Pull ups are an incredible exercise. The ability to perform a strict pull up with quality technique is a great measure of upper body strength and relative strength per body weight. This is also an exercise that many struggle with. This can be due to a lack of strength, increased body mass or lack of shoulder mobility. How do you know what is your limiting factor?
It is often assumed that strength or an increase in body mass is the issue. If this is the case then the solution is relatively simple. Focus on strengthening your pull ups! This can be done a number of different ways and with a number of different strategies, however, it doesn’t need to be overly complicated. If body mass is the issue, then strengthening will also help. However, decreasing the weight that you are pulling also makes things easier.
The most overlooked component to pull ups is shoulder mobility. Many active people that participate in weight lifting, CrossFit and various other fitness approaches lack full overhead shoulder flexion.
180 degrees (full overhead) of shoulder flexion is required for a strict pullup as the body begins hanging directly below the bar with the arms straight. The wrists, elbows, shoulders, trunk and legs should all be in one line. The body is then pulled up until the chin is above the bar.
When 180 degrees of shoulder flexion is not present, the shoulders often begin behind the body and a larger arc of motion is required to pull up. This requires much more muscular effort and causes the body to tire more quickly. Many active people train multiple days per week and therefore, possess the strength and low body mass required to perform a strict pullup.
Thus, the limiting factor is often shoulder mobility. To test your mobility, attempt the back to wall shoulder flexion test. Simply stand with your lower back very lightly touching a wall and attempt to raise your arms overhead. Can you touch your hands to the wall without arching your lower back away from the wall? If not, some overhead mobility work may be warranted.