Friday, June 12, 2009

Pull-ups, Chin-ups, Rotator Cuffs and the Wonderful Trapezius Muscle

Every once in a great while, I see a question on a forum about how to work the lower Trapezius muscles. Even on the BW-oriented sites, the stock answer involves weight lifting. I remember reading on one of my anatomy books that I studied indicated that the pull-up and chin-up both work the lower traps. Most disagree with me on this.

Last week, someone left me a question about how to make pulls and chins less painful for their rotator cuffs. This got me thinking about the issue of whether or not the trapezius gets any work during doing pull-ups. Take a look at this drawing of the trapezius muscle. Keep in mind that all muscles pull their ends together. They don't push apart.

As you can see, this muscle is responsible for stabilizing the trap. It moves the shoulder blades up, down, and towards the spine. So, if the shoulder blades are going to stay in place while under a load, it's the trap's job to do that (yes, there are other muscles involved but for our purposes, I'm focusing on the trapezius).

Pavel talks about "keeping the shoulders in their sockets" numerous times in his books. This is pretty simple to describe for our purposes: keep your shoulders away from your ears from doing pull-ups. The natural tendency of the shoulder blade is to raise up when we hang our weight from our hands. If we're to keep our shoulder blades down when chinning, then it's going to fall on the trapezius muscles to do it, particularly the lower section.

So, why is everyone under the impression that the traps get no work from the pull-up or the chin-up? People are trying to make the exercise easier, resulting in bad form. You can demonstrate this for yourself on a chinning bar: Dead hang from the bars in both positions that Pavel is demonstrating in that photo. The shoulders-down position is the harder of the two because the traps are firing, trying to retract and hold your shoulder blades under the load of your body. This becomes far more apparent when you watch someone approaching failure when doing pulls or chins. They're trying to make the exercise easier as they tire to get more reps. So, up come the shoulders.

Don't make this mistake when you're chinning. Keep your shoulders down when doing your pulls and chins. This is key for keeping your shoulder muscles strong and keeping your rotator cuff healthy. Weak traps are the first step towards rotator cuff problems. You can get even more work on the traps by drawing your shoulder blades together at the top of the bar, attempting to touch your spine with them. You'll end up with your chest to the bar, as Vince Gironda insisted that all his trainees do. You can get good Trap work from pull-ups and chin-ups. You just have to do the exercise properly.

A closer look at my towel pull-up photo. What's that in the center of my upper back? ;) Note that my shoulders come up enough to allow proper rotation of the scalpula but they're not kissing my ears.


Anonymous said...

Hi Justine,

I disagree with the "always keep your shoulders down" thing. If you keep your shoulders down (with the scapulae depressed) while at the bottom position of a pullup, you are at high risk of impringment of the rotator cuff's tendons.

When arms are forced overhead, the scapulae have to rotate upward to get the acromion process out of the tendon's way.

You know that one of the problems of the bench press is that the scapulae can't naturally protract and retract so you loose the proper serratus activation.
I think that in a pull-up, the scapulae must rotate freely upward and downward. You get the proper low-traps strengthening by emphasizing the squeezing at the top.

please have also a look at this video...

forgive my bad english, I'm from Italy, I'm trying my very best :D
Keep up with the good work

Alberto (ITALY)

Anonymous said...

hey justin,
Thanks for writing a blog on this topic. I think that making sure to keep your shoulders in their sockets is a really important thing.
Q: Sometimes when I do towel chin ups I do a fuller range of motion (I mean that I get my chin to the bar so if I do them on the bar my chest would touch the bar as you said here) and sometimes I don't because I like variety and because they are obviously harder.

What is your opinion on this?
-Workout Warrior

Justin_PS said...


Your english is fine, except for the mispelling of my name ;). No E on the end... Justin

We actually don't really disagree here. I know that the scalupas has to rotate when the arms are overhead. You can still do that without having your shoulders raise to the point of touching your ears.

You're also right that lack of serratus activation is one of the prime culprits of shoulder problems. It's not the only problem. This is also the result of lack of strength in ALL of the muscles that insert/attach to the lower scalpua. This includes the trapezius, serratus and the rhomboid.

Let's also turn to the anecdotal evidence for a moment. We know that the shoulder problems that we're discussing at the moment are pretty commmon. We also know that the way I'm saying to NOT DO the pull-up and chin-up is pretty much the norm. Part of the reason that I wrote this is because a few people have written me and asked/commmented about shoulder problems when doing them. I think that's more than coincidence.

I've been doing pull-ups and chin-ups like this for years and I've never had anything resembling problems with them.

Justin_PS said...


I just watched the video and I think that this is the extreme opposite of what I'm talking about. It's probably good to mention for the sake of clarity.

I changed my post. Thanks for bringing it up.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I agree. The best technique is to allow the upward rotation but without loosing tension in the shoulders.

Lately I've researched a lot about the shoulder/scapula anatomy and mechanics. A very complex (and kinda fascinating) joint.

Mike Robertson has some very good material on the shoulder anatomy and health.


Justin_PS said...

Tell me about it! I've had to read and re-read just to get a modest amount of understanding about how it works.

One thing that I'm glad of is that I've never had any problems with my shoulders. So far, so good.

Thanks for reading and commenting. Take care!

Sol G said...

Justin great posts. So here is my follow up question. You stated "This is also the result of lack of strength in ALL of the muscles that insert/attach to the lower scalpua. This includes the trapezius, serratus and the rhomboid." I have no doubt i might have been cheating and using bad form on my pull ups resulting in some overly strong and overly weak muscles in the back/shoulder (years and years of being a gym rat and stressing more weight, instead of form). What is my best bet of tearing it all down and getting back to the basics and creating real strength in these muscles with BW?

Justin_PS said...

Hi Sol G,

Good. Old. Push-ups. I don't know what your capabilities are when it comes to push-ups, I like to work several different kinds, constantly mixing it up. One arm, handstand, triceps, and elevated push-ups make my list.

All of the push-ups, properly done, activate more shoulder muscles than any bench press ever hoped to. Read the previous post, underneath this one. Keep this in mind when doing push-ups.