I got my first ever straight-arm pull-up in May 2015 (1 year, 1 month ago from today). I am grossly understating when I say this was an ECSTATIC moment!
The key piece of advice that I'd gotten - was to pull from the back and shoulders muscles (not just the arms) - by initiating the movement with a "scapular shrug" from a dead hang.
If you're new to pull-ups, this single piece of advice is likely to get you the "aha!" moment you've been waiting for, and unlock your ability to get your first rep with consistent practice.
Perhaps you've worked hard to be able to do quite a few pull ups and are working towards even higher reps and more advanced pulling progressions. If so, you'd have known about scapular pull ups for ages and religiously worked them into warm ups and supersets in workouts.
After exceeding a 10 rep pull up max earlier this year - I decided to nerd out further on this movement. I knew that further increasing my max set or preparing for more advanced pulling was going to take extra intention and precision - as well as hard work.
At first, I looked everywhere online for different opinions on how to do scapular pull ups, and each time I saw a movement that was slightly different. I then consulted a number of trusted fitness professionals and training partners. Most notably, I honed in on my knowledge of functional shoulder anatomy, and also discussed this with one of my trainers and inspirations - the world-champion female calisthenics athlete Simone Ming.
I've observed through research and discussions that people tend to do scapular pulls in 2 different ways. I'm showing them in the video below:
1. Upper Back Isolation
In the first 3 reps of the video, I'm literally shrugging my shoulders down while hanging on the bar with an overhand grip. The emphasis is on the depression (downward movement) and retraction (squeezing inward) of the shoulder blades, which works to bring the body closer to the bar as the hands are fixed.
This technique emphasises the actions of the trapezius - one of our large back muscles of which important function are depressing and retracting the shoulders. The reason why I call this "upper back isolation" is because the traps cover the region taken up by our thoracic spine - you could equally argue that this is "mid-back" as well.
2. Full Back Engagement
In the subsequent 4 reps, I am also depressing and retracting the shoulder blades, using the trapezius. This time however, I'm also 1) forcefully pulling down with my arms, keeping them as straight as possible without locking out the elbows, and 2) extending my whole back and involving it in the pull. My body moves a greater distance, and my back arches, not as an end in itself - but as part of the whole movement initiating from the straight-arm pull. My shoulders act as a pivot point for the rest of my body lower down as a result of this pull.
This technique now brings in the latissimus dorsi - or "lats", which is the most well-known muscle in terms of pull-up development. Most people do not realise how large and encompassing the lats are - they literally extend all the way from your armpits to your your hip crest - covering the entire back. The straight arm pulldown portion on the pull-up bar can be directly compared to a straight arm lat pull-down in the gym with bodybuilding circuits, targeting the upper lats. Then, with the lower back extending throughout the pull - you are also targeting the lower lats.
Which is "Right" or "Better"?
There is no right or wrong way to do an exercise, and there are absolutely no right or wrong exercises. So they only relevant question is, which version of the scapular pull-up is right for you? Some consideration of muscle anatomy as above, as well as understanding your own goals, strengths and weaknesses, will provide the answer.
If you're using pull ups and scapular pulling prep as part of a rehab or strength training programme for a different sport or activity, then the "right way" would depend on which muscles or portion of the back you want or need to emphasise more greatly. Underdeveloped or imbalanced with weak traps but strong lats? Warm up with the first version, and reverse if other way around. Unable to "feel" or engage your lats which leads to compensations? Work on the second.
If you're a calisthenics, gymnastics training or all-around bodyweight fitness enthusiast, then pull-ups are even more of a progressive skill in themselves than they are a training tool. If you consider yourself in this category, perfecting the coordinated movement emphasising both the traps and the lats is critical.
To this end, everyone should be practicing both versions, and adjust based on level or training history. For example, regardless of whether you are a beginner or advanced practitioner, a general warm up including the first "shrugging" version of scapular pulls is a great way to prepare the shoulders for an intense training session. Then, if you're training towards your first muscle up or working on your muscle up set, version 2 (entire back emphasis) is a great skill-specific warm up or superset component. These are just examples of the various training options you have.
Ultimately, both are right!
Want to get / improve your pull ups, and do so insightfully based on YOUR goals and YOUR body? Contact me.