MVMT Physical Therapy

Pulling Your Weight – Basic Movement Patterns

Last week, we discussed the basic movement patterns and why they should be a part of your movement/exercise routine. We then dove into the Push and how you could start building the fundamentals for a strong push. This week, we will be looking at the opposite movement of the push, the Pull. Together, these two movements make up the primary exercise patterns of the upper body.

Why is pulling important?

Pulling is another movement that you will find yourself using every day. Anytime you pick an object up, there is some form of pull involved. Pulling open a door, pulling up a bag from the table, or pulling a cord to open a window shade all involve the coordinated effort of many muscles crossing multiple joints.

Breaking Down the Pull

A pull involves most of the same joint movements of the arm that are associated with the push, but in reverse. The shoulder blade moves in closer to the mid-line of the back in a movement called “retraction”, the upper arm moves close to the body into “extension”, and the elbow bends in “flexion”. Like the push, these joint actions occur simultaneously without conscious thought.

Pulls can be directly out in front of you as a horizontal pull (a row), above your head as a vertical pull (pull-ups/chin-ups), or from the side, often a combination with vertical pulls (diagonal chop). Today, we are going to look look at both horizontal and vertical pulls.

Dysfunctional Pull Consequences

A dysfunctional pull is often associated with shoulder, neck, and/or back pain. If the primary muscle movers for a movement are weak or under-active, other muscles will substitute to help. In addition to pain, continued use of dysfunctional movement patterns can lead to injury and disability over time.

Let’s look at a simple, single-arm pull as an example. In this movement, the arms comes towards the trunk and the shoulder blade moves closer to the spine. If the middle traps are weak and not doing their job of pulling the shoulder blade back, then the upper traps will help out instead. Sounds fine, right? No: the upper traps are not meant to retract the shoulder blade directly back. They will instead pull it back and up towards the neck. This movement can put undue stress on the shoulder and neck, leading to pain and a “shoulder hike”.

Training the pull strengthens muscles of the arm, shoulder and back, leading to improved functional ability and decreased likelihood of pain and injury.

Starting Pull Exercises

1-Arm Row

The 1-arm row is a unilateral movement that requires strong trunk stability while the arm moves. This exercise can be done easily with a cable machine or a band at home.

Begin with your knees slightly bent and weight centered through the middle of the foot in an athletic stance, as pictured above. Keep the trunk neutral (no bending forward or arching back) with the abdominals engaged and eyes looking forward. Pull the elbow back against the resistance while pulling the shoulder blade down and back towards your back pocket. Keep the trunk from rotating as you pull, pause for a second, and then slowly lengthen the arm forward with control. Depending on your goals, this exercise can be used in an endurance program (3 sets of 12-15 reps with a moderate resistance), strength program ( 5 sets of 5 reps with a heavy resistance), or anything in between.

Movement focus: Shoulder and arm strength with trunk stability
Muscle contraction: Concentric-to-eccentric
Major muscles: Trunk stabilizers, upper/middle/lower traps, rhomboids, posterior deltoid, latissimus dorsi, biceps, brachioradialis

Active Hang with Scapular Retraction (aka, Dead Hang)

The active hang with scapular retraction is the initiation required for a successful pull-up. It will help develop the grip and scapular strength that is required for vertical pulls.

Begin in the hanging position, as shown above, and pull your shoulders down and back. Hold this position for as many seconds as you can (a beginner may start at just a 3-5 seconds). Slowly relax the shoulder blades to return to the starting position. Only hold as long as you are able to maintain a neutral alignment. Repeat this exercise for 3 sets of 3-5 reps, as you are able.

Movement focus: Shoulder/back strength stability in retracted position
Muscle contraction: concentric to prolonged isometric (static hold)
Major muscles: Trunk stabilizers, cervical stabilizers, middle/lower traps, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, teres major, finger flexors (grip)

Band-Assisted Pull-up

The pull-up is another classic exercise (like the pushup) which brings together trunk stability and upper body strength into a complete exercise. Keep this exercise scaled to your ability by use of heavy-weight bands. You can gradually decrease the amount of assistance given by using lighter resistance bands.

Begin by affixing the resistance band to the pull-up bar. While in the hanging position, loop the free end of the band under your knees to provide the assistance. This is the same position as the active hang. Keep the shoulders down and back as you pull your chest up towards the bar. Stop when your chin is above the bar and your elbows are close to your ribs. Hold for a second and then slowly lower down back to the active hang position. This exercise can be performed as a 3×5 or a 3×10 set/rep scheme based upon your goals. If at any point you cannot maintain your form, end the set.

Focus: Trunk and shoulder strength/stability in a full-range pull
Muscle contraction: Concentric-to-Eccentric
Major muscles: trunk stabilizers, cervical stabilizers, middle/lower traps, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, teres major, biceps, brachioradialis, finger flexors (grip)

Time to Pull

Using pushes and pulls will create strength and balance between the front and back of the upper body, and pairing them creates effective exercise routines. Next week we’ll be looking at the lower body dominant movement of the “hinge”.

Questions about an injury or want to move better? Simply call us at (646) 430-5717, or email us at We’re here to answer your questions and help you return to your active life!

Alex Siegrist, SPT


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