Last updated on November 1st, 2022 at 11:36 am
Have you ever asked, “Why Do Pull Ups Hurt My Shoulder?”
If so, you’re definitely not alone.
In fact, shoulder pain during pull ups is an extremely common complaint.
Plus, I know that this is something that I have suffered from myself.
So, I’d like to discuss some of the most common causes of shoulder pain from pull ups, and what you can do about it.
Why Do Pull Ups Hurt My Shoulder?
The main reason that pull ups hurt your shoulders is because you’re not “preparing” your shoulders for what’s about to come. It is recommended that you pack the shoulders prior to doing pull ups. This involves pulling your shoulder blades towards each other and downwards.
Not “Packing the Shoulders” Prior to Pull Ups
Pull ups may not be easy, but the actual process is simple.
All you need to do is hang from a bar, pull yourself up and then lower yourself.
That’s it, right?
Prior to any exercise, pull ups included, I like to set myself first.
Basically, organise the body mechanics required to perform the exercise correctly and pain free.
As I say, this is true of any exercise.
When it comes to pull ups one of the main things that I do is to “pack the shoulders”.
There are many ways to describe this, but in the simplest terms this means that I want to pull the shoulder blades towards each other and downwards.
You could use the mind-muscle connection and a bit of creative thinking to achieve this.
Let’s say I place an imaginary tennis ball in the middle of my back.
My aim is to hold it in place by getting my shoulder blades as close to each other as possible.
Okay, admittedly a slightly weird concept, and not something that I will probably be able to actually do physically.
But, this is the type of thought process I go through.
There is a tendency to totally relax the shoulders at the bottom of the pull up movement and then allowing them to shrug upwards.
In my mind this puts the shoulder joint under extreme stress and is one of the main reasons that your shoulders hurt when doing pull ups.
A Different View on Packing the Shoulders
Now, packing the shoulders, is advice that you’ll probably hear 99% of the time when it comes to doing pull ups and similar exercises.
However, I’m all for listening to other people’s point of view, and trying to understand where they’re coming from.
One such person is Logan Christopher who discusses the potential benefits of “unpacking the shoulders during pull ups.”
An opposing view, but a very interesting read nonetheless.
You Aren’t Controlling the Negative
Pretty much every exercise will have a lifting phase and a lowering phase.
The lowering phase is typically referred to as the negative part of the movement.
I often see people solely concentrate on the lifting portion of the movement, but pay no heed to the negative at all.
Unfortunately, not only is this poor form, but you are probably losing out on the best part of the exercise.
In the vast majority of cases it is the negative part of the movement that actually builds muscle and strength.
And yet many of us seem far more focused on the “positive” or the lifting phase.
This is especially true when it comes to pull ups.
It’s not uncommon to see someone put their heart and soul into “pulling up”.
They get their chin over the bar, their chest to even touch the bar, and then simply collapse back to the bottom of the movement.
Firstly, by doing this I would say that you are losing up to 70% of the effectiveness of the pull up.
Why do you think people practice negative pull ups first when they are unable to perform a single pull up yet?
The negative part of the movement will help to build strength in the required muscles.
Basically, if you want to get stronger and pack on more muscle you must control the descent.
However, as I say, there is a tendency to just drop into the bottom position of the pull up.
Not only does this negate a large percentage of the strength part of the movement, you are also placing a huge amount of stress on the shoulder joints.
Dropping or collapsing into the bottom of the pull up is much the same as someone yanking on your arm over-and-over again.
Basically, it’s almost as though you’re trying to yank the shoulder joint out of the socket.
So, please lower yourself in a slow and controlled manner when doing pull ups.
Not only will your shoulder joints thank you for it, you should also find that your muscle and strength gains literally skyrocket.
Shoulder Pain During Pull Ups
You Have a Push-to-Pull Strength Imbalance
Another reason for shoulder pain during pull ups is due to muscle imbalances.
Many of us tend to do a lot more pushing exercises than we do pulling.
However, in truth, the ratio should be nearer to 2:1 in favour of pulling exercises.
The chest is far more of a “show muscle” than the back.
As we can see the chest in the mirror, some of us are inclined to train it more.
Countless bench presses, dumbbell chest presses, dips and push ups.
And unfortunately because the back is, well, behind us, it may not garner as much attention when we train.
Nevertheless, I would recommend that you train the upper back twice as much as the chest.
If you are someone who focuses far more on chest exercises this can cause issues when it comes to doing pull ups.
Firstly, the lats are probably weak in comparison to the pecs.
The overuse of push exercises may even cause the chest to tire during pull ups.
This will typically mean that the ligaments and tendons in the shoulders bear the brunt of the strain when doing pull ups.
And unfortunately this can lead to a sharp pain in the shoulders when you do pull ups.
The best course of action would be to stop doing pull ups in the meantime and allow the shoulders to rest.
Remember, the shoulders are still doing a lot of work during chest exercises such as the bench press, push ups, and dips.
This is also an ideal opportunity to strengthen the muscles in the back by performing other pulling exercises.
I would suggest a number of row variations, as well as stretches with bands and cables.
The whole point here is to allow your back to “catch up” with your chest.
Scapular Pull Ups & Face Pulls
There’s a couple of exercises/movements that I love to perform, which I find help with correct shoulder positioning for pull ups.
The first one is scapular pull ups.
This simply involves hanging from a pull up bar and really activating your lats, while packing your shoulders.
This is a great way to teach your shoulder blades correct positioning for when you do full ups.
Here’s a great example of scapular pull ups.
Then we have face pulls.
I honestly rate face pulls as one of the best exercises you can do.
This isn’t about using a lot of weight.
This isn’t about getting strong and packing on muscle.
In fact, the face pull is a simple isolation exercise that has a huge knock-on effect for a wide variety of other exercises.
Even though you’re activating the traps, while stimulating the shoulders and the upper back, I also like to do face pulls before a heavy push exercise, such as bench presses.
I just find that it tends to loosen up many of the muscles of the upper back, which in turn helps with both pulling and pushing exercises.
Here’s Scott Herman with a face pull tutorial.
Both the scapular pull up and face pulls are movements that you should add to your repertoire and perform regularly.
The benefits to not only pull ups, but a vast array of other exercises is fantastic.
So, hopefully it’s a little clearer as to why pull ups hurt your shoulders.
For me, it’s all about preparation.
You should prepare for pull ups by packing the shoulders and maintaining this shoulder position throughout your set.
Plus, remember to slowly lower yourself and not just collapse into the bottom of the movement.
It’s also extremely important that you train your back more than your chest.
Just because you can’t actually see the back muscles when looking straight ahead in a mirror, doesn’t mean they’re any less important than your “show muscles”.
Finally, it’s probably time for you to introduce scapular pull ups and face pulls into your routine.
Trust me, your entire body will thank you for it.
If you want to take your pull ups to the next level then it’s best to learn from an expert.
And the recognised authority on pull up training is definitely John Sifferman.
John is someone who has been doing pull ups since he was a child.
Plus, he’s been writing online about pull ups for well over a decade now.
John has even created an entire workout program around pull ups.
This is your opportunity to learn how to crank out 30,40, or even 50 reps of pull ups a set.
And all pain free.
Check out what I thought of John’s program in my Pull Up Solution Review.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.