How to do Resistance Band Pull-Aparts the RIGHT Way

By Matt Walter
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Band Pull-Aparts Featured Image

Looking to improve shoulder health, posture, and upper body strength? Increase your bench or deal with shoulder pain? Give the resistance band pull-apart a try! This simple exercise is easy to perform and provides a ton of benefits.

If you’ve been doing these, I’ll make a case for switching up your form. If these are new to you, follow the details below and include them in your daily plans. We will discuss how to do them, common errors, benefits, and who should be doing them. Plus, we’ve included videos and pictures so you can see proper form in action.

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Table of Contents

Video: Band Pull-Aparts Tutorial

How to Perform Band Pull-Aparts – New and Improved Method

Band pull-aparts are not overly complex, but there are a few points of performance to pay attention to make sure you get the best results and maintain the safety of your rotator cuff muscles.

Step 1: Grab a resistance band with an underhand grip (supinated grip) a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Raise your arms out in front of you, keeping your elbows in toward the midline of your body. Now screw your hands outward, further activating your external rotators.

Coach’s Tip: The supinated grip places your shoulder in external rotation. These muscles get much less direct work than our internal rotators, which are used heavily in pressing and rowing movement. This position is also safer on your shoulder joints.

Step 2: Protract your shoulders and raise your arms overhead. Your arms should make a roughly 45-degree angle with your body. About halfway between straight out in front of you and directly overhead. Maintain a small amount of tension in the band.

By pulling from overhead you will work upward and downward rotation of your shoulder blades, along with protraction and retraction.

Step 3: Pull the band apart using the muscles of your upper back and shoulders. As you pull the band apart with your hands, bring your arms down and back into scapular retraction.

Band Pull-Aparts Supinated Finish

Coach’s Tip: This is a pull-apart, not a row. Don’t think about pulling the band to your chest, think more about pulling your hands away from each other.

Step 4: Pause for a second in the fully contracted position, and then slowly return your arms overhead. Maintain tension in the band throughout.

Band Pull-Aparts Supinated Finish From Back

Coach’s Tip: Don’t keep your shoulder blades pinched together during the movement. Let them move naturally.

How to Perform Traditional Band Pull-Aparts

Band Pull-Aparts Traditional Finish

Step 1: Grab a resistance band with an overhand grip (pronated grip) a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Raise your arms out in front of you, to roughly shoulder height, keeping your arms straight and wrists neutral.

Coach’s Tip: Don’t let your hands flex or extend from neutral. They should be in a straight line with your forearms. Bending your wrists tends to lead to bent elbows, which decreases the effectiveness of the exercise.

Step 2: Tighten your core, keep your shoulders down, and your chest up.

Coach’s Tip: Do not arch your back. Keep your hips loaded beneath your shoulders.

Step 3: Pull the band apart using the muscles of your upper back and shoulders. Focus on pulling with our rear deltoids and shoulder blades. As your hands spread apart, bring the band straight back toward your chest.

Step 4: Pause for a second in the fully contracted position, and then slowly return your arms to your midline, straight out in front of you. Maintain tension in the band throughout.

Coach’s Tip: Avoid shrugging your upper traps. Do your best to keep your shoulders down throughout the movement.

Why Choose the Supinated Band Pull-Apart

The traditional resistance band pull-apart is performed in a position of shoulder internal rotation. While a great exercise, most pressing and rowing movements are already done with the shoulder in internal rotation. We spend a lot of time strengthening the muscles responsible for that position. We need an exercise dedicated to strengthening our external rotators, correcting and avoiding imbalances.

By supinating the forearms (palms up) we externally rotate the shoulders. In this position, you can emphasize the rotator cuff muscles better than when you perform this exercise in pronation (palms down).

Strengthening your external rotators also opens up the glenohumeral joint (your shoulder socket). This provides space along with strength and can be really helpful if you notice shoulder impingement when pressing.

