel how much tighter my left side lats are when I do a sidebend to the right. Thank you for teaching the cueing for the ball rollout. I can definitely feel the difference with hips shifting forward, glutes & abs engaged as opposed to moving forward first with shoulders. Also, love the standing wall slides. Tough!!! I have been doing about 50 – 75 shoulder retractions/pull backs with the figure 8 tube daily to strengthen my upper back. I am getting my lower traps in this move or mostly rhomboids & rear delts?

    While I teach yoga with strength training principles, I will definitely use these moves in my students practice. So many shoulders up at the ears and forward head motion. Yeah, there’s a reason people get hurt doing chaturanga/push ups & downward dog [not in my class though :)],because their form is bad.

    I can’t wait to meet you at the Chicago Perform Better summit!


  80. Matt Says:


    Great article. My question relates to your comment about lat overactivation decreaing the subacromial space in those with impingment pain. I can see how that could definitely contribute to primary (hypomobile) impingement. In those with secondary (hypermobile) impingement, particulary those with poor scapular kinematics, excessive scapular winging/upward rotation and decreased humeral head inferior glide with overhead movements, would you want to train the lats more to help correct this?

  81. Derrick Says:

    I’m only two months late to read this phenomenal post. You are the best of the best, EC.

    I had a reply to post #69, Jareth, regarding medial elbow pain due to pull ups, and more likely chin ups, as opposed to TRX or ring pulls.

    If you are missing rotation at the shoulder, the force of the load on a straight bar goes to the elbow. So on a chin up for example, if you can’t externally wind up the shoulder all the way to end range, under load, the humerus will flair into internal rotation as you perform the movement. Something has to give and it’s the elbow, (pronator teres), and also the wrist sometimes comes along for the painful twisting ride.

    If you lack the shoulder mobility to keep the elbow directly under the bar, then a rotating ring, or strap allows the wrist and elbow to rotate whichever way the shoulder wants to go keeping things lined up, and much less stressful on the tendons.

    I only know all of this from years of various ailments! Straight bar lifting doesn’t have to be dangerous if mobility at each contributing joint is up to snuff, and form is dialed in.

    With fixed bars, lock the shoulder into one position in line with the wrists, and fire away with the lats. To put it more simply, keep the elbows directly under the bar, and pull straight down on the bar. If this is problematic, rings or floating handles solve the problem.

    Eric, love what you say about the scaps rolling with the humeri. I have had to drop my row weights way, way down to let my traps catch up to my lats. The anterior shoulder pain that you referred to is so very real when the lats dominate the traps (rear delts, too?) too much and pull the humeri forwards into the socket!


  82. Dan Pope Says:

    I freaking love pullups….

    Really liked the point of assessing overhead flexibility before throwing someone onto a program with overhead pressing. I think this is too often overlooked.

  83. John Lawrence Says:

    In your first point above you said that one of the reasons weighted pull-ups can be bad for the elbow joint is because the pull-up pulls the lower and upper arm apart. You also mentioned that you had a personal best chin-up of 321 pounds for 3 reps. Presumably that meant there was at least 321 pounds of force pulling your arm apart at the elbow for you to move 321 pounds upward.

    However, you deadlift considerably more than 321 pounds. Wouldn’t performing a 600+ pound deadlift pull your arms apart at the elbow with more force than your 321 pound chin-ups?

  84. Eric Cressey Says:

    Hi John,

    They’re definitely different, as the chin-up involves elbow flexion against resistance, not just gripping. Plus, the deadlift has a bit more of a joint traction effect.

  85. Tony Danes Says:

    I have been doing pull ups for 33 years their have been times when I did not do them…when I competed in O Lifting I would P Clean high pull dead in the 225-350 range. I did a 235lb c&J in meet 255 lb in the gym. Since then the Pull-Up in Holy Grail shit. I am 52 and can do 10 pull ups I did not read your article you maybe right one of the Russian Coachs I read hated them…OUT Brother

  86. LLN Says:

    Loved the post! I am a female PT trying to add more strength training to my own and my pt’s workouts. I have only 1 issue with the post.. having a prior high cervical strain from an auto accident,the hyperextension in the quadruped deep neck flexor video hurt to watch it. I would either work from a neutral C spine to deep flexion or curl forward and stack C spine segmentally. See you in Providence!

  87. Peter K. Says:

    HEy Eric, great article as always. I have had a few very good PT’s tell me i have SI dysfunction . I’ve rolled, done Mobs etc etc. It starts to feel good then gets cranky again when i start to get the weight up again in reg squatting, Goblet squatting or doing a deadlift variation. I always tend to think it is my tight quad, hip flexors and hamstrings. But i am also thinking my lats could be part of the issue too. Ever heard of this coming into play?

