Pull ups and yoga: Are you missing out?
If you only practice yoga, you’re probably missing out on an important type of movement that can help you find more balanced strength and stability in your shoulders—upper body pulling exercises.
While yoga helps develop upper body pressing strength–with poses like down dog, handstand and arm balances–it does little to build upper body pulling strength. Yet pulling movements are just as important in life as pressing movements.
One of the best exercises to build upper body pulling strength is the pull up. A full pull up may seem daunthing if you’ve never done one before, but learning to lift your entire body weight against gravity can be as empowering as learning to stand on your hands.
Pull ups strengthen a lot of muscles:
- The wrist and hand flexors on the front of your forearms, aka your grip muscles
- Your elbow flexors (the biceps and brachialis muscles on the front of your upper arms)
- The posterior deltoids on the back of your shoulders
- The latisssimus dorsi muscles, or lats, which run from the back of pelvis to your arms and are responsible for pulling your arms down and back
- Some of the muscles that move and stabilize your shoulder blades, i.e. your rhomboids and lower trapezius
Several of these muscles are antagonists to the muscles you use for pressing, so working them can help build more balanced strength around your shoulders.
An added benefit is that strengthening your grip may help save your wrists. The flexor muscles in your forearms are responsible for pressing your fingers into the floor when you’re bearing weight on your hands in poses like chaturanga and upward facing dog. That action reduces the pressure in your wrists—important for keeping your wrists healthy if you practice vinyasa yoga.
Pull ups may also help keep your shoulders healthy. Researchers have found that when the adductor muscles of the shoulder, which include the lats, are engaged—as they are in a pull up—that action helps open up space between the head of the arm bone, or humerus, and the acromion, a ridge of bone on the shoulder blade that juts over the arm bone like a porch roof. If the humerus jams into the acromion, the tissues that lie between them, including the tendons of the rotator cuff, can become pinched—a common source of shoulder pain.
OK, so it’s important to include exercises like the pull up in your practice.
But what if you can’t do a pull up?
The pull up is a challenging exercise. Men typically have greater upper body muscle mass, which generally makes makes it easier for us than for women. But whether you’re a man or woman, you can learn to do a full, unassisted pull up, as long as you build your strength step by step.
The following exercises will help get you started. And even if you never do a complete pull up, incorporating them into your practice will help you create more balanced upper body strength.
Make sure you have something secure to hang from. A pull up bar at the gym or a playground is ideal. You can also install a pull up bar in a doorway in your home, but make sure it’s properly installed, so that it can fully support your body weight. (I made the accompanying video in Bali, where I didn’t have a pull up bar, so I used a solid door frame instead. However, a pull up bar will work much better.)
Of course, if you experience any pain in your shoulders or elbows (or anywhere else) with these movements, don’t do them.
OK, ready to get started?
This video will introduce you to a couple of useful exercises to get you started.
The static hang
The first step is a static straight arm hang.
Take an overhand grip on the bar, with your hands a little wider apart than shoulder width, and just hang from the bar, keeping your elbows straight. Don’t try to pull your shoulder blades down. Let them find their natural position.
That’s all there is to it. You just hang. A simple exercise, but very effective for developing your grip, as well as strengthening the muscles and connective tissues around your shoulders and elbows.
Build up to hanging for 30 seconds before you move on. That may take a while, but it will give you a good foundation for progress, so don’t rush to the next step.
The scapula pull up
Once you’re strong enough to hang for 30 seconds, you’re ready for the scapula, or shoulder blade, pull up. This will help to strengthen the shoulder blade stabilizing muscles on your back as well as your lats. It will also help you develop awareness of how your shoulders move.
Begin in the static hang position, allowing your shoulders to lift naturally toward your ears. Without bending your elbows, pull your shoulder blades downward, toward your pelvis, then let them rise again toward your ears. Start slowly. As you get stronger, you can eventually build up to a couple of sets of ten of these.
One note about this exercise: there’s an unfortunate misconception among many yoga students that the shoulders should be forcefully pulled down when the arms are overhead. This is counter to healthy biomechanics in the shoulder. To reach your arms overhead, your shoulderblades must upwardly rotate to allow the shoulder socket on the outer shoulder blade to lift toward the ceiling. This is a strengthening exercise—it isn’t meant to suggest that you should try to pull your shoulders down when your arms are overhead in poses such as urdhva hastasana.
These two exercises will get you started building the strength foundation you’ll need to eventually master the pull up. And even if you never go further, they will help you develop more balanced strength in your shoulders and arms that will help make your yoga practice safer.
If you’re interested in working toward a complete pull up, the next post in this series will outline a full step-by-step progression to get you there, along with another video.
In the meantime, let me know how you’re doing with building your pulling strength!