Note: this is a question I received from a gentleman who wished to remain anonymous.
I am 57 years old. Although not in bad condition, but when I reached 50, I decided I needed to tone up as I saw my body start to deteriorate. One concern was my neck that has thinning discs / osteoarthritis at C5, C6, C7. I read that strength training was beneficial and have been doing P90X and P90X3 off and on for the last 5-6 years. After a couple rounds of P90X, I decided that I needed a real pullup bar instead of bands to get the real benefit. Initially most of my pull-ups / chin-ups were with chair assist, but now I can do 9 – 12 if I’m fresh — haven’t improved in last year+. I looked through quite a bit of your on-line information and am trying to implement.
One problem I’ve had a few times recently is neck pain that causes me to quit exercising for several days. I believe it is from the pull-ups but may be the push-ups or other weight training in the programs. (If you are familiar with P90X3 “The Challenge”, my record is 217 push ups and 62 real pull/chin ups, more with chair assist.) You seem to have a view that anyone can do pull-ups.
What special precautions do I need to avoid neck injury? I try not to strain, but once in the meat of the workout, I may. I try to just look straight instead of targeting up to the bar. How can I be sure that I’m using my back as much as possible without putting stress on my neck? Thank you for your thoughts.
This is a tricky situation because there is a pre-existing condition. But assuming you are healthy enough to exercise, here’s are a few things you can try (some of which, it sounds, like you’re already well-aware of):
1) Avoid straining through the exercise. This is likely one of the main culprits to your problem. So, every time you do pull-ups, pay attention to see if you’re gritting your teeth, flexing your neck, or grimacing at all. Also, if you notice any pressure in your head, figure out what’s causing it (e.g. power breathing, holding breath, jutting head forward, etc.). This should be your primary focus during your pull-up sets over the next few weeks.
You can even take a moment before each set to visualize yourself performing each pull-up repetition perfectly. Think about the muscles you’re trying to activate, and how you’ll be breathing (i.e. a swift, powerful exhale during the pulling phase) and also think about relaxing your head and neck. Then do it.
So, don’t do this:
All that cranial tension isn’t going to help you get over the bar any easier, anyway. So, do this instead…
2) Keep your neck in a neutral position throughout the entire duration of the exercise. Eyes forward is a good cue, but you also want to lengthen your cervical spine upwards by lifting with the crown of your head, which will create a little bit of space between your cervical vertebrae. Also, if you have a forward head posture (i.e. your head is actually deviated forward, and this is your “new normal”), then you might also need to draw it back slightly, but this should be done cautiously and only after you’ve spent some time working on the joint mobility exercises from the point below.
Note: if you do have a forward head posture, then this may be one of the causes of the problem. So, you’ll want to take steps to correct it with joint mobility training, posture-improving exercises, and just paying attention to your posture, among other things.
3) Do some joint mobility exercises for your neck and shoulders prior to each workout. This will warm them up, get them lubed (i.e. prepared and better protected), and make you stronger, among other things. IMO, if you’ve already got degenerative joint problems, then a complete joint mobility training plan is a must. So, this is something I’d definitely look into (there’s a great free program here). You can start by spending a minimum of 3-5 minutes just on your neck and shoulders prior to upper body training and see if that helps (it will).
Start with these beginner-level exercises:
Then move onto this routine by my colleague, John Belkewitch, that is specifically for the neck and shoulders:
4) Practice a few scap pull-ups prior to your pull-up sets. This will not only help you to learn and groove proper muscle activation of the lats and shoulders, but it will also give you an opportunity to practice the pull phase with a relaxed head and neutral neck.
Here’s a short tutorial on scap pull-ups:
5) Consider training your pull-ups and chin-ups to technical failure, rather than muscle failure (unless you’re absolutely sure you can maintain the first two tips above, and perhaps, even if you can). Those last couple of reps are usually where problems arise. And like you say, it’s usually when you’re “in the meat of the workout” that the tendency to strain begins. But you can dramatically lower the risk of those problems if you make a habit of training to technical failure, instead of muscle failure, which I explained here.
And if all of that doesn’t work, then eliminate pull-ups completely for a month or so and see if that fixes the problem. If so, and YOU and pull-ups just aren’t meant to be, then you can always substitute it with another exercise that doesn’t cause you pain (e.g. bodyweight rows, bent-over dumbbell rows, etc.) until you can perform pull-ups without creating any problems for yourself.
About The Author
John Sifferman is a health-first fitness coach who has been teaching, coaching, and training people in various capacities since 2006. John is the author of The Pull-up Solution, the complete pull-up and chin-up training system that helps people rapidly increase their pull-up numbers in three months or less.
You can get a free copy of John’s 3-month pull-up training program and download more of his premium pull-up training resource as part of his free 5-day Pull-up Training Crash Course.
You can also learn more about John’s professional background and experience on the About Page.