Improving Pull-up ROM

Not long ago, I wrote a post on the importance of using a full range of motion (ROM) in strength exercises. One of the most difficult exercises to do full ROM is the pull-up (or chin-up, which is just a pull-up variation). Just because it's hard doesn't mean we shouldn't do it!

Form Cop talked about pull-up ROM before and that's worth another look. That video was also referenced in the recent post on Lifting ROM which talked about ROM in general. One of the key points in the Form Cop video is the idea some folks have that they are limited at the top range of a pull-up by physical limitations related to limited mobility. For most pull-up variations, that's not likely to be an issue.

However, it is more likely to be an issue if you widen your grip as anatomical limitations kick in. It's also more likely to be an issue on pull-ups (hands pronated, palms facing away) than chin-ups (hands supinated, palms facing toward you) or neutral grip pull-ups (palms facing each other). But with a normal grip width (about shoulder-width), anatomical limits are unlikely to be reached. If you disagree, check out the Form Cop video to test it out.

If you find that mobility is not the problem with top-end ROM, then it's insufficient strength (as discussed in the Lifting ROM post). Don't be embarrassed about it; it's a very common problem. Even for folks who can do full ROM reps (like me), it's a problem when fatigue sets in.

The way to deal with the problem is to get stronger in that range. There are a few ways you can do that including:

Use a band for assistance. You'll need a sufficiently thick resistance band which not everyone has so this isn't the best option for most people. But it can work. Allowing yourself to bounce out of the bottom position may help.

Use a box or chair for assistance. This is easier to manage than using a band but you have to be careful to only give yourself the minimum assistance needed. Otherwise, you won't build the needed upper body strength.

Do partial reps. If you're strong enough to do these, it's the best option. You can use a box or chair to get to the desired top position, then just lower a few inches and pull yourself back up. Repeat until you can't get to the top position anymore. If you can do too many (say, more than five), go a little lower on each rep. I sometimes do these later in my workout (not right after the pull-ups) to help me keep full ROM for more reps.

Not being able to get full ROM at the top doesn't make a rep useless but at some point they stop becoming actual pull-ups. I usually consider the set done if I can't get my chin above the bar without craning my neck.

So where is the top position? For neutral-grip pull-ups, it will depend on your bar configuration. I do them in my power rack where my acromion bones (top of the shoulder at the end of the clavicle) hit the rack. If you don't hit anything, then getting the acromion to the level of the grip (handles) is good. For chin-ups, it's (at least) clavicle (collarbone) to the bar. For pull-ups, chin over the bar without tilting your head back is a good measure. (As mentioned earlier, grip width can affect this, particularly if the grip is really wide. And, of course, if the wide ends of the bar angle down.)

When training at home, things don't always go to plan. Depending on which bar I use, head-to-ceiling might be the top. Stupid physics.

The focus so far has been on the top position since that's the hard part. But we also want full ROM at the bottom. Here, the usual advice is to go down until your elbows are straight or locked. But there's a better bottom. Go down until you feel a stretch in your shoulders. That will also help keep your lats engaged in the movement.

I happened to come across this video which is a good example of insufficient ROM in the neutral-grip pull-up, especially at the bottom. I would count this as zero reps. (No offense, dude.)

Don't do this.

For most people, doing a pull-up at all is a big challenge. But if you can do them, be sure to do at least some of them right: with a full ROM. That will improve both your strength and mobility. And totally impress your friends. Or your pets.

Be seeing you.


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  1. My chin ups are exactly like the guy in the “Athlete Strong video”
    so I am guessing I need some work. Here I was Soooo impressing my pets ( I have no friends).

    • You are still getting stronger through that ROM so good for you! Adding some reps through the full ROM will help you get stronger through the full range and help with shoulder mobility so please give it a try.

      Pets are available for adoption at the Buffalo Animal Shelter. Can’t help you with the friends thing.

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