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When I'm doing pull ups, I try to go all the way down until the arms are straight, but I do not lock out my shoulders. Recently, I thought in order to get a greater ROM, it might be a good idea to completely lock out my shoulders at the bottom. After the workout I felt a slight shoulder pain.

Is there any real benefit in locking out shoulders? Or is it just bad for my shoulders and I should avoid it?

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Shoulders are the most fluid, least structured joints in the body. They don't "lock out" like an elbow or a knee will. They basically go to your natural ROM, and if you force past that (Such as dangling from them), then you run the risk of stretching/tearing muscles, tendons or ligaments. –  JohnP May 29 '13 at 16:43
    
@JohnP So you're saying that hanging loose from a pull-up bar with two hands risks injury? Is this common? –  Dave Liepmann May 29 '13 at 18:00
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@DaveLiepmann - Not per se, no. But, if the person doing it has a limited ROM due to natural morphology, previous injury, general lack of mobility, then it is possible for the complete hanging to make it worse. It's also possible that by "locking" out the shoulders, the poster is putting their shoulders in an unnatural position. It is not really possible to tell without direct observation, I was just trying to point out the possibility that they may not have the mobility needed. (example: due to swimming history, I can't bring upper arms down past parallel on military presses due to pain) –  JohnP May 29 '13 at 20:58
    
@DaveLiepmann - I don't know if its common, but I'm unable to lock out (or "dead hang") at the bottom of a pullup - it causes immediate, serious pain in my shoulders. My shoulders feel like they're getting pulled out of the socket. I can do a dozen or so pullups w/o pain, provided I keep my shoulders tight and my arms slightly bent (i.e., don't do the last 2 or 3 inches at the bottom). Maybe this is a fixable mobility issue, maybe there's some issue with the shape of my joints. Digging too deeply seemed a little high risk, so I just avoid locking out entirely. –  DavidR May 30 '13 at 16:05
    
FWIW, I'm the only person I know with this problem. Or, at least, the only person who is otherwise able to regularly do pullups. –  DavidR May 30 '13 at 16:09

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The shoulder is deemed to be a joint of the ball and socket type, as is the hip. The major difference is that in the hip, there is actually a bony socket on the pelvis (Called the acetabulum) that the head of the femur fits into. There really is no such structure in the shoulder, the "socket" in the shoulder is made up of tendon and cartilage structures.

This results in a highly fluid, mobile joint that is able to move in many directions. Most other joints have a limited range of motion because the bony parts that make up the joint will not allow further motion in a direction. When you get to the end of that range, that is what is termed "locked out".

You can't really do that in the shoulder. If you get to a certain point and can't really move any further, or it produces pain, then what is happening is that you have reached the range limit of a tendon/muscle complex or a ligament. Forcing these to stretch further, especially under the load of a pullup can cause injury.

There are a few different things that can cause a limited range of motion in the shoulder, such as highly developed muscles without concurrent stretching, natural morphology, previous injury. I trained an athlete that could not "hang" in a pullup position without dislocating his shoulder due to many dislocations in his history. It is also possible that by forcing yourself into a full hang, you are putting the shoulder at high tension when it shouldn't be.

If you feel like your shoulder mobility is hindering you, than you can try safe swimming stretches and there are some martial arts routines that safely stretch the shoulder, but it's not likely that you have such a limited range of motion that it hinders your athletic goals. If that is truly the case, then I would get with a professional for an assessment.

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Your suspicion that locking out your shoulders might be detrimental to your shoulders, I would say, is a correct assumption.

Our shoulders are one of the joints that, I think, are most prone to injury due to incorrect technique in a wide variety of exercise, so I would say that, you should always try to look up proper technique beforehand as well as listen to your body and stop if something is hurting.

When doing chin ups or pull ups you should always try to hold you shoulder down and not let them go up towards your ears, as the additional range of motion is not worth the increased risk of injury that it comes with.

This is an article, with a 7min video just addressing the shoulder positioning, etc. when doing pullups.

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I relax fully at the bottom of the pull-up. This ensures that I work the maximum amount of muscle. Mark Rippetoe suggests the same approach:

If you relax your arms at the bottom and let your shoulders slide down, the muscles that have to pull you back up from that position are the lats and upper back muscles. Since we want to work them, use the full ROM in the exercise.

