Pull-ups are performed for strengthening your back and arm muscles. However, over-training or muscle-strength imbalances can result in the impingement of nerves and blood vessels, causing tingling and numbness. Treatment includes rest, stretches and surgery for severe cases. Consult your physician if symptoms worsen or persist.
Pull-ups start in a hanging position off a bar. Your hands should be gripping the bar with your palms facing away from you. If your palms are facing you, it is called a chin-up not a pull-up. To pull yourself up, contract your arm and back muscles like your latissimus dorsi, bending your elbows and extending your shoulder until your chin is above the bar. Pull-ups use the resistance of your body weight to strengthen your arm and upper-back muscles.
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome
Thoracic outlet syndrome occurs when the nerves and blood vessels including the subclavian artery between your collarbone and first rib become compressed or impinged. Tight muscles like a tight trapezius muscle or repetitive movements from pull-ups may cause or aggravate thoracic outlet syndrome. When nerves or blood vessels are compressed, you may experience pain, muscle weakness and numbness or tingling, which can radiate from your neck all the way to your little finger. Risk factors include poor posture, muscle strength imbalances and tight muscles.
Ulnar Nerve Entrapment
The ulnar nerve originates from under the collarbone and extends down to your hand. Although the ulnar nerve may become compressed anywhere in your arm, it is commonly hit or compressed at your elbow in the area called the “funny bone,” according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Repetitive elbow flexion and gripping of the bar, for example, can inflame and compress your ulnar nerve at your elbow or hand, respectively. Symptoms include aching at your elbow and numbness and tingling down your arm and into your ring and little fingers.
Tight muscles can pinch the nerves and blood vessels that run through them, causing a temporary tingling sensation. Other conditions that may cause tingling in your shoulder, arm or hand include shoulder impingement syndrome, carpal tunnel syndrome and a herniated cervical disc. Shoulder impingement syndrome occurs when tendons and other structures are compressed below your collarbone -- called the subacromial space. The condition is aggravated with overhead movements like pull-ups. Carpal tunnel syndrome is compression of the median nerve in your wrist, which may be caused or aggravated by gripping the bar during pull-ups.
Treatment and Prevention
Rest and avoid painful movements or positions. Take anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen to reduce inflammation around nerves, muscles or joints. Your physician may recommend immobilization with a splint or sling, and physical therapy or surgery, depending on the type of injury and severity of your symptoms. To prevent additional tingling or injury and correct muscle-strength imbalances, stretch regularly, progress slowly with upper-body strength exercises and avoid slouching and poor posture.
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons; Ulnar Nerve Entrapment; October 2007
- “Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America"; Shoulder Impingement Syndrome; Wing K. Chang; 2004
- “International Journal of General Medicine"; Optimal Management of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome; Shimpei Ono et al.; 2010
- “Hand Clinic Journal;” Conservative Treatment for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome; Carla A. Crosby et al.
- “Strength Training Anatomy;” Frederic Delavier; 2006