Glenohumeral Joint

We can even take this one step further. The band pull-apart is typically done by pulling in a horizontal one from straight in front of you and into your chest (as described above). This is great for working scapular retraction and protraction but ignores the other motion of your shoulder blades, upward and downward rotation.

The fibers of the traps allow for different functions that include upward rotation and depression of the scapula as well as protraction and retraction of the shoulder blades. By starting with the arms in an overhead position instead of straight in front we take advantage of the anatomy and function of the muscles we’re targeting.

By starting high above your head, and pulling to your low chest, you add upward and downward rotation. This further strengthens both scapular mobility and stability.

Three Ways to do Band Pull-Aparts

Use any combination of the following three…to get the most out of your band pull-aparts.

Targeted Tension

This is my favorite way to do pull-aparts when I’m doing them in between warm-up sets of my main compound movement for the day. Establish tension on the band and move through the entire range of motion until you find areas that are sore or feel weak.

Once you find those spots, perform very small ranges of motion focusing on and around that area.

Don’t count reps or set a time goal, just spend time keeping your focused spot under tension until the soreness/weakness decreases.

Isometric Holds

I usually do isometric holds on my days off. Perform pull-aparts as you normally would, but choose a point during the movement and hold for a count of 6-10 seconds.

Sometimes I hold at peak contraction with the band just off my chest, other times I’ll choose a spot during the eccentric and hold for a specified time. Again, isometric holds aren’t something that most of us train often. These holds are a great way to improve muscle control and stability.

Tempo Reps

Perform your reps as usual, but with a slower tempo. Keep the concentric portion to about 1 second. Not explosive, but not slow. But slow the eccentric for a specified tempo. Anywhere between 3 and 6 seconds works really well.

This is great for hypertrophy, so I’ll usually do these at the end of a shoulder workout, or in place of other dedicated rear delt work on shoulder training days.

Common Errors With Band Pull-Aparts

Band pull-aparts should definitely be part of your routine, and they’re easy to master. But, like all exercises, there are some common errors that can decrease the movement’s effectiveness. Pay attention to these.

Shrugging Your Shoulders

Our upper traps have a tendency to want to take over when we do pulling movements. It’s almost a protective action. By shrugging our shoulders we feel tight, strong, and safe. And our bodies will always try and find the easiest way to do an activity. For pull-aparts, there’s a tendency to want to default to your stronger upper traps. This defeats the purpose.

Correction: Relax your traps and pull your shoulders down before you start. Use a mirror if this is a new exercise and make sure that every rep is performed with your traps relaxed. And pull in a slightly downward motion, focusing on engaging your middle and lower traps.

Bending Your Arms

If you are performing a traditional pull-apart, with your hands pronated, do not bend your elbows. Bending your arms will engage more of your triceps and less of your rear delts. It’s almost like cheating. Try a set with your elbows bent, and then a set with your arms straight. You’ll see how much easier it is with them bent. Don’t cheat.

Correction: Raise your arms in front of you and straighten them, locking your elbows. When you initiate the movement, think about pulling your hands away from each other, as if you are trying to rip the band in half. Thinking of your hands moving away from each other will help keep your elbows straight. And squeeze your hands tight. This will also help lock your elbows in place.

Bending Your Wrists

Similar to bending your elbows, do not bend your wrists. Bending your wrists puts unnecessary stress on them and takes away from the tension you’re trying to create in your rear delts.

Correction: Again, keeping your hands pronated (palms facing each other), raise them in front of you with your arms straight and locked at the elbow. When you initiate the movement, keep your wrists straight as well. They should form a straight line with your forearms. You should feel a stretch in your forearm muscles. And once again, squeeze your hands tight throughout the entire movement.

Don’t Arch Your Back

Arching or leaning back excessively shortens the range of motion for the exercise, and releases your core. This also makes it more difficult to engage the upper back muscles.

Correction: Pull your hips directly under your shoulders and engage your core by pulling your belly button to your spine. Stand tall and pull the band directly toward your chest. If you notice yourself starting to lean backward during the set, stop and rest.