However, this does not cause me discomfort or pain. You may have a mobility issue you should address before doing full-ROM pull-ups. I do feel discomfort when I relax fully at the bottom of a chin-up, so I am careful not to wantonly relax with those, and am working on that as a separate mobility issue.

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Are you sure about this? Most references to pull-ups I've seen recommend keeping the shoulders "shrugged" at the bottom. [citation forthcoming] –  VPeric Apr 29 '13 at 17:44
    
@VPeric I'm eager to see that citation. Note, if it causes pain, like for the OP, then that's obviously a problem. –  Dave Liepmann Apr 29 '13 at 17:48
    
@VPeric Would love to see that citation as well. Like Dave, I go all the way down, doesn't cause me pain either. Not locking your shoulders feels like cheating, sort of like swinging the bar while doing barbell curls. If it hurts to do so, though, don't do it. –  user4963 May 3 '13 at 13:37
    
I also go fully to the bottom of the hang, but only for a moment before the next upward movement; I "rest" briefly slightly above that position, so the whole cycle is 1) rest briefly hanging almost all the way, 2) dip slightly to full extension for about a half second, 3) pull up to chin over bar, drop non-abruptly to that rest position (1). So the point is that I am not dangling there at the bottom very much time at all. –  Chelonian Jun 7 '13 at 5:01
  • The shoulder joint is designed for flexibility and motion rather than for stability. Its stability comes largely from coordinated muscle control rather than its bony structure.

    The shoulder blade or scapula is a foundation of the shoulder complex. When the scapulae are well stabilized against the chest wall, the rotator cuff and other shoulder muscles have a stable base from which they can rotate, flex/extend, abduct/adduct and circumduct the arm. However, when the scapulae are not stabilized, it is like trying to perform precision movements while on an unstable surface - where mistakes (and injuries) can be made.

    As @JohnP said, the shoulder does not “lock out” in the sense of the elbow because there is not a bony structure to “lock”. When you do a pull up or chin up and allow yourself to dangle at the bottom, your body weight is supported by muscles, and “soft” connective tissue rather than a bony structure. If you dangle allowing the muscles that are stabilizing your scapulae to relax, then your body weight is pulling on the smaller more delicate tendons, capsule, ligaments etc. - structures that you do not want to tear.

  • Proper Pull Up Form

    @Hummlas has given you a nice link about stabilizing the scapula when doing a pull up. By stabilizing the scapula, you strengthen the scapular muscles as well as other shoulder muscles during the pull up. This is more protective of the shoulder and keeps the rotator cuff from being pinched. Even though this form has you fully extending your arms, it does so with your shoulder blades in a stable position, down against the chest wall, rather than allowing the scapulae to travel up/and/or out.

    Stronglifts describes the starting position:

    Start each rep from a dead hang with straight elbows.

    But they also include:

    Chest Up. Don't let your shoulders go forward: it's unhealthy for your shoulders. Lead with your chest up & keep your shoulders back.

    - Strengthening vs. Flexibility

    Since you said you wanted more range, you would be safer to do specific stretching exercises without forcing the range with the weight of your body. (Note - Use dynamic exercises prior to workout rather than static stretches.) The purpose of doing pull ups and chin ups is for strengthening, not for flexibility.

Bottom line - If dangling or "locking out" causes pain, it is not right for your shoulders.

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Would any mobility drills or stretches help people that have sever problems with a "locked out" position? I ask because I realized my upper back is relatively inflexible and I have more issues than most with "locking out" on a pull-up. I'm not trying to lock out more, just wanting to build a bigger safety zone so I have a lower chance of tweaking something. –  DavidR Jun 5 '13 at 11:09
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Good observation about upper back restrictions causing shoulder restrictions. If you sit in a slump and try to raise your arms you will notice that you are restricted in how far you can go. Now allow your spine to extend and notice the increase in shoulder range overhead. Here is a link to some thoracic mobility exercises using a ball and foam roller that might help. These exercises target most of the myofascia that needs to move in order to raise your arms overhead. –  BackInShapeBuddy Jun 5 '13 at 11:53

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