Neck Pain Ruining Your Pull-Ups? Uncover the Causes & Solutions!

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The most common reasons that pull ups hurt your neck are either that you’re leading with your chin or you’re straining at the neck. Both of these things typically occur as fatigue sets in. Your aim should be to bring the bar to the chin or sternum, as opposed to leading the movement with your chin.

You’re Bringing Your Chin to the Bar

A Man Doing Pull Ups

The most obvious reason that pull ups hurt your neck is because you’re leading with your chin.

What I mean by this is that you typically jut your chin out and attempt to literally force it towards the bar.

So, in effect, you’re bringing your chin to the bar.

As weird as it sounds your aim should be to bring the bar to your chin (or sternum).

Basically, when you lead with your chin you will usually be straining the tendons and ligaments of the cervical spine, which are connected to the neck muscles.

If you aim to bring the bar to the chin this will help you to keep the muscles tight and contracted.

This in turn will ensure that you’re not jutting your chin towards the bar.

I have a couple of pull up cues which will not only ensure that I don’t hurt my neck, but also that I’m working the target muscles to greater effect.

Firstly, don’t pull with your hands, but aim to bring your elbows down towards the ground.

And rather than trying to pull yourself towards the bar, visualize that you’re bringing the bar towards you.

It works like a treat.

That One “Last Pull Up” – Don’t Do It

I would hazard a guess the main culprit when it comes to leading with your chin is when you’re trying to squeeze out that final pull up.

We’ve all been there.

You’ve come towards the end of your set, fatigue has definitely set in, but you just want to hit one more rep.

Perhaps it means you finish on an even number.

Maybe one more rep will equal, or even beat, your PB.

However, you are absolutely spent.

And you have likely hit the point of physical failure.

But, you still give it everything you’ve got to squeeze out that last rep.

My advice – stop, don’t do it.

You’re not doing yourself any favours and you’ll actually be cheating by trying to get your chin over the bar (rather than the other way round).

This will typically lead to you stressing and straining practically every muscle in the body.

And of course this will probably be when you actually strain a muscle in your neck.

For me, I would always rather train to technical failure, as opposed to physical failure.

The best results are produced when your form and technique is on-point.

Plus, you’re far less likely to injure yourself.

Make Sure Your Head is Aligned With Your Spine

You should always ensure that your head is in perfect alignment with your spine during each and every rep.

I would say that you should pay even closer attention to this if you’re doing pull ups in the gym.

“Don’t let your chin dive towards your chest. Maintain a neutral neck position throughout the entire rep.”

Eric Cressey (Sports Performance Coach & Author)

There is a tendency to become distracted by other people in the gym environment.

Therefore, as you’re performing pull ups you could quite easily look to your left or right to see what’s going on around you.

In truth, it only takes one rep where your head isn’t aligned with your spine and you find that you’ve strained a muscle in your neck.

So, always ensure you are fully concentrated during your entire set, adhere to perfect form, and don’t be tempted to look either way.

Additionally, you may find that your head falls out of alignment with your spine as you fast approach failure.

Once again, you’re straining to get every single rep that you possibly can and you end up cheating or moving your body unnaturally.

Are Your Shoulders Retracted?

One of the most important cues when it comes to pull ups is that your shoulders should be retracted.

Imagine for a moment where your shoulder blades end up at the top of the bent-over row exercise.

This is typically where you want your shoulders to be prior to performing pull ups.

So, in effect you pull your shoulders back and towards each other.

“Shoulder blades back and down, keep a long spine throughout the rep. Think about pushing the ground away from you with your feet, not just pulling with your arms.”

JujiMarca (Fitness Influencer & Calisthenics Athlete)

I often liken this to someone placing an imaginary tennis ball in the middle of your back and then trying to hold it in place by bringing your shoulder blades together.

Many of us typically have our shoulders rolled forward when performing pull ups, and many other upper body exercises for that matter.

I guess this has more to do with poor posture than anything else.

Unfortunately, we spend most of our days either hunched over a computer screen or staring at our phones.

Plus, we probably spend more hours sitting every day than we ever have before.

So, when it comes to performing an exercise like pull ups our shoulders may typically remain in this same position.

And this is not only terrible form, but can lead to a variety of strains and injuries.

So, always make sure that you pull the shoulders back and towards each other prior to pull ups.

Remember the imaginary tennis ball.

Are You Looking at the Bar?

Now there are a few schools of thought when it comes to where you should look whenever you perform pull ups.

For me, it’s always been a case of looking at the bar.

Basically, that’s the direction I’m going in, so I ensure my gaze is fixed on the bar.

Now, I know this goes a little against the principle of “bring the bar to the chin, and not the chin to the bar”.

However, when executing a pull up you will typically need to ensure that you get your face out of the way of the bar.

The easiest way to achieve this is to have a slight lean back and your feet ahead of you.

So, you can literally “pull” straight up and down.

With that being said, if you experience neck pain during or after pull ups then you may need to find a more comfortable position for yourself.

When you look up towards the bar your head is cocked back ever so slightly and the muscles at the front and back of the neck will be activated.

So, you may find it more comfortable to fix your gaze straight ahead.

Realistically, there is no one-size-fits-all, so find what works best for you.

Jeff Cavaliere explains about staring at the bar at 7 mins 6 secs in the video below.

Although, there are certainly many other great pull up tips throughout the video.

Try Inverted Rows if the Pain Persists

Pure and simple, if pull ups are hurting your neck then stop doing them.

Okay, I know that we all want to master the pull up and crank out as many reps as possible.

However, there’s no point in continuing with any exercise if it is causing you discomfort.

This could just simply be a case of not having enough strength to perform the movement with good form.

So, I see nothing wrong with using other exercises to build strength in the target muscles.

A prime example of this will be to use lat pulldowns to help with pull ups.

And then you can return to doing pull ups again at a later stage.

If you want to stick to a decent bodyweight move that can build size and strength in the upper back, lats and biceps then inverted rows are a fantastic alternative.

Try them, your neck will thank you for it.

Key Learning Points

  • Don’t lead with your chin or strain at the neck.
  • Imagine bringing the bar to your sternum rather than bringing your chin to the bar.
  • Don’t attempt to squeeze out an extra rep or two is you’re fatigued.
  • Ensure your head and spine are perfectly aligned throughout your entire set.
  • Always pull your shoulder blades back and down.
  • Find the most comfortable position to fix your gaze.
  • Perform the “easier option” of inverted rows if your neck pain persists with pull ups.

It’s not just a “pain in the neck” you have to worry about. Check out my article about another common issue, namely why pull ups are making you feel light-headed.

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