Variations of the Vertical Pull

-The vertical pull is one of the most versatile upper body movements for hypertrophy and strength development. Not only does it pack serious muscle to your back side, but it also trains postural stabilizers to do what they were originally designed to do…STABILIZE!

-Pulling from various hand positions allows us to put a strong emphasis on specific muscles while continuing to train the entire pulling movement as a whole. Linking up the posterior chain, especially through the pillar (shoulder/core/hips), is what sets the closed chain vertical pull apart from any other upper body pulling exercise.
-Choosing the correct hand position for vertical pulling will put you on the fast track towards specific gains, and bullet proof your elbows and shoulders against repetitive stress injuries, especially if you have been beating yourself up for decades.
A majority of experts will agree, the vertical pull is one of the most effective and efficient movements to build a bigger, stronger, healthier upper body. If you are stuck on the lat pull down machine, or not programming any vertical pulling at all, it’s time to get on the train, literally.
The primitive nature of the pull up is what makes it so awesome. We were born to do it! For as long as humans have inhabited the earth, they have been grabbing onto things over their heads and pulling their asses up. The vertical pull was once a necessity of life, and has recently become a novelty of Americana.
No longer do we have to climb trees for that apple on the top branch, or scale the side of a mountain to gather some water or berries on the other side. We instead have transitioned into reaching for the Cheetos on the top shelf of the pantry, and drive our Range Rovers to the grocery store that is only 0.4 miles away. With a disuse of this primitive upper body pattern, our bodies as a collective whole have begun to fight back, and let me tell you undoubtedly, we are losing.
From a postural standpoint, our Westernized society is in an orthopedic epidemic. With the popularization of computers, cell phones, our spines and shoulders are facing extended periods of dysfunctional postural stresses. We are losing  our abilities to perceive what neutral position actually is and feels like. We have created new neutral, one of postural compensation and stress. Our shoulders are forward and internally rotated, our chest is tight, and our shoulder blades are fixed to our backs. For those of us who still continue to train, these daily stresses really puts us at a biomechanical disadvantage to perform and stay healthy.
As soon as humans figured out a way to train in a seated position, we lost the battle as a species. Not only are we sitting all day at our desks, in our cars, or on the couch, we are now going to the gym and “training” on machines that we can comfortably sit our lazy asses on. Case in point, the lat pull down machine.
This article is geared towards training the vertical pulling motion. And yes, before you say it, I realize that the lat pull down machine is a variation of the traditional  vertical pull. It is actually the most commonly prescribed and executed upper body pulling exercise in any gym setting. How did we get to this point, and why is the lat pull down machine so different than the pull up?
By plopping down in a seated position, we lose the ability to stabilize the core in a functional position. All of the anti-rotational and anti-flexion/extension moments are lost, and our core fights to stay active during movements of the upper body. When in a non-neutral seated position, the pelvis is dumped posteriorly, putting increased stresses on our spines and lower back stabilizers when in a non-neutral seated position. From that position, we attempt to execute a strengthening exercise. Good luck!

