Sometimes, trainers (myself included) can get caught up in the ‘machines-are-the-devil-functional-training-till-the-day-i-die’ idea. If one machine is bad, they’re all bad right? It’s true that almost every machine has an equal (or better) exercise that uses free weights or even just body weight. However, some machines get stuck in the devil category that deserve a little more credit.

One of these is the assisted pull-up machine.

I re-kindled my love for it one day by accident during my own training session. We only have one pullup bar in our facility, and sometimes when it gets busy and bro-tastic in here it can be troublesome to get in on it.

Just kidding boys.

I digress. Anyways, so one day when the pullup bar had a 3hour wait, I begrudgedly made my way over to the assisted pullup machine. Generally, I do   a few sets of unassisted chin ups (as opposed to pullups which tend to be slightly harder), but the way our machine is set up, you can only do pullups. So, off I went. I completed 3 sets of 8 assisted pullups focusing on perfect from and trying to be invisible.

What came next was a complete surprise. The next day my mid/lower traps were incredibly sore!

Upper, mid, and lower traps

For reasons such as poor posture or lack of posterior training, the mid and lower traps tend to be weak in the general population. They also tend to be hard to isolate, and many of the exercises meant to do so are butchered.

Pullups are an exercise that most people are familiar with, and I’m pretty sure every fitness expert considers it to be the most fundamental body weight exercise. So with a few simple coaching cues, the pullup machine can be a great exercise for beginners, someone looking to improve their posture, or someone trying to get stronger and build their way to unassisted pullups.

What to do:

1. If you’ve never used the machine before, you’ll have to play around with the weight to figure out the correct amount of difficulty. It should be challanging but doable, and every rep should be perfect  (and I mean perfect). The weight on the machine counterbalances your body weight, so the less weight you pin, the more difficult it will be. Be prepared to be humbled.  For example, I weigh about 135lbs, and I place the pin at 110lbs.

2. I break down the pull into two movements. The first one I call the ‘unshrug.’ Once you get into position, completely relax and let your shoulders rise to your ears as if you were shrugging. Then, take a breath and unshrug your shoulders without bending your elbows.

3. Making it as smooth as possible, start to bend your elbows and pull yourself all the way up.

4. Your range of motion in limited by the machine, but you should finish so that your face or neck is close to your hands. At the end of the ‘up’ really squeeze your back and pretend like you are trying to touch your elbows together behind you. Keep your head and spine in neutral alignment the whole time.

5. Slow and controlled lower yourself back down.  Complete 3 sets of 6-8 reps.

Here is the correct form

What not to do:

1. What I see a lot of people do on the pullup machine is bring their head forward and sort of curve over and look down as they come up. Don’t do that! Keep your head and neck aligned and look straight forward or slightly up the whole time.

2. When I tell people to squeeze their elbows together, sometimes they pop their chest out and let their ribs flair. This is a natural compensation but it defeats our purpose. You can prevent this by exhaling forcefully to keep your ribs down and back aligned. If you feel like you can’t perform the movement with proper alignment, get your ego out of the way and move your pin to more weight.

See the incorrect form here.

Conclusion

I made this discovery with a small slap on the hand to myself for being closed-minded in my own dogma. I now incorporate the machine in many of my clients programs, and do them myself as part of a warm up. They should never replace unassisted or band assisted pullups, (TRX rows are another good option) but again, they’re good for beginners, posture improvement, or clients/trainees that may be too heavy to do band assisted pullups.

So, I hope you found my anecdote and cues helpful. Give it a shot, and if you have any questions, come find me in the gym!

Until next time!

-L