Fix Your Pullup Form With the Trap Bar
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
Want to know one of the most effective ways to clean up your pullup technique? Use the trap bar. Yep, that’s right, most people use the trap bar for lower body exercises and occasional upper body lifts like rows and presses. However it’s also incredibly effective when applied to pullups as demonstrated by my awesome client Matt Jordan.
There are 5 specific reasons why using the trap bar is so effective for pullups.
1. Reinforces Optimal T-Spine Extension
By focusing on touching the top of your head to the back portion of the bar (as shown in the video) it provides the perfect feedback mechanism for cueing the lifter if he or she produced optimal t-spine extension. If your body fits through the trap bar at the top of the pullup then you’re lacking t-spine extension.
One of the most common mistakes on pullups is not getting enough thoracic extension and trying to stay too upright. Many fitness professionals have mindlessly bought into the faulty notion that any degree of extension is dangerous to the spine. This has led to the faulty recommendation of very dangerous cues such as “don’t let your ribcage protrude”, “keep your spine flat”, “drop your chest” etc. Well I’ve got news for you. A proper pullup requires significant t-spine extension plain and simple.
If you don’t achieve optimal t-spine extension by leaning back from the upper portion of the torso and sticking your chest out with military-style posture then not only will you miss out on targeting your lats, but you’ll destroy your shoulder joints and elbows in the process. So stop trying to stay excessively upright and quit worrying about over-extending your back on pullups. It rarely happens and even if you do happen to go too far it’s infinitely better than being too flexed at the spine with an overly flat and kyphotic back.
In fact an overly flat or kyphotic spine is exactly the same alignment we see in elderly individuals who lose the structural integrity of the vertebral column. So if an aging spine and postural degradation are your thing then by all means keep that flat back on pullups and rows. However if the goal is optimal body mechanics, a muscular upper back, and a healthy functional spine then stick that chest out and extend your t-spine.
2. Reinforces optimal range of motion
Another very common mistake on pullups is using excessive range of motion during the concentric phase and over-pulling at the top. This is something I’ve written several articles about as it’s incredibly important not just for maximizing back activation but for joint health and upper body mechanics (Read More Here) Fortunately the natural stopping point for pullups happens to be at nearly the exact spot where the head touches the bar on trap bar pullups. If you feel like you need to go higher at the top, more than likely you’ve been using faulty mechanics with excessive ROM that involved internal rotation, shoulder protraction, and scapular elevation, all of which are destructive to the body. However, if you can’t touch the bar, chances are you need a bit more back strength.
3. Eliminates Momentum
Having the bar touch the head also provides another invaluable lifting cue. Simply put, it forces the lifter to slow the movement down and eliminate excessive momentum on the concentric phase. Jerking your body up to the top rather than relying on smooth and strict mechanics will literally cause you to pop your head on the bar and potentially knock yourself out. I’ve used this with many of my NFL athletes and it does wonders for reinforcing smooth pullup mechanics. As an added bonus it’s also fantastic for keeping constant tension on the lats and taking stress off the joints.
4. Eliminates Cheating
Besides using excessive momentum on pullups, many lifters like to cheat their way through the movement by kipping, shifting, wiggling, swinging, and pulling with asymmetrical form. By placing the trap bar on top of two safety pins in a squat rack, it keeps the bar fairly unstable. Too much cheating and shifting will produce immediate feedback as it will literally cause the trap bar to slide, twist, or rotate on the pins.
5. Provides A Unique But Effective Grip Position
Performing pullups on the trap bar provides a unique but highly effective grip position and hand placement for stimulating functional hypertrophy in the upper back. Simply put, you’ll be using a combination wide, neutral grip which is something most gyms don’t have access to. This happens to be a very shoulder friendly variation of pullups as it allows the use of the wide grip (which targets the upper lats) while still reinforcing the optimal elbow tuck position which is critical for healthy shoulder joints and posture.
Like any pullup, these can be progressed and weighted. I typically recommend several sets of 4-6 reps using smooth and controlled tempos.