  88. Tony Says:

    Eric, I read and commented on the previous post on pull-ups, and I really appreciate the additional roles of the lats vis-a-vis lordosis, interplay with the traps, etc. It really opened my eyes. Every since that first article I’ve focused on maintaining a tight torso–even a slight bit of lumbar flexion–while doing pull-ups to avoid excessive shortening.
    I had mentioned using the towel in pull-ups (and in heavy kettlebell swings) but you didn’t have the time to comment. The difference in my grip strength since using the towel has been phenomenal (in grappling arts anyhow). For load distribution across the elbow, the towel allowed me to actually do pull-ups again simply because my medial condylitis stopped being a problem. It had gotten so bad I couldn’t ride a bike, do pushups, or even open a car door without pain. I would love to get your analysis on incorporating something soft like towels into moderately heavy pulling movements (rope is too stiff).

  89. Tony Says:

    One other question: the ab-rollouts appear to provide a lot of isometric load, a sort of stretch under tension, for both the lats and the long head of the triceps. Is this something you consider?

    Again, fantastic article–one of my favorite–and thanks for really opening up my eyes that much further with regard to the exercise and the muscles involved!!! Keep up the great work!

  90. Eric Cressey Says:


    I think it’s fine for most people on the rollouts because that co-contraction is what really happens with controlling overhead activitites. Lats/long head of triceps help anterior core to resist excessive shoulder flexion – as in an overhead catch.

  91. Eric Cressey Says:


    Everyone responds differently to altering the grip on pulling motions. Some folks do well with a fat grip or towel, and for others, it makes things worse. Different strokes for different folks!

  92. Eric Cressey Says:


    Tough to say without seeing you in person. Have you actually been through PT, or just been assessed? Usually going back to bilateral exercise under load without fixing the problem is just asking for it to happen again.

  93. Matt Gieringer Says:

    Eric, Thanks for the strategies to prevent and then correct over-active lat issues. I have experienced this myself and stumbled onto shrugs and lat stretching as a great corrective. What are your Go-to lower Trap strengthening exercises? I assume TRX Y’s, T’s… but just curious.

    Thanks for any fedback,

  94. Eric Cressey Says:


    We use several wall slides variations, prone 1-arm trap raises (Ys), and TRX Ys. I think the important thing to remember is that it’s not about activating a certain muscle as much as it is about making the movement look perfect. Hopefully that makes sense.

  95. Felix Says:


    This is an awesome article, thank you very much.
    One question regarding the standing one-arm cable row video (correct version with humeral extension AND scapular retraction) in 3) : Why do you twist / rotate you grip in the concentric phase?

    Kind regards

  96. Eric Cressey Says:


    That little bit of supination drives some humeral external rotation, which opens up the subacromial space at the shoulder.

  97. Carbon unit Says:

    I have been doing heavy chin ups for a long time with little to no problems with it. But of course that doesn’t mean that you’re wrong, so I continue to be VERY careful with EVERY exercise I do.

    Won’t ask you to write an “Is Bench Press That Essential?” -article, because I can guess your answer to that already ;) And Chad Waterbury has already wrote something about it.

  98. Ben Says:


    Great article. I want to keep the subject on the shoulder and ask a question about the bench press. Do you use it for your baseball players? I know a lot of physical therapists turned strength coach tend to be firm advocates for not using it due to too much wear and tear. If you do use it do you account for scapular rhythm, or do you lock their scapulas into place like a powerlifter?

    Any Info will be greatly appreciated.


  99. Eric Cressey Says:


    We don’t bench press our baseball guys. Give this a read:

  100. Stephen Says:

    Very informative post as usual. Quick question. I have one shoulder lower than the other, however, I have been told that I have tight upper traps in both sides. Would you still recommend doing overhead shrugs?

    Kind regards,


  101. Eric Cressey Says:


    If you’ve got a low shoulder, your upper trap is probably lengthened, not short.  It might just be levator scapulae that’s giving you issues.  “Tight” is a very general term.

  102. guy Says:

    hey thanks for this, i actually get lower back pain the day after doing pull ups/chin ups – any idea why? my physiotherapist says there should be no relation between pull ups and lower back pain

  103. Eric Cressey Says:


    Lats are a powerful extensor of the lumbar spine. Try engaging the anterior core and pulling the knees up in front so that you aren’t doing them with an arched lower back. It should clean things up.

