To Lock Out or Not to Lock Out: The Pull-Up Elbow Dilemma Solved

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Last updated on March 5th, 2024 at 02:18 pm

Yes, you should lock out on pull ups, as this also trains the connective tissues, i.e. ligaments, tendons, and bones. If you never lock out these connective tissues will gradually become weaker, which is typically why injuries occur. You can still maintain full muscle tension even when you lock out.

Why I Believe You Should Lock Out on Pull Ups

Mark Rippetoe, Powerlifter and coach: "There is no need to actively hyperextend your elbows at the bottom of a pull-up. Simply allow them to straighten naturally."

I’m a great believer in performing any exercise with a full range of motion.

In my mind, a muscle should fully go through both an eccentric and concentric contraction.

When it comes to pull ups I always perform them slowly, with a full range of motion, and use the mind-muscle connection to help achieve both contractions.

However, the reason I lock out at the bottom of pull ups has far more to do with just incorporating a full range of motion.

The main reason we’re told not to lock out is because of potential injury to the joints, especially the elbows.

Now, while an elbow injury can occur from performing pull ups, it’s probably not in the same way as you think (although you should never hyperextend the elbow joint).

As soon as you lock out on pull ups, the tension is taken away from the working muscles and transfers to the connective tissues.

So, in the case of your elbows this will include the ligaments, tendons, and bones.

However, just in the same way the muscles can be trained to become stronger, so can the connective tissues.

If you never lock out on pull ups the ligaments, tendons, and bones around the elbow are not being trained to optimum level, and will therefore remain weak.

And it is this “weakness” that typically leads to joint injuries.

The Counter Argument to Locking Out on Pull Ups

Locking out on pull ups is considered poor form by many.

There are those who will tell you that if you don’t lock out you can keep the stress on the muscles.

Therefore, in their minds, you are increasing the time-under-tension for the working muscle, i.e. the lats.

Initially this makes a lot of sense, as I know that many trainees say that they can’t feel pull ups in their lats.

A further argument that is often made is that by locking out you put more stress on the joints, i.e. the elbow, and in many cases the shoulder too.

I have even heard some people say that this additional stress on the joints can cause the cartilage in the joints to wear down quicker over time.

Whereas, stress placed on the muscles leads to them rebuilding and coming back bigger and stronger.

Men's Journal: "Locking out your elbows at the bottom can put unnecessary stress on your joints. Instead, focus on maintaining a full range of motion by letting your arms fully extend at the bottom and pulling yourself up until your chin clears the bar."

It’s a Decent Argument

Now this all seems very feasible, and provides a very good counter argument.

However, I’ll refer you back to what I said above.

I agree that time-under-tension is extremely important when it comes to muscle growth and getting stronger.

I’ll even agree that the joints can wear down over time.

That being said, you can still maintain muscle tension by coming to a full hang and locking out at the bottom of the pull up.

Just because you’ve come to the bottom of the move this doesn’t mean you have to totally relax.

Plus, many elbow, and other joint injuries, are typically caused by the weak connective tissues, as I’ve mentioned.

I honestly believe that many of us work extremely hard on getting stronger in the lats, biceps, and forearms when performing pull ups, but completely ignore the connective tissues.

So, as I’ve said, injuries may occur, but not for the reasons that most people believe.

I will also add that I often see extremely poor technique even from those who do lock out on pull ups.

There seems to be a nice, smooth upward pull, followed by just dropping into the bottom position.

I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that the negative portion of any “lift” is just as important, and pull ups are certainly no different.

However, there seems to be a tendency to just drop once the chin has gone past the bar.

This “explosive” drop is putting a huge amount of undue pressure of the joints, plus all muscle tension has been lost.

So, always fully control pull ups when you go up and when you come back down.

This way you’re working the muscles and connective tissues, while avoiding additional stress on the joints.

The Only Reasons You Shouldn’t Lock Out on Pull Ups

Now, even with everything I’ve said thus far, there are occasions when I believe you shouldn’t lock out on pull ups.

This will very much depend on your injury status.

If you currently feel discomfort or pain in your elbow or shoulder joint then you shouldn’t be locking out.

With that being said, if this is severe pain or discomfort, then you should be taking a break from doing pull ups altogether.

However, if you feel you can carry on doing pull ups without aggravating anything further, then please be my guest, but just be a little wary.

Never "explosively drop" into full lock out on pull ups. This is what causes joint issues. Avoid locking out on pull ups if you currently feel pain in your elbows or shoulders.

By not locking out in these circumstances, the pressure and tension will be taken off the joints, and you can continue to train the pull up.

So, in effect your strength gains for the working muscles won’t be hampered.

But, I shall once again point you back in the direction of what I’ve originally said.

The main underlying reason for your joint pain is likely to be the weak ligaments, tendons, and bones.

So, while you continue to work on building strength in your lats and the other muscles, the “rested” soft and connective tissues are becoming weaker.

What Type of Pull Ups Should You Do With Joint Discomfort?

The easiest way to continue performing pull ups if you are feeling discomfort in the joints is to change your grip.

You could try chin ups with your palms facing you.

However, the best pull up variety to relieve joint tension will be the neutral grip, with your palms facing each other.

The shoulder and elbow joints typically “hang” in a neutral position during neutral-grip pull ups, hence the name.

If you wish to continue performing standard pull ups with your palms facing away from you then I suggest slightly narrowing your grip.

This is especially true if you feel discomfort in your shoulders.

Plus, you should also come down and maintain a slight bend in your elbows before you “pull up” again.

In truth, this should only ever be viewed as a temporary fix until you are totally free from pain or discomfort.

Once you’re ready to perform full range of motion pull ups you can work on strengthening both the muscles and the connective tissues again.

Why (& How) You Should Prep and Prehab For Pull Ups

Another issue to be wary of is how you “warm up” for pull ups.

I would hazard a guess most people will perform a few lat stretches, a couple of dead-hangs for time, plus one or two pull ups with contractions at the top and bottom.

And then you’re good to go.

This really isn’t the greatest way to prep yourself for pull ups.

In fact, you should be concentrating far more on the connective tissues as well.

I’ve personally followed John Sifferman’s recommendations for pull up prep and prehab.

I can honestly say that ever since I’ve used these techniques I’ve never had any joint issues at all when it comes to pull ups.

You can check out this quick video by John to see some of the methods that he suggests for prep and prehab prior to pull ups.

Key Learning Points

  • If you lock out on pull ups you also train the connective tissues, i.e. tendons, ligaments, and bones.
  • Shoulder and elbow injuries from pull ups are often caused by weak connective tissues.
  • Some trainees prefer not to lock out in order to maintain time-under-tension. However, tension can still be sustained as long as you don’t fully relax when you lock out at the bottom of the movement.
  • Other trainees tend to avoid locking out as it can cause the cartiliage in the joints to wear down. While there is some truth to this, your joints and the connective tissues are still becoming weaker as they are being optimally trained by locking out.
  • Chin ups are easier on the joints than pull ups. Neutral-grip pull ups are easier on the joints than traditional pull ups and chin ups.
  • Use prep and prehab prior to performing pull ups.

Looking for the secret to a sculpted upper body and untapped strength? Check out The Ultimate Pull-Up Program.

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