Mastering the pull-up. Pt 2 – Mobility


If you missed ‘Mastering the Pull-up – Pt.1‘ we discussed the progressions we believe will best help you get your first strict pull-ups. We also explained why kipping pull-ups might not be for you.

Today we are all about mobility. Mobility, especially of the shoulder/thoracic spine relationship is such a HUGE area that I could plow you with information. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of info here, and a fair few videos and other links, but if you want to have happy, healthy shoulders and be able to get your strict, kipping or butterfly pull-ups then you have to educate yourself…Read (and watch) on.

Thoracic spine

The thoracic spine is built for rotation, flexion, and extension. It is highly mobile, or it should be mobile. Many of us suffer from poor posture from hours each day hunched at a desk, this is literally destroying your shoulders.

The lumbar spine (low back) is built for stability. Its designed to support the weight above and it acts as a way to transfer energy and power from the lower body via the legs and hips to the upper body.

Poor thoracic spine mobility can be involved in pain found at the shoulder, elbow, neck, low back, and hip. All to often we see people with lumbars which show too much movement, those of you who we constantly correct from over-extension in the push-ups, pull-ups, overhead pressing etc. Commonly this is a result of the thoracic spine becoming stiff and immobile, so the lumbar picks up the slack. How many of you get low back pain when pressing, squatting, doing pull-ups? Maybe you should treat your thoracic spine!

With regards to pull-ups, if the thoracic spine cannot effectively extend, you scapula (shoulder blade) cannot move around your rib cage as you take your arms up overhead. What results is poor scapular control as you cannot recruit the scapula stabilisers effectively, and impingement of muscle and other tissue as your scapula bashes off other structures. Needless to say, thoracic spine mobility is incredibly important.

One of the central ideas about the MWod model is that the trunk is a carriage or chassis for the primary engines of the shoulder and hip. So by extension, if your thoracic spine or pelvis are in a poor position you won’t be able to optimise hip or shoulder function. It may not be your shoulder that limits your shoulder position when overhead, but rather the inability of your thoracic spine to extend and move, and thus preventing your scapula from moving freely around the rib-cage.” – Kelly Starret

We posted some excellent thoracic spine mobility videos on last Mondays blog about our skill of the week; Shoulder stability. So I wont re-post them here.

Ok, so your thoracic spine is functioning well, but your still have problems or pain with pull-ups? Lets take a look at the shoulders

overheadShoulder flexion & external rotation

To create a stable shoulder joint overhead, flexion is coupled with external rotation (this rule applies to the hip as well). This looks like our Weightlifting friend on the left; Armpit facing fowards, elbow creasing facing the ceiling.

Why is this important?; If we are missing this range (or have poor thoracic mobility) what happens as we take our arm overhead is we either over-extend (stick our belly out) and put pressure through the lower back, or our elbows bend and shoulders roll in. You see this happen all the time in overhead squats.

On pull-ups, at the bottom position (especially if kipping!) we need this full range, if we do not have this what we tend to see is bent elbows and internally rotating shoulders. This places huge loads in all the wrong places, and if you want a labrum (shoulder capsule) tear or a ruptured biceps tendon this is a perfect way to achieve it.

If you do not have full range of motion overhead, should you really be kipping?

What can I do about it? Plenty, here are just a few of the many options you have.

The front rack position is still flexion/external rotation, so mobility drills focusing on this area will help with the overhead position.

Shoulder internal rotation & extension

Internal rotation is coupled with extension, think bottom of a ring dip, push-up etc.

Why is this important?; Do you struggle making contact with the bar on chest to bar pull-ups? Do you find at the top of the pull-up your shoulders hunch forward into a rounded position?

This often can be a strength issue (which is why you need to start with horizontal rows first!), but if you are missing internal rotation at the shoulder its going to make it very difficult.

What can I do about it? Again, a whole host of options, here are but a few.

It’s all about position

With mobility, we come back to position and more importantly getting into the correct position. Lets use the classic tunnel concept; If you enter the tunnel (the tunnel of movement) in a bad position, then you will leave in a bad position. What does this mean? Start in a crap position and you will end in a crap position, it wont magically get better as you go.

If you enter the tunnel in a good position, you have a chance of ending in a good position, it can of course still go wrong. Bad positions = Inefficiency and increased risk of injury.

We are always shouting at you guys to get your thumbs around the bar and get your knuckles on top, its not just to look pretty, it’s to stop you hurting yourselves.

The video cuts out, heres part 2.

Thats just about it for mobility, to recap
1) Start with your thoracic spine, if you can’t take your arm overhead whilst keeping your rib-cage down you need to sort it out!
2) Test your overhead position. Do you have full range? If not, treat it!
3) Do you have full internal rotation? If, not, get it!

Few, that was a long post, nothing left to read, but for some extra geeking out, check these clips!
Normal shoulders have full range of motion
Shoulder relationships – Part 1
Shoulder relationships – Part 2
Shoulder relationships – Part 3
Simple 5 Ways Shoulder Mobs

Workout of the Day:
A) Gymnastics conditioning
4 rounds for quality:
10 Push-up
10 Ring rows
5 Candlestick rolls to feet together squat


B) 4 rounds for time of:
10 Kettlebell swings 24/16kg
10 Box jump, 24/20″
Run 200 meters
10 Burpees
10 Wall ball 9/6kg
(20min time cap)

Workout of the Day:
A) Gymnastics conditioning
4 rounds for quality:
15 Push-ups. Challenge as needed
10 Strict chin-ups. Challenge as needed
5 Candlestick rolls to pistol


B) 5 rounds for time of:
20 Kettlebell swings 32/24kg
10 Box jump, 24/20″
Run 400 meters
10 Burpees
20 Wall ball 9/6kg

(30min time cap)