Rotate Your Rows (or Chin-Ups, or Presses, etc.)

After writing a piece about how to Load Up Your Chin-Up earlier this week, I received a great comment  from one of my regular readers.  He expresses a problem, a solution, and a question.  Thanks for the feedback, John; Let’s see what if I can hit all of this:

I get major wrist pain when I do chinups/pullups. Neutral grip isnt bad but my gym doesnt have neutral handles. So using your prior videos, I simply use TRX handles which allows my wrists to naturally rotate. Wrist problem solved…….But, I find that hanging and pulling from handles is more difficult to do than pulling from a straight bar. So the question becomes, is this normal and is that another way to add to the difficulty?

That’s a damn good comment is it?  We’ve got a lot of information to work with here.  Before anything else, let me say that I don’t think you should train through pain.  Muscular discomfort is a part of exercise, but joint pain?  Be wary.  Training around pain is a different story however.  If you can perform exercises that don’t contribute to pain, and can help you feel better; well that’s something you’d want to do, right?

I feel professionally obligated to suggest that the first thing you should do is check with a doctor.  He’ll probably figure out what activity you’re overdoing that can contribute to our cause pain.  (Hint: Benching)  When it comes to training, there are a few modifications you can make to your exercises that will allow a more natural motion and transfer of force through the hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder.  One of my favorite modifications is what John hinted at in his comment:

Rotate.

Specifically, turning from a pronated wrist position to a supinated wrist position as your hands approach your chest.  Superwhat?!  When your arms are straight, you should see the back of your hand, but when your hands are against or near your chest, you should be able to see your palm.  As I told my elementary school students while they learned how to row with resistance bands: “Thumbs together, pinkies to chest.”  That cue definitely clicked with them.  When our hands are planted in a fixed position, we place a lot of torque on the wrist, elbow, and shoulder.  This can lead to pain and a variety of overuse injuries, so it’s not a great idea.  Rotating at the wrist while your body pushes or pulls allows you to take advantage of the natural fascial slings that run through your arms; it’s working with your body instead of against it.

These are the four arm lines that Thomas Meyers explains in his Anatomy Trains book; You can click this link download a PDF Anatomy Trains Overview. If you can take a look at the rest of the lines, you’ll realize just how connected the fingers and toes are.  Anyway, how does this apply to your training?  Well, when it comes to upper body exercises, every program should have at least four different movements:

  • Vertical Pulling
  • Vertical Pushing
  • Horizontal Pulling
  • Horizontal Pushing

The four staples that immediately come to mind are the pull-up, military press, inverted row, and push-up.  That is not a decisive list, and there are infinite varieties of these 4, so let’s not get into specifics on what could be the best.  Instead, let’s talk about what happens if you have wrist pain from any of these movements.  Typically, these exercises are done with a straight bar and/or fixed hand position. Like I stated before, torque.  It will definitely take it’s toll on your joints.  Let’s hear from a guy that knows a little something about beating up joints:  Chad Waterbury did 13,064 Pull-Ups in 5 Months:

Before I started I was well aware of the potential trauma this pull-up blitzkrieg could unleash upon my elbows. Most guys stop doing high frequency pull-ups because of an elbow injury. Sometimes the problem surfaces in the shoulder. In either case, the culprit is the same.

When you pull in the vertical plane your wrists naturally want to rotate. How much they rotate depends on your skeletal structure and soft tissue mobility. Regardless, your wrists never want to be locked in place for this exercise.

This is simple to verify. Work up to a three-rep pull-up maximum from rings and watch what your wrists do from the full hang as you train max strength – they’ll never stay fully pronated on their own.

If the wrists can’t naturally rotate, the stress goes straight to the elbow, leading to pain and inflammation. Then the shoulder will join the pain party. If you observe shoulder movement when a guy does a pull-up from a fixed bar it looks the same as when he does it from rings.

However, there are small biomechanical changes when the wrists can’t rotate. You might not be able to see a difference, but you’ll eventually feel it when an underlying dysfunction rears its ugly head as shoulder pain.

Of course, many guys do pull-ups from a fixed bar every day, or every other day, and don’t have any problems. Most often it’s because their frequency is low enough to avoid it. With high frequency training, however, you’ve got to get everything right from the start. For pull-ups, this means allowing natural wrist rotation.

Now, if for some unforeseen reason you absolutely can’t get access to rings or TRX straps, the next best option is to do the high frequency pull-ups with a neutral, fat grip. The hammer grip is easiest on the elbows and fattening the grip takes more stress off them. However, you’ll still likely run into problems, even with a fat, neutral grip, if you do enough of them.

The absolute worst culprit is the chin-up from a fixed bar. Just hang from a bar with your palms supinated and you’ll immediately feel tension in your elbows. I’ve recommended the fixed bar chin-up for years, but things change. It’s completely out of all my current training programs because it locks the wrists in the most stressful position to the elbows.

Your body is just as valuable as any million-dollar athlete’s. I won’t let any athlete do pull-ups from a fixed bar, and I wouldn’t advise you to do it, either. The risk is not worth the potential reward. Use rings for pull-ups.

Here’s an example of yours truly using the TRX to allow for wrist rotation while doing chin-ups:

If you don’t have access to a TRX, rings, or rotating handles at your gym, you’re not out of luck though.  Chad emphasized using the neutral grip position, and also recommended using over-sized handles.  Yes, your grip becomes an issue, but it’s a more joint friendly movement.  If you don’t have Fat Gripz, you can always try to hit your local playground for some over-sized handles:

While Chad’s article, and my question from John, are about chin-ups and pain, I think it’s safe to apply the same ideas to other pulling and pressing exercises.  When in doubt, or pain, a neutral grip position should be your go-to for minimizing pain.  Fat Gripz help, too.  Here’s an example of a push-up that I recorded earlier today that includes both:

I’m a huge fan of allowing the wrists to rotate during rows, and I spent some time during my lunch break at school to take this video of TRX inverted rows.  It took me about 5 attempts to figure out how to angle my computer, and it’s perched on a ledge about 10 feet off the ground:

Before I wrap things up, I want to touch on John’s actual question: “Is this normal and is that another way to add to the difficulty?”  I wouldn’t say that pain from chinning/pulling is normal as much as it is common.  Please note the difference.  As for difficulty, it is certainly more difficult.  When our hands are locked into position, we can pass some of those torque forces from active restraints (muscles and tendons) through passive restraints (labrums, menisci, ligaments, and bone).  (Eric Cressey will knowledge bomb you HERE.)  If you don’t have pain yet, you can probably get away with supinated or pronated grip pulling.  If you do, or you’d like to stay safe, stick with neutral grip positions or use rings or another suspension system to rotate your wrists through a natural and comfortable range of motion.  That should help keep your joints healthy so you can stay stronger for longer.

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5 thoughts on “Rotate Your Rows (or Chin-Ups, or Presses, etc.)

  1. i’m a sucker for neutral grip. (weirdest comment ever?)
    this is a great post and i am totally geeked out excited to read the ‘anatomy trains’ overview.

    1. Nah, Neutral grip is where it’s at; I understand the depth of that statement. Thomas Meyers was mind boggling the first time I saw him speak…and he was mind boggling the second time I saw him speak. He opens a whole other world with that stuff; Dig in to it!

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