This basic playground exercise is hard to do and easy to avoid, but also really important for shoulder health.

Share story

FOR MUCH OF MY adult life, a pullup seemed unimportant — and unattainable. I didn’t understand why you would do one, nor did I want to do the dull daily strength work to make it happen.

Once I joined a CrossFit gym, I had to do pullups; they showed up frequently in warm-ups and workouts. I groaned every time, and used thick bands to try to get through.

As I got stronger, I realized I wanted to do a pullup, if only to see whether I could. After several months, I finally did one.

Since then, I have learned that a pullup is an essential movement that can make a significant difference in your shoulder health. I now check every month or so to make sure I can still do one, and I also do 30-second hangs to make sure my shoulders stay strong and stable.

Our shoulders are meant to be used. In our modern lifestyle, many of us spend hours a day hunched over computers or cellphones, weakening our shoulders. The position and lack of movement can lead to injury or pain.

Physical therapist Erik Norwood, owner of Renew Physical Therapy in Hillman City, says that after the spine, shoulders are the most common injury he sees. Most people he sees can’t do a pullup. But they are important for long-term shoulder health.

A pullup engages all your important shoulder and back muscles — your lats, pectoral muscles, rhomboids and trapezius. A pullup also opens your chest, a counter movement to the hunched seated position.

“It’s a great multijoint, multimuscle exercise,” Norwood says.

Because so many of us have weak shoulders and hands, Norwood says, it’s important to take your time building up to a pullup, particularly if you are doing it without assistance or a trainer. (If you are injured, see a professional before attempting a pullup.)

Here are Norwood’s steps for working toward a pullup, easily done anywhere there is a bar.

Seated hang. Build grip and shoulder strength. Find a low bar where your feet touch the ground. Take hold of the bar. Engage your shoulder blades. Hang for 10 seconds, five sets.

Inverted row. Hold the bar, palms facing away from you. Walk your feet out, legs straight and core engaged, in a diagonal slant. The farther your feet go out, bringing your body toward parallel with the ground, the more challenging this exercise will be. Engage your shoulder blades. Pull your chest to the bar. Reps: 10, two sets.

Sitting pullup. Set up under a bar, on the ground or on a box, palms facing away from you. Pull your chin up over the bar. Reps: Five pullups, two sets. Once you get stronger, increase to 10 pullups, two sets.

Negative hold. Take hold of the bar in a chin-up grip, palms facing in toward you. Jump or step up to the bar into a chin-up position. Rep: 10-second hold. Build up to a 30-second hold. Once you get stronger, work on a controlled lower to straight arms.

Chin-up: With palms facing in, start with arms straight. Engage your shoulder blades, and pull. Chin-ups use your biceps, so are generally easier for most people than a pullup. Get your chin above the bar. Once you have a chin-up, switch your hands to palms facing away from you to work into a full pullup.

Playgrounds are easy places to start doing these exercises while out on a walk or a run, and many trails have a small pullup station. Challenge yourself to progress with the exercises and see whether you, too, can do a pullup.