The Pull motion is a functional upper-body movement used to bring things into the body. It can be done in many planes of movement but is most commonly trained in a vertical or horizontal direction. But in day to day life is also quite regularly done through a rotational plane.
Pulling is key to help build a strong and functional upper body. It requires good upper back mobility and precise control through the shoulder blades. When performing this movement you will mainly use the Lats and Rhomboids as you bring the elbows in towards the ribcage, with the biceps helping a little as the arm bends. The many muscles of the upper back; mid traps, serratus and other smaller and deeper muscles around the shoulder blade all help with stabilisation as you perform the pull.
When performing a Pull you should also think about engaging through the core and glutes. Keeping the core tight when Pulling will help you stop the ribcage from flaring and help you maintain a neutral spine. If you are able to maintain a good contraction of the glutes during the movement you will find it adds stability to the hips there for adding more strength to the Pull.
Each Pull technique is going to vary depending on whether you’re pulling from a horizontal, vertical or rotational position. However, there are some key points that will transition between almost all variations. Here are our top 3.
Before each pull you do, it is important to focus on setting the shoulders. This not only reduces any movement in the wrong direction but also gives us a strong base to perform the rest of the movement. If not set properly the shoulder can tend to internally rotate, which will reduce your range of movement and potential strength. Done correctly, the set will help connect the shoulder blade to the core, via the lats, adding strength.
There are two main movements to be aware of when you set your shoulder. The first is depression, this involves pulling the shoulder blades down the back and away from the ears. More often than not you will also need to retract (pull backwards) the shoulder blade as well. When done simultaneously this will feel like the shoulder blade is scooping down the back, we like to teach our members to pack their shoulder blades into their pockets.
Another mistake we commonly see is the head protruding forwards as someone Pulls, almost like a chicken. This can be detrimental as it forces the point of balance to move, making you less stable and strong. As the head pushes forwards the shoulders tend to round, undoing the set of the shoulders, reducing potential strength as well as creating more imbalances further down the kinetic chain.
Instead of allowing this energy leak to occur, focus on stacking the head, ribcage and pelvis on top of each other. Hold tension through all of these points as you set the shoulder then continue to bring the upper arm/elbow tight to the ribcage.
Our final teaching point, that applies to any Pull motion you ever perform, is to brace the core! Without a proper breath and brace before Pulling you will likely hyperextend through your low back and flare your ribcage out. This adds a lot of undue tension to the spine and again and causes breakdowns elsewhere in the kinetic chain.
To properly brace our core we must first think about building a neutral spine. Focus again on stacking head, ribcage and pelvis, this time extending to the knees and feet if standing. Once in alignment take a deep breath as you draw the air down into the stomach, contract through your deep core and pelvic floor as you “trap the air”. This will allow you to keep your spine stable and add strength to your pull.
The Pull is a movement that can easily be experienced in your everyday life. For example walking your dog, picking up your child or even taking the bins out all require some variation of a Pull!
The more you notice how the Pull naturally blends into your daily life, the more opportunities you then get to practise it. If you start seeing these movements as daily ‘reps’ of the exercise, instead of just things in your day, you can start to create a more functional version of yourself without breaking a sweat.
Let’s take our example of opening a door (obviously only ones that require pulling rather than pushing). Most doors don’t require us to put much thought or effort into opening them. However, if you think back to when you were a child, some doors required a lot of effort! Some heavy doors may even require that of you nowadays too. If this applies to you then notice if you follow our three tips when you next open that heavy door.
If not then apply them when walking the dog and they pull on the lead (try to get in the habit of switching which arm you hold the lead in too, to avoid imbalances).
If neither of these examples applies to you, there’s still no doubt you can find an example of using the Pull-in everyday life. That heavy bag of shopping (the one with all the tins in) may offer you the opportunity to mindfully Pull-in towards your body, by setting the shoulders, stacking the body properly and bracing the core.
If you start becoming aware of how you perform these ‘everyday reps’ not only will these movements become more efficient and pain free but your progress in the gym will be sure to improve too.
As with any movement, there are tons of variations to do with the Pull. Different modifications can be useful for many different things, targeting different muscles, adding in advancements or just to keep training interesting.
One of the most obvious variations being horizontal and vertical pulling, although both work the muscles of the upper back there are some slight differences. Vertical pulling refers to any pull done in a vertical fashion, i.e Pull-ups or Lat Pull Downs. Moving in this plane of motion requires a lot more activation from the Latissimus Dorsi and smaller muscles around the shoulder blade. Horizontal pulling refers to pulling in a horizontal fashion, i.e. Bent Over Rows or Seated Rows. Pulling in this way requires more activation from the Traps and Rhomboids of the mid-back.
When working with beginners in our classes, we tend to start off with banded rows. The bands are great because they help to really focus on control and engagement around the shoulders. Pulling movements can be made easier or harder by simply moving closer or further from the anchor point of the band. This allows you to quickly change the difficulty depending on how you are finding the exercise. Another great benefit that Banded Pulls have over other variations is that the resistance will increase as the band gets pulled towards you. Unlike free weights, the more the band stretches the more resistance is created this means that towards the end of the movement you will have to create more tension through the whole body to avoid breakdowns in technique.
Changing the position we are pulling from is a great way to change and progress an exercise. For example, pulling from a seated position will be slightly different from pulling in a standing position. The more muscles we start to incorporate the more we have to build tension through our whole body.
Another great variation to the pull is unilateral exercise, this just means pulling with one arm rather than two. With this variation, it is important to ensure that each side of the body is functioning in the same way. For example, if you are doing a bent-over row, making sure that the engagement through the Lats is the same and there is no extra rotation from one side or the other.
This requires the core to engage properly and trains the body to function in an anti-rotational fashion. Unilateral pulls are a great way to train rotation as well though, which helps keep the core and the spine healthy. One example of this is a woodchopper, where you are pulling across the body and using the momentum of the pull to rotate the body, before controlling the momentum at the end of the movement.
All in all, there are tons of pull variations to choose from. Each one has its place in functional training and including a wide variety is a good idea. Always start with easier versions and lighter resistances before slowly progressing yourself once you feel comfortable.
Should You Be Pulling?
Heck yes! Not only does this movement occur regularly throughout our day but training this movement pattern will help to combat how forward facing our lives tend to be.
Do a good mix of horizontal, vertical and rotational pulling to keep yourself moving pain free!
If you want any more information on the Pull or some of our other functional movement patterns, be sure to check out our social media or even pop along to our classes!