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Marine fitness experts: with the right training, anyone can do pullups

With right training, anyone can do pullups ... and avoid injuries

Feb. 9, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Pull-Up Improvement MWM 20140206
Cpl. Kyra Dotson works on techniques to improve her ability to do pullups during a Semper Fit clinic at Quantico. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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Athletic trainers at the Crossroads of the Marine Corps say anyone — at any age — should be able to do pullups, so they've launched clinics to help devil dogs improve their technique.

Athletic trainers at the Crossroads of the Marine Corps say anyone — at any age — should be able to do pullups, so they've launched clinics to help devil dogs improve their technique.

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Athletic trainers at the Crossroads of the Marine Corps say anyone — at any age — should be able to do pullups, so they’ve launched clinics to help devil dogs improve their technique.

Whether someone is struggling to do just one pullup, or can jump up to the bar and rip off 20, proper technique is crucial, according to Semper Fit trainers aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. It not only helps Marines improve their pullup scores on the Physical Fitness Test, it also helps them avoid the kinds of debilitating injuries that could come back to haunt them later in their careers.

In a Jan. 14 Marine administrative message, Corps leaders announced a delay in the switch from the flexed-arm hang to dead-hang pullups for female Marines. Phase 1 of the change-over will be extended through the end of June, which means that, for now, women may continue to perform the flexed-arm hang in their PFTs. But women should assume that they will have to complete three pullups in order to pass their PFT — or eight to achieve a perfect score — when the next PFT season begins in January. The move to end the era of the flexed-arm hang initially was set to kick in on Jan. 1, but safety concerns persuaded Corps officials to delay the start date while they gathered more data.

With the official notice that Marines should continue to prepare for pullups as the new norm, trainers at Quantico thought it would be a good time to offer Marines a clinic to help them get ready.

Some observers have speculated that older female Marines were having difficulty reaching the new requirement. But Veronica Nelson, Semper Fit’s director of physical fitness and health promotion at Quantico, said that, barring a serious injury, anyone should be able to do them with the right training.

“I will be 50 years old in four months. ... I’ve been through shoulder injuries, and I can still do a pullup,” she said. “There’s really no reason anybody can’t do them — at any age.”

Pullups are a new requirement for women, and as is the case when learning any new skill, it’s important to start with the basics, Nelson said.

“It’s a foreign movement to someone who has never done it,” she said. “If you’ve never done deadlift, it might look easy to pick a bar up off the floor, hold it around waist level and put it back down. But the technique needed to execute it right is something you have to learn.”

Brian Hancock, lead trainer at Quantico, said the clinics focus heavily on injury prevention, something too often overlooked when pursuing fitness goals.

“One thing a lot of trainers pride themselves on is being able to teach how to actually do something efficiently, properly, no matter how small the movement is,” Hancock said. “We’re tired of seeing ... injured, broken Marines 20 years in.”

They focus on proper technique and progressions. Improper techniques when doing pullups — especially when trying to complete that first one — can quickly lead to bad habits that can cause injury over time, Hancock said. Common injuries include torn rotator cuffs or labrums.

To prevent that, Hancock said, trainers first address muscle imbalance. Marines are only as strong as their weakest muscles. Once they know where those weak spots are, they can work to strengthen those areas so they’re not misusing other muscles to compensate.

When helping Marines improve their pullup scores, trainers typically focus on two areas that will help them avoid injuring themselves, he said. The first is to make sure their stabilizer muscles are strong, so they teach exercises for internal and external rotators. Then they focus on scapula retraction, which Hancock said is one of the most important elements of a proper pullup.

“That’s setting that shoulder girdle in place so they can have a more effective pull,” he said. “If you don’t engage your scapula, you’re then pulling with all your stabilizers instead of your big primary movers.”

They also use fitness equipment to mimic the movements the Marine will use during pullups, he said. From there, they advance to progressions. They’ll start by having trainees jump up to the pullup bar and slowly lowering themselves, building strength. Trainers will also have Marines use bands to help them lower themselves more slowly and to assist them as they pull back up.

Some of the most basic tweaks of technique — something as small as hand placement on the bar or as important as proper scapula retraction — can make all the difference for Marines looking to improve their pullup scores, Nelson said. Begin by learning proper technique, then just keep going — be consistent in your effort, she added.

That’s the goal of the 50 or so Marines who come to Quantico’s High Intensity Tactical Training Center on the first Tuesday of every month for the clinic. More classes will be added to the schedule if Marines’ interest grows as the pullup requirement nears, Hancock said. But since Semper Fit Trainers can reach only so many Marines, the hope is that Marines who go to the clinics bring their knowledge back to their units.

“If we can can teach them how to execute [pullups] properly and then they teach that forward, that’s priceless,” Nelson said.

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