Static pull-ups – Key to neck and shoulder health

“You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe.”

This expression, refers to the fact that the production of great force requires a solid platform — a concept that holds as true for the human body as it does for artillery.

The scapula is commonly known as the “shoulder blade”, and rests on the upper portion of the back. The role of the scapula muscles is critical in the stability and mobility of the neck and shoulder joint as the shoulder girdle is held in position by muscle tone (levator scapula and trapezius muscles attach to the neck bones).  The scapula serves as a foundation from which the shoulder or arm can generate force. Inadequate shoulder stability and strength is common with daily sitting, hunching the back and forward head posture, these muscles get weak and drastically underused. Abnormal scapular biomechanics predispose the neck and shoulder to injury, pain, stiffness and headaches.

Appropriate exercises that help the scapular muscles do their jobs better are so important for improving motion and decreasing pain. The isometric (static) pull up can help you improve your posture, reduce neck and shoulder dysfunction, increase shoulder girdle stability, increase your overall strength and overcome a plateau in many of your lifts. Pull ups use all the muscles in your forearms for grip, your biceps, upper back, shoulders and trunk muscles. It can take a considerable time to build the necessary strength to perform a pull up and the isometric pull up is a very important first step.  An isometric exercise, is a static exercise. So rather than lifting yourself up and down, you just hold yourself on the bar.

Any stable platform can be used a bookcase, security railings, jungle gym, gate or tree branch, but a purpose made bar is best.

Depending on the height of your bar, you may need to stand on a box, or bench. Beginners should start by standing on tip toes, toes remaining on the floor throughout the exercise. Grip the bar shoulder width apart, with your palms facing away.                                                                             

Pull yourself up, using your biceps, so your chest is just under the bar. Keep your chest puffed out, elbows pulled down and back, and focus on squeezing the shoulder blades together hard. Now hold it right there for seven seconds. Then relax seven seconds and repeat seven times. Progression would be to increase the time and hold yourself for as long as possible. When you are confident progress on to one leg and no legs over time. You can repeat this isometric exercise, at any point of the pull up movement. Meaning you could repeat the same exercise, but this time hanging from the bar anywhere in between the top and bottom parts of the movement.

For many people that wish to resolve their shoulder and or neck pain, and overall function, scapular stabilization is a very important first step.  Osteopaths are trained in biomechanics and will be able to explain the relationship between the neck, upper back and scapula muscles. Osteopaths are trained to assess and treat, neck and shoulder dysfunction and recommend appropriate exercise. Scapular musculature and function are extremely important when examining upper body health, strength, stability and ultimately, performance. A properly functioning scapula delivers significant stability for an individual.

If your shoulders are weak and you cannot control them fully, be aware of your limitations. Make improving your shoulder strength and scapular control your number one priority. You may want to consider seeing an osteopath.

“Optimal scapular alignment is also reliant upon a properly aligned and controlled thorax. Often postural and movement dysfunction of the shoulder can be directly related to loss of alignment and control of the thorax.” – (Lee 2013, Oscar 2016)