Question about shoulder blades during pull ups and hangs

When doing pullups, should you keep the shoulder blades pulled together? I have heard that you should, but recently I read that keeping them together when raising your arms overhead can cause a shoulder impingement.

How about when doing hangs from the pullup bar? should I keep them pulled together, out just keep my shoulder pulled down?


I can only say what I do. I’m also going to make the discussion slightly more general for recreational lifters.

Most people use a pull-up to describe holding the bar with prone hands (palms facing away from face) and chin-up to describe supine hands (palms facing you). Both are good exercises, but as you know, the biceps are much more involved in chin-ups. This makes them easier, and maybe means less lat and upper back (serratus, rhomboids, etc.) involvement since the biceps do more of the work. The triceps, rotator cuffs, forearms and hands also work in both exercises. I like chins more since working they allow one to work the biceps with significant weight, work more muscle (including the pecs) and are easier on the elbows. Impingement often involves the rotator cuffs at the acromion, especially if your arms and chest are in a T shape when you bench.

The most common mistake is cutting the rep short at the top and bottom. This means the biceps and triceps (top), and the lats (bottom) and the stretched scapula (first shrug upwards from the bottom) work less.

I learned to hold the scapula together, but in practice it does not make that much difference. More injuries occur in the elbows than the shoulder, since doing pull-ups requires elbow flexibility many lifters lack. The grip width makes a bigger difference for the shoulders than the scapula squeeze. Shoulder width with hands in a neutral position (if there are handles perpendicular to the horizontal bar or if using rings) between prone and supine is easiest on the shoulders and my preference. Wider grips increase supination, biceps involvement, and cause more external rotation of the humerus. Closer grips make the scapulas more abducted and so the retractors are less involved.

Clear as mud? To maximize scapula involvement and avoid injury, use a shoulder width grip and go all the way down. I try to hold the scapula together when starting the upward motion. But it is okay if you don’t provided you go down as far as you can. Grip width causes more joint injury than squeezing blades. Elbows are more affected than shoulders, but using a neutral grip eases this. Neither causes what I think of as impingement, a much bigger problem in bench presses. Using too close a grip shortchanges the scapula. Pull-ups might work them more. I do both but value the biceps involvement. I use a mix of grip widths too but favour neutral ones for the bulk of the work. I think impingement is not a major concern here but other factors affect both the elbows and shoulders more. Still, good people have told me squeezing was better. Maybe, but doing a full range of motion is far more important IMHO. If you are older or have bad shoulders stick to shoulder width and neutral grips become more important. All variations help prevent frozen shoulder.

If you are heavy these are hard exercises. Kipping is not a good substitute for stricter chins and is very hard on the shoulders. I like the Gravitron machines and gradually reducing assistance weight better than elastics.

Or, more clearly still: I think this true but correct me if you disagree.

Squeezing is better, but not doing this does not impinge. It is better because it allows better mind-muscle, feel the contraction effect. Many believe this helps develop strength. But it certainly helps with position sense. If you do a proper chin or pull you descend as far as able. From this position the scapula will squeeze together anyway once you start rising regardless of whether you squeeze, but feeling it is deemed better. In any case, pausing in the most extended position is a great way to develop strength, hyper trophy and improve range. I do this on many exercises. If you don’t descend fully the scapula work less. Injury is more from grip width and palm direction than squeeze. Watch those elbows too.

Thank you for the reply. For the last several years I do all my pullups on either rings or the parallel bars on my doorway pullup bar. My hangs are on the doorway bar, palms facing away, and up until this week I kept my shoulder blades pulled together.

What sparked the question is that last week I hurt my right shoulder. Was a little bad for a day or so. It was fine as long as my arm was down, hurt if overhead. And pretty much all better now. I am just trying to avoid it happening again.

I would do other exercises for a week or two, resting the shoulder, if you think it is an injury rather than mere soreness. Rings are more technically difficult than a bar. Sticking to shoulder width grip is the way to go.

Consider stretching before doing any overhead work. Three things that work well are Cuban presses, grabbing an overhead elastic and leaning forward, or getting a pair of light (5-15 lb) dumbbells and making circles in both directions a bit like a swimming stroke.

Again, you gave lots of great advice, thank you. The only thing I do not agree on is rings vs straight bar. I switched to the rings and parallel bars for my pullups because they are easier on my joints. Rings allow your hands to turn in a natural way, reducing stress on joints, and parallel bars (neutral grip) are already better for the joints.

I’d agree with that, and thought this was clear in what I typed. Perhaps you confused grip width with type, or maybe I didn’t express my liking for the neutral grip very well. I like rings but ultimately end up doing far fewer, so get less exercise.

I get you now. I took you saying they were more technically difficult as a negative, and thought you meant straight bar was better. I see what you are saying now.