How to Stabilize Your Shoulders During the Pullup Exercise

There’s nothing worse than loosey goosey shoulders during the pullup and chinup exercise. Trust me, as a personal trainer, it’s not a pretty sight to behold from across the gym floor. Even from several yards away, I can feel the shearing forces on the soft tissues around the shoulders – sending shivers up my spine. It’s the most common pullup mistake I’ve ever seen, and shockingly, it’s seldom addressed in pullup technique tutorials. Yes, even from nationally recognized strength and conditioning organizations.

A lot of personal trainers are guilty of instructing their clients to “just get your chin over the bar,” but that oversight can lead to piss-poor performance and shoulder injuries down the road. Lucky for you, you already have a great pullup technique tutorial where I outline all the finer details of optimal pullup technique.

Alas, some of you wrote to me with questions about how to initiate the shoulder pack strategy explained in the instructional video. So, I’ve decided to go into a little more depth on that one particular aspect of proper pullup technique in the following video which will teach you exactly how to stabilize your shoulders during pullups, chinups, and all their variations. Employing this technique will ensure you build functional strength and that you’re doing your own due diligence to prevent shoulder injuries.

How to Stabilize Your Shoulders During the Pullup Exercise

Note: One of my Youtube subscribers mentioned that the video was awfully long for such a simple technique, but I wanted to be absolutely sure I left no stone unturned especially since a few of you inquired. If you watch the full explanation, you should only need to see the actual demonstration once. Although, if you could do without the explanation, and just want to see what the technique looks like, skip ahead to the 5 minute mark. You might not know what to look for though, so don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Update: Want to do more pull-ups? Check out my free 5-day Pull-up Training Crash Course. I’ll hook you up with a free program, some special reports and tutorials, and my very best tips on mastering the pull-up and chin-up exercises. If you want to improve your pull-up strength and performance as soon as this week, then Click Here to learn more about the free course.

More Information:

Pull-up Training 101: The Basics on How to do More Pull-ups and Chin-ups

My FREE 5-Day Pull-up Training Crash Course

The Right Way to Do Pullups and Chinups

How to Achieve Your First Unassisted Pullup

How to Increase Your Pullup Numbers With Pyramid Training

9 Different Types of Pullups (Demo Video)

Kipping Pullups VS Deadhang Pullups

Doorway Pullup Bar Product Review (model used in the video above)

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Health-First Fitness Coach

P.S. Can you tell I just love this exercise?

20 Responses

  1. Hi John – GREAT video and now I find out that I’ve been doing pullups wrong all this time! Well, better that I correct it now than never :) It does help explain some of my shoulder issues though – impingement and rotator cuff injuries. Of course, with this new slow proper form, I’ll probably go from being able to do 2-3 pullups, down to maybe one! Looking forward to more videos on proper technique – very helpful – thanks.

    • Hi Stef!

      If you start rebuilding your strength with the proper technique, you’ll find your numbers build much faster than they would have otherwise. Thanks for your note!

  2. Hello jhon. My comment is unrelated but I dont know where to ask these questions at the RMAX forum has not allowed my account to post threads even after weeks of being a member. I have scott sonnons be breathed video and I am still very confused as to how to apply that style of breathing to exercise and core activation. If you exhale on effort and relax on inhale than how do you keep the core safe during lets say pushups? there in no compression of structure there. Or lets say on the mill exercise or swipe? If you exhale when the clubbs are in the back position that is expansion and not contraction of structure. Sorry to bother you with this but I am very confused and quite frustrated with all of this. Thank you so much for any help.

    • Hi Ramon,

      I’m sorry to hear you’ve had trouble with the RMAX forum – you’re not the first. You may want to email Nikolay Travkin at RMAX HQ to ask for help.

      To answer your question – CST teaches different levels/techniques of breath mastery:

      1) fear – inhaling and bracing during an exercise/movement
      2) force – inhaling and pressurizing the air like a balloon (the valsalva maneuver is one example of this)
      3) discipline – actively exhaling during the effort/concentric portion of an exercise/movement, and inhaling after the cessation of effort
      4) flow – passive exhalation on compression of the lungs/ribcage and passive inhalation from expansion of the lungs/ribcage
      5) mastery – the ability to pause and extend the cessation of breathing after the exhalation

      These are skill-specific. So, one skill may require one form of breathing, and another may require a different form of breathing. Your skill level in that particular exercise/movement will determine which particular breathing technique you use. So, they aren’t universal, in that certain exercises require one technique, and other exercises require another. It’s a personal thing – which technique can you best employ to accomplish the exercise efficiently. Be Breathed is merely a program that teaches you a basic template for flow-level breathing.

      It can seem overly-complicated and sometimes dogmatic, but it doesn’t have to be. The point of all this is that there are many different ways to breathe and we should employ the specific technique that makes the most sense based on the situation. That said, most exercises you’ll be using discipline level and/or flow level breathing.

