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7 Great Pulling Exercises For A Strong Back & Healthy Shoulders

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 09 July 2018
Hits: 9806

Pulling movements are some of the greatest exercises you can use in the gym to develop a strong and healthy body, great posture and incredible grip strength. From chin-ups to bent over rows these exercises are known for targeting massive muscle groups like the Lats, Trapezius, and Rhomboids, not to mention they all hit the ever-popular muscles like the biceps too. It is also one of the key functional movement patterns we need for daily activities in life. When completed poorly they can also lead to a host of problems around the shoulder and neck. This article shows you 7 of our preferred exercises for developing the pulling movement pattern.

Make Sure You Avoid These Common Mistakes!

Grip strength has been proven in many studies to be a good predictor of future injury and even overall body strength. Therefor it makes sense that we should always be looking at improving grip strength using pulling exercises that are completely dependent on this. What are the best exercises to develop pulling strength? Well, there are many you can use and this article we will show you just a few of the best. Before getting stuck right into the Top 7 exercises let's go over two of the biggest mistakes with pulling exercises seen in the gym today.

Mistake #1: Pulling Shoulders Down & Back

When it comes to pulling exercises the biggest mistake I see made is trying to PULL THE SHOULDERS DOWN & BACK! I must admit I used to tell people to do this and was taught that this is a good thing for our posture. We have all heard people say, "stand up straight and pull your shoulders back". The first part of that is good, stand up straight, but pulling your shoulders back is a great way to develop chronic shoulder and neck problems along with a chain reaction of muscle imbalance.

Why is this so bad?

Retraction of the shoulder muscles is a normal part of biomechanics during the phase of pulling exercises and also in the easier phase of pushing exercises. However overdoing these exercises or consciously squeezing your scapula together (usually the rhomboids and middle trapezius) can completely disrupt the timing and sequence of how the shoulder needs to move. Even worse if performed poorly it can reinforce the scapula into retraction in a downwardly rotated and anterior tilted position, creating more tightness, impingement, and discomfort. This is common to a winged scapula (picture below). I see this almost every day in the gym and it is very common to anyone with shoulder or neck problems.

The alignment and altered motor control issue cannot be improved by ‘strengthening’ the scapular retractors or by performing more scapular retraction exercises, as it will often be more of a thoracic dysfunction, and poor mobility with the scapula that is the problem. Strengthening the retractors encourages less mobility!

Yet many therapists and trainers still prescribe tons of scapula adduction exercises in the belief that these muscles are too weak and they will improve your posture to make the pain go away, so more the better. But all this leads to is scapula downward rotation, and eventually the depressed shoulder, and eventually ........ pain!

See our article about Shoulder Instability & Winged Scapula for more detail on this specific topic.

While talking about "the more is better theory", one thing that I still hear circulated by many trainers is that we should always have a Ratio of 3 pulling movement to 1 pushing. The problem was this is looking at the shoulder joint as just a push and pull movement when in fact it has 360 degrees of rotational movement with complex interaction with the scapula, thoracic spine and countless muscles that attach to provide stability and movement.

There is no ratio to stick to, only principles of shoulder movement. Some people I needed to use a ratio of 3 pushing to one pulling, others it was more of a 1:1 ratio. Overloading a person based on a rule like this always leads to trouble for the shoulder joint is so complex and we are all uniquely different. The key is to understand how the shoulder functions with the thoracic region, scapula and glenohumeral joint all working together as a team. Improve the team in all directions and you will find there is no need for hard and fast rules like this.

Read our article about the 3 Key Factors Needed For Shoulder Function for more on this.

Mistake #2: Pulling Elbows Too Far Behind The Body With Row Movements

Another big mistake we see made with pulling movements is when the elbows are pulled too far behind the body disrupting the ideal axis of rotation and driving the humeral head further in the socket. Take a look at the video below to see an example of what this looks like and how it creates all types of problems for the shoulder. Click here to watch.

This mistake of pulling too far behind you leads to gleno-humeral instability. I often see this with people using too light a weight and are able to really pull too far. Too much weight is not good either as this is when you see someone “chop” the movement by moving their head forward helping to create forward head posture and a new set of problems with the neck. A balance between the two is what is needed.

You can read more about both of these mistakes in more detail in the article - HOW TO EXECUTE PULLING EXERCISES CORRECTLY

If you suffer from shoulder or neck pain right now I suggest getting a copy of our special report below that guides you through the process of correcting shoulder dysfunction and pain. Click here to see more about what is in this report and download your copy instantly.

Okay so now that we have covered some of the big mistakes let's get into our top 7. These are in no specific order, except for the last one as this is a very difficult exercise to learn.

1: High Cable Row With Step Back Lunge

This exercise is great for several reasons and is one of my "go to" exercises for people with shoulder and neck pain. Firstly this exercise prevents the mistakes of pulling too far behind you and also pulling the elbows in too close creating a depressed shoulder for the bar gets in the way! Secondly the high angle position helps to create a better thoracic position, and lastly, the step back lunge allows people to mobilize the hip region which is often just as stiff as the thoracic spine. In one exercise we get to do 4 key things at once!

Instructions: 

1. Standing with good posture draw the belly button inward.
2. Step backward keeping good posture lower to the point where your back knee just touches the ground while simultaneously performing a row with both arms.
3. Slowly return to the top.

