Return to Pull-Ups after Injury

Pull-ups, chin-ups, etc. are a great test of overall body strength.  Not only do they require upper body strength to pull the chest up and over the bar, but they also require an immense amount of core strength.

Don’t get me wrong.  You can have a core with sub-par strength and perform a chin-up or pull-up, but it can cause the body to have to compensate and delegate stress to 1 or 2 areas vs delegating it throughout the body.

Whether it be a shoulder surgery or returning from an injury, if someone wants to get back to any type of vertical pulling, there needs to be a gradual progression so you don’t re-injury yourself or if you’ve had surgery, affect the repair.

If someone has had surgery, I like them to go through the basic post-op progression that one would go through with their physical therapist of building up a base level of strength.  Once someone has done that, they I want to start incorporating progressions towards a pull-up or chin-up.

**DISCLAIMER** If you have had shoulder surgery, consult with your physical therapist prior to commencing these variations***

Vertical Pulling Progressions

The first step I like to start with are Tall Kneeling Batwings or any type of banded pull down variation.

Tall Kneeling Batwings

Key Points:

-Maintain one shoulder blade squeezed down and back and allow the other arm to move up and down while performing scapular retraction/depression and then upward scapular rotation.

-Perform reps of holding on side/pulling on the other then switch.

-Should be felt working in the upper back musculature.

You can also utilize any other banded pull down variation if you want or if you don’t have a cable column unit.

Once an athlete has gone through progressively overloading that variation of 2 sets x 10 reps, 3 sets x 8 reps, etc. and has built up a base for vertical pulling, I like to incorporate isometric holds at certain positions throughout the pull-up or chin-up.

The holds start at the top of a chin-up or pull-up and then gradually progress towards the bottom.

Here are the 5 different positions.

Position 1 Pull-Up Progression

Key Points:

-Stand on a box.

-Use legs to jump up into starting position.

-Keep shoulders blades in back pockets and maintain tension in upper back.

-Keep knees at approximately hip height to maintain good core position.


Position 2 Pull-Up Progression

Key Points:

-Stand on a box.

-Use legs to jump up into starting position.

-Maintain tension in upper back.

-Keep knees at approximately hip height to maintain good core position.

Position 3 Pull-Up Progression

Key Points:

-Stand on a box.

-Use legs to jump up into starting position.

-Maintain tension in upper back.

-Keep knees at approximately hip height to maintain good core position.

Position 4 Pull-Up Progression

Key Points:

-Stand on a box.

-Use legs to jump up into starting position.

-Maintain tension in upper back.

-Keep knees at approximately hip height to maintain good core position.

Position 5 Pull-Up Progression

Key Points:

-Stand on a box.

-Use legs to jump up into starting position.

-Maintain tension in upper back.

-Keep knees at approximately hip height to maintain good core position.

I will typically give an athlete progression position 1 and 2 to start off with and have them hold for 5 seconds x 5 reps.

Depending on how frequently they are coming in, I will advise them to do those positions that have been prescribed a few times per week.  

When they come back in, I will assess to see how the position looks, how it felt to them while doing it, and then progress to position 3 and 4 and then eventually 5 on that timeline.  This can vary case to case, but that would be the typical progression.

The key with the progression is to gradually overload the athlete so that they get used to being in these positions and they build up a tolerance.

Interspersed in with this progression, I will work with the athlete on training them to maintain good core and trunk position throughout not only vertical pulling, but any other type of training.

Some drills I like to use for working on trunk position are:

Supine KB Pullover

Key Points:

-Maintain a ribs down, flat back position.

-Don’t crush the ground with your low back/don’t brace your abs.

-Just maintain this position.

-Bring the weight overhead without losing the starting trunk position.

-Perform for 2 sets x 8 reps.

Once the athlete has gone through the pull-up progression, I will give them a few different options to use.


Some options include:

Slow Eccentric Pull-Ups

Key Points:

-Jump off of box to starting position, don’t pull yourself up.

-Control your body and maintain good ribcage on top of pelvis position.

-Slowly lower oneself to the bottom position.

-Repeat.

TRX Assisted Pull-Ups

Key Points:

-Cross legs and sit on the ground.

-TRX handles should be overhead and starting position is with arms completely overhead.

-Pull yourself to the handles and squeeze through the upper back into your back pockets.


When this movement becomes too easy/easier, raise the TRX up so that less of your legs are on the ground.  As you go higher up, less of your legs are on the ground and more of your bodyweight will be pulled up using your arms.

Once an athlete has gone through the slow eccentric pull-ups and/or TRX assisted pull-ups, try performing band assisted pull-ups.

Band Assisted Pull-Ups

Key Points:

-Same as before.

-Use a band that will help you, but not assist you to the point of you not doing any of the work.

Once you have gone through these progressions after coming back from an injury or surgery, you have laid the groundwork for good trunk position and upper body resiliency to vertical pulling.

As long as you have had a smooth transition through these progressions and movements are feeling good, now is time to try performing a bodyweight pull-up or chin-up.

As mentioned before, make sure to consult with a licensed medical professional prior to commencing these progressions.

By gradually increasing the stress and intensity as mentioned above with these progressions, you can improve your strength to handle the demands of performing pull-ups or chin-ups after a surgery or injury.







Andrew Millett