      When you start training a new exercise, use the discipline level breathing technique, and if appropriate (if the exercise or movement is actually improved from passive inhalation and exhalation from expansion or compression of the lungs), progress to flow level breathing when you’re ready.

      In some cases, flow level breathing will NOT be as efficient as discipline-level breathing. So, like I said, we can’t be dogmatic about it. Mastery level (number 5) isn’t the end-all, be-all for every movement skill. Sometimes, discipline level breathing is the most efficient technique there is.

      “Absorb what is useful, Discard what is not, Add what is uniquely your own” -Bruce Lee

  3. Thanks for the response jhon! I understand a little better now. So Just two more questions if possible please. On kettlebell swings hardstyle/straight back, is it safe and effective to exhale instead on inhale power style? and allow the abdomen to loosen on the way up at the top? I see that in your how to do a plank post you say to exhale slowly and let your lugs and throat relax to breath in, does the abdomen become loose when you do that? thanks a bunch man

    • Ramon,

      For hard-style KB swings, I recommend exhaling during the effort portion of the swing (during the pulling portion with the hip extension). Allow the inhale to get sucked back in while the KB is descending back down between your legs – but don’t actively inhale and pressurize.

      Your abdomen should remain tight throughout the duration of your plank set. This will require shallower breaths – not breathing deep into the diaphragm.

  4. I did pullups today on the Gravitron machine at the gym and made sure to do them slowly using my new proper form :) They were definitely harder, but I’m glad I’m finally doing them right!

  5. So Then I guess that intense pressure in the swings in general isnt needed to protect the back?

    • It depends what kind of pressure you’re referring to, Ramon. What you want to avoid is bracing and/or pressuring your abdomen with an inhale. You want structural stability (ie bones, joints, and muscular stability) instead of the illusion of stability using your lungs like balloons.

  6. Thank you! This is valuable information. Constant discomfort in
    the shoulder does not allow me to train well. I will try your

    • By all means, give it a shot if you can do so without pain. But based on your comment, “constant discomfort” sounds like an injury to me, and it may be worth getting that checked out by your doctor to be sure you’re not going to do more damage.

  7. John, thanks so much for explaining this in detail. I just discovered my lats (what it feels like to isolate them and “shoulder pack”) recently. Currently my shoulder is really bothering me and I think it’s because I’ve been doing so much training in shrug position. I’ve found that using an exercise band (holding in each hand overhead and pulling down to shoulders like a lat pull down) really helps me get the feel for the shoulder stack position.

  8. drjoncongdon

    Hi John, Excellent video. Absolutely the best explanation of the pull up mechanics I’ve found online. I did a round of P90X last summer and wish I had this instruction beforehand. I’m going to do another round this summer and I’ll be watching this over and over. I haven’t looked over the website yet, but do you have other videos for wide pullups or other types of pullups. I want to master the shoulder pack and grip first, but thinking ahead, have you got other form-related videos or resources. Thanks a ton, Jon.

    • Thanks, Jon – much appreciated.

      This is my main pullup/chinup technique video:

      That’ll cover most of the bases for you. Good luck with P90X round two :)

      P.S. There’s LOT’s of other pullup/chinup articles + videos on this site. Just take a look around, especially at the bottom of each post, and you’ll find all the relevant links.

  9. Ashok Rajan

    Hi John, Excellent explanation of the pull up technique. Being on computers all day and specifically overusing my left hand on the ctrl and shift keys, I have developed a repetitive stress injury in my left shoulder. I found that keeping my left arm raised all the time has weakened my left shoulder and back scapular muscles.. To set it right I began doing rotator cuff, rear shoulder exercises and mainly pull ups to improve posture, but somehow I wasn’t getting the pullups right at all. None of the online videos explained the ‘packing the shoulders’ part like you did. This video certainly helped me. Thanks a lot!
    Ashok Rajan, from India.

  10. hey john i m a beginner in doing pull ups,while coming down from the uppermost position my shouldrs r srugging up ,what to do

  11. Hi John,

    Thanks for video! Now i know my wrong position make me stuggling with pull up.


    Best video ever to explain this. I have been arguing with my gym about this very thing. I have had extensive shoulder injury that have taken a long time to heal (think year long bout with a frozen shoulder that built up enough scar tissue so that my shoulder is no longer flopping out of the joint). My gym insists that I should be hanging (my best time was 1min 34sec) and jumping up to hang and then working up to a pull up. Needless to say my shoulder almost doesn’t go back into the socket after this. My son who has done cross fit training said I should be packing my shoulders when I do a pull up then maybe, going into a controlled hang, for a few secs. What you say makes so much sense and you explain it so well. Thank you for confirming what my shoulders, ouch, have been telling me. By the way, I’m sixty-one and proud that I can actually do 2 pull ups in a row, ha, and will safely work my way up to doing 10, now that I am not so confused about technique.

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