Another common question I get on pull-up training is whether it’s safe to train them if you have an injury or a past injury. It seems that someone is always wondering if their “old shoulder injury” will prevent them from doing pull-ups, or if that little ache in their elbow that flares up once in awhile means they should avoid pull-up training altogether.
So, this Q+A article will seek to answer the following questions…
- Can I do pull-ups or chin-ups if I am injured or was injured, and if so, what’s the best way to go about it?
- If I have a past injury that still bothers me from time-to-time, how do I know if it’s safe to train with pull-ups?
- If I have a pre-existing condition and/or pain when exercising, how should I approach pull-up training?
Let’s get real for a minute here. Nobody, and I mean nobody starts an exercise program with a clean slate. We all have postural/structural issues to deal with, to one degree or another, whether known or unknown to us. Give me a few minutes, and I’ll find a whole bunch of issues and limitations in any one of my client’s body’s. We all have a lifetime of physical baggage. And I’m no different either – there are many issues I have to keep an extra-close eye on when I’m training. That’s just the nature of life. So, it’s not so much a question of IF you have a pre-existing condition that may or may not contraindicate exercise. It’s a question of “how bad is it?”
Fortunately, it’s not that hard to figure out if pull-up training would be safe or not.
How to Know if it’s Safe to Begin Pull-up Training or any Exercise Program
Firstly, the absolute best thing you can do is get off the internet and visit your local doctor or health care professional for a physical exam before beginning a new exercise program. And more specifically, ask them directly if they think you can and/or should be doing pull-ups. And if you’re doctor gives you a mindless, generic response or is totally clueless about exercise, then my suggestion is to find one who is knowledgeable about exercise. Not only will you get better advice in the here-and-now, but chances are good that you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble down the road. A second opinion never, ever hurts.
Now, assuming that your doctor has cleared you for exercise, then it’s safe to assume that beginning a new exercise program is a relatively safe thing to do – as long as you go about it the right way. And I’m going to offer you some ideas for how to approach pull-up training with health, safety, and injury prevention in mind.
First, do no harm.
You see, I’m not just a fitness coach. I’m a health-first fitness coach. And like medical professionals, that means one of my ultimate goals is to “first, do no harm.” I mean, what good is an exercise program or fitness routine if you get hurt from the training? Exercise is supposed to make us better, not worse off. And so, there are a number of things we can do to give ourselves a better chance of making that happen. The first of which should be common sense.
So, first things first, don’t do dumb things! Like training through pain or an injury, not warming up, or going for that max effort before you’re really ready. For whatever reason, most people have a propensity for doing dumb things as soon as they enter their gym’s door. There’s a reason that communities such as Awkward Gym Moment’s exist. And truth be told, I need to keep reminding myself about this, too, because I seem to have an tendency for doing stupid things when training – such as a maximum set that I’m not really ready for. Fortunately, I’ve learned and relearned this lesson before, and am a lot better than I used to be. Because I’ve been injured before – for years, actually. Chronic, debilitating injuries that prevented me from doing what I love. And so I know what it’s like, and I don’t ever want to cause myself that kind of trouble again, especially from poor exercise habits.
7 Ways to Apply Health-First Fitness to Pull-up Training
So, what are some smart things you can do to ensure the health-first fitness philosophy actually gets put into practice?
Well, for starters, and no matter who you are or what your injury history is, health-first fitness needs to become your philosophy. And part of that means that injury prevention methods need to become something you practice as part of your day-to-day lifestyle – every time you train, in fact. Now, this doesn’t mean you need to swear off your strength training and other recreation or that you need to devote yourself to pursuits like yoga. It simply means you need to change your perspective and probably some habits, too. Here are a few things you can start with…
Integrate some injury prevention techniques into your workout warmups with targeted joint mobility exercises. Instead of just performing a general warmup to get your heart going and your core temperature up, try performing a precision warmup that will best-prepare the primary joints and muscles you’ll be using for the work they’re about to do. Joint mobility training is a great way to do this because it flushes your joints with synovial fluid for lubrication, loosens up the surrounding musculature, and safely increases your flexibility and range of motion for the upcoming session, among other things. It also provides a good indication if you’ll have any trouble areas during your workout that day. I’d recommend focusing on the working joints in the pull-up exercise – the shoulders, elbows, and wrists, in particular. And apart from your warmups, there are a lot of reasons why you might want to do some joint mobility training anyway. Learn more and get a sample routine here: Joint Mobility Training Page.
Integrate some injury prevention techniques and make the most of your cooldowns with targeted stretching and compensatory yoga. The period of time immediately following your workout is prime time for boosting your recovery and preventing injuries from developing. So, use it wisely. Don’t settle for a general cooldown to catch your breath and stretch out your muscles. Instead, train specifically to unload the tissues that were just worked, restore them to their resting state, flush them with nutrition, and boost your recovery process. For the pull-up, this means releasing the musculature of the core, upper back, shoulders, arms, and forearms.
Use your intuition when you’re training. This sounds like common sense, but some people (myself included) have a tendency to ignore common sense and do something that isn’t a good idea, and never was, anyway. Obviously, this can lead to problems. So, pay attention to the signals that your body is sending you before, during, and after your workouts. If you’re feeling overly-tired or lethargic, then take it easy. If a certain movement aggravates an old injury, then proceed with caution.