Spinal Neutral!!
Momentum, and heavy flexion and extension moments at the lumbar and thoracic spine initiate movement, and cause for heavy compensations. The lat pull down turns into anything but the lats working to complete the movement. Static stabilizers are forced to kick in and aid in movement, along with non-contractile tissues acting as restraints to limit harmful positions. Again, less then an ideal environment for muscle building and strength gains.
The latissimus dorsi, the broadest posterior chain muscle in the body, has a primary action of humeral adduction, extension and internal rotation, but it’s secondary properties make it a versatile muscle to train for posture. Strength gains at the lats provide enhanced postural stabilization of the spine and lower pelvis due to it’s attachment points. Increased core stability translates to higher numbers in the squat and deadlift, and an overall increase in total body strength. Said simply, strong and stable lats will allow you to pack on muscle all over.
The vertical pull is unarguably the most efficient way of building strong and functional lats. Secondarily, the vertical pull will train your hands, arms, shoulders, back and pelvic floor. Creating a strong foundational link between various accessory pulling muscles will alleviate undue joint and ligamentous stresses, while still training the movement for strength.
Some key secondary muscles worked through the vertical pull are the: finger flexors, forearm flexors, brachioradialis, biceps brachii, triceps long head, teres major, rhomboids, trapezius, levator scapulae, and posterior deltoid. Abdominal musculature also helps aid the motion, including the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques and the transverse abdominis.
There are many problematic areas that arise when executing the closed chain vertical pull. The most common mistakes with the pull/chin ups are:
1. A lack of full range of motion
2. Use of momentum to initiate movement
3. Poor scapular rhythm and stability
4. Decreased tension and TUT (time under tension)
A true pull up will be starting from a stand still position with elbows fully extended. From that position, movement will be initiated with muscular contraction moving the body upwards until the chin is in position over the bar (some experts prefer the apex of the movement to be chest to bar). From the top of the motion, the body is lowered in a controlled manor to the starting position. Full range of motion is imperative not only for strength gains, but also to stress contractile tissues that are being targeted.
Let’s get this one straight, the “Kip” pull up is not a pull up. Plain and simple. Using momentum to initiate a movement is also known as CHEATING. The kip stresses the joints, puts the shoulders in shit positions and plays a huge role in global warming. Just because your body kind of moves in the same direction using a bar doesn’t mean that the kip is even comparable to a REAL pull up. The fact that I am addressing this in a vertical pulling article shows the true problem with some aspects of our fitness industry. Crossfitters love the kip because not many of their athletes can complete a pull up. I’m not saying that the guys on ESPN kicking ass and throwing around weight aren’t amazing athletes, just making the point that a majority of CF clientele aren’t to that level, and kipping allows them to participate in a WOD and feel good. Nuff said.
Key point, if your shoulders are glued to your ears during a vertical pull, and your neck has quietly gone missing, I can almost guarantee that your shoulder blades are moving less than optimally. Scapulohumeral rhythm is kind of a big deal, especially if your goal is to be highly functional in any overhead position. The rhythm of the scapulae as it interplays with the humerus is a ratio that can be tracked and assessed.
For full overhead motion of the arm, 180 degrees is usually the number we look for. That 180 degrees comes from many different aspects of the upper quadrant and it’s synergistic abilities, but a majority will come from both the glenohumeral (or true shoulder) joint, and the scapulae (shoulder blade). For every 2 degrees that the humerus moved into elevation, 1 degree of scapular motion (upward rotation and  protraction) needs to be initiated. If this ratio is less than ideal, so will your goals of having pain free shoulders.
The last common mistake seen with vertical pulling is a lack of tension generated through the motion. At the starting point of the pull up, tension should be initiated to stabilize the shoulder, and also to make sure you aren’t just hanging out on your ligaments and tendons. Squeezing your shoulders into external rotation will cue this tension, and optimize your starting position. Secondly, the TUT (time under tension) has to be programmed in order to receive the benefits and training effects of the prescribed pulling exercise. The more TUT, the larger training stimulus the muscles involved in the motion will generate. The best place to increase the TUT of a vertical pulling motion is the eccentric (lowering portion) of the exercise, along with the squeeze at the apex of each repetition. Max your your tension. With tension comes stability, and with stability comes some significant strength gains!
One of the best things about vertical pulling is that based on your functional and aesthetics goals, you can manipulate your hand and grip position to shift stresses through specific musculature. It’s no secret that the chin up stresses the biceps a little more than the traditional pull up, but what about the other variations between? Simple modifications can be used to take the stress off a certain joint, specifically train an individual muscle group while not losing the advantages of the entire motion, and target different stabilizers from different angles.
Check out the 4 most common variations of the closed chain vertical pull motion below. While the primitive patterning will stay constant, the muscular stresses and stabilization patterns will vary.



The vertical pull is one of the best bang for your buck exercises out there, especially for upper body strength and stability. It is metabolically demanding, can pack on some major muscle armour, and can even bullet proof your shoulders and upper back if programmed correctly. Forget the lat pull down machine, and hop on the pull up train. Did I mention that pull ups even work your abs? Hello six pack, and I guess an awesome looking back, and well, good posture. Ah, that being said just get it done and give them a try!
Contributed by Smart Enough to Leave Buffalo - Dr. John


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