2: Bent Over Row

A great exercise that shares many of benefits of the deadlift because it utilizes the bending movement. A key part of this exercise is maintaining the thoracic extension needed to execute this perfectly. The person with a hunched posture will find this difficult to do but achieve great results by learning this movement. A great way to build strength into weak upper back muscles.

Instructions:

1. Standing bent forward at the hips with knees bent holding a barbell in front of your legs palms facing your body.
2. Maintain an arch in your low back.
3. Drawing your belly button inwards bend your elbows to pull the barbell up to chest height.
4. Lower under control and repeat.

3: Single Cable Pull With Weight Shift

All cable exercises are excellent in achieving both posterior tilt and upward rotation. Whereas dumbbells and barbells work via gravity trying to force the weight to the ground, cables can be manipulated via the angle of resistance to assist activation of various muscles and posture. This exercise is a classic example for doing everything just stated. I personally prefer this exercise to be used first as it is unilateral and allows more rotation of the thoracic spine instead of potentially locking the upper back up and creating more stiffness!

Instructions:

1. Standing in a split stance with knees bent and feet a comfortable distance apart. Lean forward placing 70 percent of your weight on your front foot.
2. Draw your belly button inwards initiate the movement with your trunk simultaneously pulling the cable handle towards your shoulder and rotating your trunk in the same direction. Allow your pelvis to rotate naturally transferring the weight from your front foot to your back foot as you shift through the movement.
3. Reverse the motion until you reach the start position.

4: Squat Row

My preferred choice of dual arm pulling exercises apart from the bent over row. The main reason I like this so much is the fact you learn to use your legs in the action and understand that to create force and strength you need your legs. Many people are familiar with the seated cable row and while it is a good exercise it has one disadvantage in that it removes the ability to coordinate and stabilize the body in a standing position.

Instructions:

1. Standing with feet a comfortable distance apart and your torso bent forward to approximately 45° keeping the natural arch in your low back.
2. Draw your belly button inwards squat down as far as you comfortably can while simultaneously performing a row.
3. Slowly return to the start position and repeat.

There is also a very difficult sports specific exercise we use with this particular exercise to improve braking skills and change of direction you can watch by clicking here.

5: Chin Ups

Either you love them or you hate them! Definitely one of the best, if not the best core building exercise to do! However, you must treat this with caution if you have any type of neck or shoulder pain. I would start with the band assisted version to learn the correct technique and control before progressing to the full bodyweight exercise. The difference between band assisted chin-ups and a machine assisted chin up is all to do with where you receive help. At the bottom of the movement when your arms are extended is where you are the weakest as the muscle fibers have been stretched apart. This is where the band helps you the most, but as you lift yourself to the top and the muscle fibers join together you gain strength. It is at this point the band does little to help you, whereas the machine will continue to help you resulting in very little being gained.

As for grip positions, the overhand grip is the hardest to use so I prefer people to use a parallel grip first and once their strength improves change to the prone grip. Over time it is good to keep changing grips so you don't constantly overload the shoulder with repetitive movement. Definitely one of the best exercises you can do for total integrated strength but it can aggravate problems if performed poorly so make sure you watch the video below to get your technique perfect.

You can read more about chin-ups in our article - Why Chin Ups Are The Ultimate Body Weight Exercise

Instructions:

1. Place your hands on the chin-up bar, palms facing forward, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep your legs slightly bent, and your knees together.
2. As you pull up, open up your posture by pushing your stomach forward and keeping your sternum high. Pull up to the slow count of three, pause, then come down to the slow count of three.
3. Between reps, let yourself hang while looking down and relaxing, to allow the latissimus dorsi to pull away from your scapula.
4. Make sure all your movements are slow and controlled

6: Sled Pull

Sled pulls are an amazing exercise to utilize the muscles in a similar action to how they would be used in daily life. As with the bent over row, it shares similar benefits to the deadlift, with the main difference being that this needs a faster, more explosive tempo in order to get it right. Most of the exercises to this point use a slow tempo where strength and stability is the main requirement. This exercise needs a fast timing in order to make it work.

Instructions:

1. Standing bent forward 45° keeping the natural arch in your low back.
2. Draw your belly button inwards.
3. Reaching forward drag the sled towards your pulling arm over arm until the sled is close to you.
4. Walk back until the rope is extended and repeat.

7: Hang Clean

This exercise is extremely difficult to master and really is a sport in its own right. The picture to the right demonstrates the "clean" part of Olympic Weightlifting. Not many people will be able to do this, or in fact, need to. I have included this in our top 7 for it is undoubtedly the hardest pulling exercise to do, and provides significant strength and power if you can. If you are going to use this exercise it is wise to get some professional coaching as it comes with many serious injury risks.

Instructions:

1. Standing with knees slightly bent, bent forward at hips holding a barbell at knee height with a grip just wider than your shoulders.
2. Explosively drive your hips forward extending your legs and shrugging your shoulders to pull the bar upward.
3. Drop under the bar to catch the bar on your shoulders descend into a full squat and return to standing.
4. Slowly return to the start position and repeat.

Conclusion

Okay, we have certainly covered a lot of ground with pulling exercises and you now should be armed with many great ways to incorporate this movement into your training effectively. Being strong at pulling exercises is a great skill to have for not only grip strength and healthy shoulder/neck function this also looks good! These muscles are an important part of maintaining a nice upright posture.

If you enjoyed this article and live in Melbourne you can request a free postural and movement assessment by clicking the image below.