As part of his continuing mission to make sure everybody is employing the best possible technique in their home workouts during quarantine, Athlean-X’s Jeff Cavaliere C.S.C.S. just broke down the most common mistakes that people make when it comes to their pullup form.
Cavaliere’s focus here is on helping you do more reps overall, and helping you do them in a way that’s good for long-term health and muscle development. He breaks down everything from hand placement to lower-body positioning, all in the hopes of helping you pile up more reps. That doesn’t mean you can’t vary up grips or hand placement, though, but learn these fundamentals first and gain control of them before you start mixing up pullup technique for more nuanced goals.
Narrow hand placement
Too narrow a grip on the bar shifts the muscle you’re focusing on. The pullup is generally thought of as a way to build lat and midback strength, but when you’re using a narrow grip, the prime mover becomes the brachioradialis, a forearm muscle, explains Cavaliere. This essentially turns the pullup into an arm-building curl, except you’re trying to lift your entire bodyweight. “If you get those hands wider, just outside of shoulder width, you’re going to be in a good position to do the pullup and recruit the muscles that are best equipped to do this job.”
Forgetting to train your forearms
While you don’t want to over-utilize your forearm muscles, as stated above, they should still be contributing to the overall strength of the move. One way to train the brachioradialis is through reverse-grip dumbbell hammer curls. Here, the forearm will pronate (and you’ll aggressive turn the back of your hand to the ceiling to drive at that, too). “The key here is not overlooking any of the muscles that participate in the overall performance of the move,” says Cavaliere.
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A lot of people, when doing pullups, simply place their hands on the bar and pull in a downward motion. However, by directing some of that force inwards, as if trying to bring your hands closer together on the bar, you can engage your chest during the move as well. “The more activity you can get in your upper body in the pullup, the more tight you can make your body, which is going to happen by squeezing your hands together, the better you’re going to be at them.”
Kinetic chain looseness
Instead of just letting your lower body dangle during your pullups, Cavaliere recommends activating areas of your body that aren’t usually associated with this exercise: namely, the core, legs, and feet. Engaging your calves, quads and glutes by straightening your knees and pointing your feet downwards will create rigidity that helps to plug the “energy leaks” that happen as you exert force downwards through the kinetic chain.
A common error when completing the full range of motion in pullups is to loosen the shoulders at the lower end of the movement. This can lead to problems with shoulder stability, and can be avoided by using the biceps to ensure you’re giving yourself a little bit of space between your arms and ears when you’re at full extension.
Another frequent mistake is to place the elbows in the exact same plane as your torso. What you actually want to do, says Cavaliere, is shift them forward just slightly. “Putting your elbows out in front of your body is biomechanically more favorable to the exercise, because you’re placing the lats on more stretch,” says Cavaliere. This means you’ll be able to recruit the lats when you need them most, at the bottom of the rep, and you’ll be moving more naturally through the pullup motion.
Hunched upper body
If your back and chest are “caved in” around the bar at the top of the pullup, you’re actually making the exercise more difficult than it needs to be by making inefficient use of the strength you already have. “You should be allowing yourself to maintain this natural thoracic extension,” says Cavaliere. A quick way to test your form is to assume the same positioning on a lat pulldown, and see how much more difficult it feels.
Not leading with your chest
If you’re only lifting your body until your chin is touching the bar, that doesn’t count as a pullup. You need to be attacking the bar with your chest, and using your chest as the goal for each rep. This doesn’t mean your chest will touch the bar or that your chest needs to touch the bar; this will be determined by your shoulder mobility and your chest flexibility. But driving your chin above the bar is a poor standard and creates unnecessary movement through the pullup motion. Driving chest to bar is the best way to think about the pullup.
Not prioritizing pullups in a workout
Pullups are often programmed as the last exercise in a workout, when Cavaliere believes it should be considered a much more important component in back day. “Do it while you’re fresh,” he says. “You’re going to see a remarkable difference in your ability to produce force on this exercise and get more repetitions.” One of the best ways to do this is to make pullups your second back exercise. Do some rows first, cueing scapular retraction (something that should happen during the pullup), and then hit the bar.
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