The pulldown is a fairly safe exercise to perform. In fact, it's frequently a safe haven for trainees who have shoulder and lower-back injuries, and few ever have to eliminate it from their workouts. The pullup, or chinup, as it's also called, requires a little more care.
I've talked before about the issue of relaxing the shoulder on such movements. It's important to realize that the "extra stretch" recommended in some training articles is usually misinterpreted-and overestimated, It's easy to achieve a full range of motion-for example, the top of a pulldown, where your arms and shoulders are at full stretch-and that's as much stretch as is anatomically safe, In order to get that "extra stretch," you have to relax some of the muscles around your shoulder.
This causes whatever weight you have on the machine to suddenly create a pulling force on your shoulders that can over stretch certain ligaments, muscles and tendons. By definition this is an injury, The remedy is simple: Don't relax your shoulders while performing pulldowns (or rows or shrugs). It's not worth the risk, and you'll gain nothing for your pain but time off from training to heal. This brings me to the pullup movement and an unfortunate trend I've noticed recently in the training magazines: the attention given to champions of yesterday and a recirculation of their training ideas. Now, an article of interest is one thing, but some of those champs had some truly erroneous training concepts.
Take, for example, negative training. In the February '94 installment of this column I presented information about the negative aspects of this technique, and many of you were surprised to learn that the muscle damage from one set of negative curls could be detected by magnetic resonance imaging for 80 days. By the same token, I'm anticipating the revival of pullup controversy that place in the late 1970s, and I want to head off now, before it causes more injuries.
Back then a well-known Southern California gym owner was pushing his favorite pullup technique in the magazines, advising trainees to pull their scapulae, or shoulder blades, apart while performing chins. Shortly thereafter a regular contributor to one of the magazines wrote a counterpoint article saying, 'No, no, no, no, no. You must squeeze your shoulder blades together on pullups." Needless to say, a large number and variety of injuries occurred, As a general rule you should not use exaggerated movements or arm and hand positions in your training.
Such variations can place a great deal of stress on muscles and tendons. The pullup variations produced strains of the rhomboid muscles, which are located between the spine and shoulder blade; the middle and lower trapezius, which are between the spine and the shoulder blade and are also lower on the spine; the teres major, or upper lat; and the latissimus dorsi itself. These injuries are usually quite painful. The remedy for this is simple as well: Don't use exaggerated movements on pullups-no matter what you read.
Part of the brain, the cerebelluni, coordinates your movements without your having to think about it. If you had to consciously order the various muscles to contract, relax and stabilize every time you moved, you wouldn't be able to think about anything else; so the cerebellum does it for you. It also coordinates the execution of a pullup movement better than you can do consciously, so don't interfere with the pattern. Let your body do its thing and perform the movement naturally-which is the overwhelmingly correct way. That goes for pulldowns too.
The only circumstance under which you should modify one of these movements is if a qualified medical professional an orthopedist, chiropractor, sports medicine specialist or physical therapist-has a valid reason for advising you to do so.
The hand position on pullups has been the subject of much interesting conversation. Again, despite what you might read elsewhere, an excessively wide grip usually leads to more problems than gains. The most common problem is wrist pain. A very wide grip places the wrists in a position known as radial deviation, leaving the ligaments in the outer portion of the wrist-in a standard overhand grip-very vulnerable. The stretch will also recruit the outer forearm muscles, subjecting them to strain from poor mechanical position and from overstretch.
Another delicate area at risk when you perform excessively wide pullups is where the nerves from your neck exit the spine and form a bundle known as the brachial plexus, which branches off and supplies the entire upper extremity with muscle function and feeling. Some trainees may notice pain, tingling and for numbness in their arms after they perform very wide pullups. This may very well be due to a mild overstretching of the brachia] plexus. If you experience any of those symptoms, see a physician and show him or her how you position yourself for pullups.
The doctor may order tests to evaluate possible nerve damage. Still another bodypart that's put to mechanical disadvantage when you use an excessive hand spacing on this movement is the shoulder joint. Other forms of pullups are fine, and there are some differences in the results you get with them. For example, the underhand grip certainly recruits the biceps more than the overhand variety does. Still, the majority of talk on the subject is just that-talk. Although some MRI and electronicograph studies have been performed, the jury is still out on whether there's much to be gained by performing more than one style of pullups.
In any event, it's a good exercise to include in your training. If, however, you haven't done it for a while, Z stick to pulldowns-at least until you've built up enough strength to move on to chins. Remember, the weight you'll be pulling up is your bodyweight. If your teres major muscles, rhomboids and lats aren't prepared to pull up a 200-pound person, then start with pulldowns with 150 pounds and give yourself a chance to adapt without straining.
If you're using wrist straps, make sure that you keep them above the two bony prominences on your wrist, as you don't want to over- stretch the wrist ligaments and create an injury you didn't have before. Train hard and smart. Others have already suffered the pain of these injuries.