I think a lot of us get stuck in a mentality of strictly adhering to our workout program and not deviating from it no matter what. But the truth is that each and every one of us needs to make changes as we go along to account for the day-to-day and moment-to-moment needs we may face.
There is no such thing as a perfect program, but a great program will take into your account the needs that might come up while you’re training. So, when you’re feeling good, push. And when you’re not feeling good, take it easy, progress slowly, and play it safe.
Avoid training to or through pain and don’t do anything that will aggravate your pre-existing conditions. No pain, no gain is not only a misnomer, it’s also a dangerous training philosophy. There’s a big difference between discomfort that is associated with exercise (and effort/fatigue/etc.), and pain. Pain is an indicator that something is wrong and should serve as a warning sign that you should stop whatever is causing it. So, if you cannot do pull-ups without pain, then you should be very careful about how you approach your training.
My recommendation is to avoid any exercise or movement that causes significant pain. More specifically, if the activity causes pain that is greater than a 3, on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the worst pain you’ve ever felt, and 1 being no discomfort at all), then you shouldn’t do that activity. Or, at the very least, you should modify it so that you can perform it without pain. And if you just can’t do pull-ups without pain, then tough luck. You’ll just have to rehabilitate yourself first. Fortunately, there are plenty of other great exercises out there, too.
Prioritize your rest and recovery. Sometimes, we get injured or aggravate a past injury simply because we aren’t resting or recovering enough. This can be for any number of reasons such as not getting enough sleep, too much stress, and poor nutrition, among others (including training too much!). And so, exercise often results in either over-training and/or it’s cousin, under-recovering. So, take ample time to rest between your workouts, even if it means skipping a session once in awhile. If you use your intuition, you’ll know when you really need to. And when in doubt, start your session to see if you start feeling any better, and be ready to call it quits if you don’t. And make sure you’re also allowing yourself some time completely off from training once in awhile, too. A good rule of thumb is to make sure you take at least a week off from training every few months – or much sooner for some.
Now, not only should you be prioritizing your non-exercise rest and recovery, but also your exercise recovery as well. For example, some forms of gentle exercise serve as an excellent tool for increasing your recovery, such as joint mobility training and yoga, among others. So, if you’re feeling like you may be flirting with over-training or under-recovery, then you may want to look into performing some more restorative exercise, perhaps on your non-strength training days and also while you’re taking a week off from strength training altogether.
Learn how to perform pull-ups not just properly, but optimally, to help minimize the risk of injury. Sometimes, people get injured because they use poor technique or otherwise exercise unsafely, and learning all of the key components of an exercise is a great way to avoid this problem. With the pull-up, this means not only what to do with your arm and back muscles, but with the entire body, along with breathing considerations and posture, among other things. Click here for a detailed tutorial on optimal pull-up technique to learn the subtle nuances of the exercise.
Cycle your program to regulate the volume and intensity level (e.g., periodization) so that you don’t train too hard, too soon, for too long, etc. Our body’s cannot sustain high intensity effort forever. So, training should ebb and flow with different waves of effort, intensity, volume, and training frequency, among other things. And so, be sure you’re following a routine that takes this into account, and at the very least, cycles training volume and intensity. Now, if you’re not following a specific routine that takes periodization into account, that’s like playing the lottery with your results. You might strike it rich, but your chances are pretty slim and you’re taking a big risk because the odds are against you.
As you can see, there are a lot of things you can do to lower the risk of injury when training your pull-ups. Of course, whether or not you can and should perform them is a judgment call, and it just depends on your individual circumstances. But if your doctor has cleared you for exercise and you don’t have significant pain while performing pull-ups or similar exercises, I’d venture a guess that you could train pull-ups safely. We get ourselves into trouble when we think we can do it all, start to train recklessly, and ignore common warning signs. But if you apply the health-first fitness philosophy and train smart, while being sure to listen to your intuition, then you’ll minimize the risk of problems.
Since announcing my new pull-up training system, The Pull-up Solution, several folks have asked me if it would be suitable for you if you have a past or present injury, ache, pain, etc.
The short answer is that, yes, my program was created to address specific issues exactly like that, and that’s one of the main aspects that differentiates my program from the rest. It’s a health-FIRST fitness program by a health-first fitness coach. So, as long as your doctor has cleared you for exercise, and your pain – while performing exercise – does not exceed a three, on a scale of one to ten (10 being the worst pain you’ve ever felt, and 1 being no discomfort whatsoever), then yes, you can use my program.
I know that nobody starts an exercise program with a clean slate. We all have postural/structural issues to deal with, to one degree or another, and I’ve tried to address that as best I can all throughout the program materials so that anyone who is healthy enough to exercise can get better pull-up training results – and do so with both health, safety, and injury prevention in mind. In fact, all of the injury prevention strategies listed above have been seamlessly integrated into the program in one way or another.
So, if you have a pre-existing condition such as a pain or injury, and you’d like to get better at pull-ups, using a system that was created to help you rapidly increase your pull-up numbers without compromising your health or risking an injury, then check out The Pull-up Solution at the official website here: http://thepullupsolution.com
Or, you can click here to learn a little bit more about The Pull-up Solution.
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Health-First Fitness Coach
P.P.S. Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alpstedt/