  104. BenK Says:

    Hi Eric,
    This made fascinating reading, thanks for all the info, it covers issues I’ve been wondering about for years.
    As a rock climber who does a lot of indoor bouldering training, usually followed by pull-ups, dead hangs on finger tips, I am all too familiar with the elbow issues you mentioned. Though I was lucky enough to bring mine under control with lump-hammer pronation exercises… highly recommended!

    I still struggle with my pull ups though, I have a very long torso, it gives me most of my 6 ft 3″ height and I often experience a gripping pain/sensation in my mid back, and behind the shoulder blades, for a few days after pull ups.
    I have a feeling my form is not correct.
    What would be your top tips for tall guys and pull ups considering they are so specifically important to my climbing performance?
    And what would be your essential complimentary exercises to prevent any heavy imbalances etc?

    Thanks for your time, much appreciated!!

  105. Eric Cressey Says:


    I’d want to see how your scapular control is.  I’d be willing to bet that you’re very limited in scapular upward rotation.  You also likely have a lot of posterior shoulder stiffness/tissue density you need to overcome.

    A few exercises I’d incorporate:

  106. BenK Says:

    Hi Eric,
    Amazing, after years of the recurring pain these exercises seem to be easing it already after just a few sessions?! I’ve seen lots physios and had various treatments but this advice seems to be hitting the nail on the head so thank you again!

    My rotation was pretty limited and I can feel some serious stretching going on during these exercises.

    If there are any more you’d recommend then please do let me know!

    Thanks again

  107. Raylan Bowman Says:

    Wow unbelievable I actually have some of this stuff going with me. For instance the ribs, but I do pull u

  108. Demetrios John Tsinopoulos Says:

    Amazing post, I actually haven’t been able to execute a pull up for years since a cervical injury which got me into a lot of issues, on my right upper side. But now with a lot of corrective exercises and from what I’ve seen to be as one of the best things of all Deadlifts (if done correctly) I’m on my way, but still hanging from the pull up bar gives me a pinching pain in my armpits. Any ideas?

  109. Des Golden Says:

    This is an excellent post. It sums up my own movement shortcomings. If you were to pick one exercise or stretch to lengthen the lats what would it be?

  110. Eric Cressey Says:


    I really like bench t-spine mobs with an exhale at the bottom.

  111. Fani Says:

    Hi Eric,
    Great article.
    You haven’t mentioned anything about Behind-The-Neck (BTN) pullups, what can you say about this? I read one of your articles that you dont recommend Behind-The-Neck (BTN) pulldowns. Accdng to your article pulldowns are traction exercises as well as pullups. Is there any reason I should also ditch the BTN pullups ?, say for overall strength and safety

  112. Eric Cressey Says:


    I don’t like them at all.

  113. Allan Says:

    Excellent article, just what I was looking for. I experienced some shoulder pain 3-4 weeks ago that still lingers today after going through a few weeks of benching and weighted chin ups. Bodyweight chin ups still bother the hell out of my left shoulder on the posterior side. I saw a orthopedic surgeon and had a mri done earlier this week. If the mri rules out a muscle tear, what corrective exercises/stretches can I do to bring my shoulder back to 100%?

  114. Eric Cressey Says:


    It’s impossible to say without evaluating you.  I’d ask your surgeon for a physical therapist recommendation/referral.

  115. Chris Says:

    Hi Eric!

    There was a question here in a comment that I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on as I think you may have missed it:

    “Great article. My question relates to your comment about lat overactivation decreaing the subacromial space in those with impingment pain. I can see how that could definitely contribute to primary (hypomobile) impingement. In those with secondary (hypermobile) impingement, particulary those with poor scapular kinematics, excessive scapular winging/upward rotation and decreased humeral head inferior glide with overhead movements, would you want to train the lats more to help correct this?”


  116. Eric Cressey Says:


    I don’t think that’s the correct approach. Remember, when you activate lat to depress the scapula, you’re also pulling the humeral head into internal rotation and interfering with the ability to upwardly rotate the scapula (as well as driving extension through the lumbar spine). Lower traps are the name of the game, as they give posterior tilt while still helping with upward rotation.

  117. Buckyx Says:

    I just injured lower back after I finished my wam up set of scapula pull ups, they are essential only if you are healthy .. depressed and retraced scapulas, no shoulder mobility limits I hang freely and I didnt even felt low back pain during them only after I dismounted from bar, strong unsharp pain

  118. Bronson Says:

    I feel pullups are an essential part of any workout and it provides you real time strength. You don’t have the benefit of a bench or seat. That is why you never see people doing pullups in the gym. Simply, they are too difficult for them to perform. Pullups are a wonderful exercise. Ever wonder why primates are so much stronger than humans? Pullups, for sure you want to get toned, build muscle and core, PULLUPS are the key.

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