If you are always feeling the need to lean backward, the band you are using may be too heavy. You can choose a lighter band if you have one, widen your grip, or hold onto one section of the band instead of bunching it up.

Rounding Your Shoulders

Band pull-aparts can actually help prevent and correct rounded shoulders! As long as you’re not rounding your shoulders when you do them. Then you’re just strengthening bad habits and posture. Avoid rolling your shoulders forward or hunching your back.

Correction: Keep your spine neutral, head up, and your shoulders down and back. Stand sideways to a mirror while you do this exercise to make sure you’re not rounding.

Muscles Worked by Band Pull-Aparts

Resistance band pull-aparts primarily target the shoulder and upper back muscles. These muscles include the rear deltoids, rhomboid, upper and lower trapezius, and the rotator cuffs (teres minor, subscapularis, supraspinatus, and infraspinatus).

Additionally, the movement trains scapular retraction (bringing the shoulder blades together) and scapular rotation (if you choose the overhead version).

Rotator cuff

Rotator Cuff Muscles

The rotator cuff is made up of four muscles: the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and the teres minor in the back, and the subscapularis in the front.

These muscles secure the upper arm bone (humerus) in the shoulder blade to function as a ball and socket joint.

Traps

The trapezius is a trapezoid-shaped muscle that lies superficially across the back of the upper body. It begins where the occipital bone protrudes, runs down to the thoric vertebrae, and laterally to the spine of the scapula.

Trapezius

The traps are made up of three sections of fibers that all run in different directions and aid in the scapula’s many movements.

The upper fibers allow for upward rotation of the scapula. The middle fibers retract the scapula, and the lower fibers depress and medially rotate the scapula.

Because these fibers run in different directions and have different movement functions, we should be purposeful in how we design our training. Most people already do plenty of work for the upper traps. Band pull-aparts, especially if we pull from overhead, down and back to the lower chest, will strengthen the middle and lower traps.

Posterior Deltoids

Deltoid Musculature

The posterior deltoid muscle is responsible for the extension and medial rotation of the arm, and assists with abduction (moving the arms away from the body). Along with the anterior deltoid (front), it also helps stabilize the arm during lateral raises and assists the lats in arm extension during walking.

Rhomboids

The rhomboids are a band of muscles found on either side of the spine in between the shoulder blades. They run from the middle and lower back ribs to connect with the vertebrae.

Rhomboids

In a basic sense, their function is to pull or squeeze things together in an upward movement. For example, when we sit upright (extending our head), they help pull our shoulder blades together as if turning off a water faucet handle in one clean motion.

Benefits of Band Pull-Aparts

Now that you know how to perform pull-aparts, now let’s talk about why it’s so important that you add these to your routine.

Learn to Engage Your Upper Back

Most people spend a lot of time with their shoulders rounded forward. This stretches the upper back muscles and shortens the pecs. In fact, we spend so much time in this position that most people don’t know how to engage these muscles at all!

Band pull-aparts can teach you how to engage your upper back by creating a connection between your brain and the muscles. This exercise will teach you what it feels like to fully engage your rhomboid, mid and lower traps, and rotator cuffs.

This is also why it’s such a great part of your warm-up. Your upper back muscles help keep your spine neutral and provide stability for your shoulders. A couple of light sets before moving to your heavy work for the day will remind your brain that those muscles need to engage. This will help with stability and strength with every other exercise you perform that day.

Improved Scapular Strength and Stability

Keeping your scapula in a strong retracted position is incredibly important when performing heavy compound exercises safely and effectively.

To deadlift safely and effectively, it’s critical to be able to pin your shoulders back and the start, and maintain this posture throughout the movement. Pull-aparts directly train scapular retraction. No rounded backs when deadlifting here!

You also need stability during the upward rotation of your shoulder blades. Think about any overhead pressing movement. You need your scapula actively engaged to ensure adequate upward rotation during the press. Then you need scapular stability during the descent. Loss of structural stability in these muscles will force other muscles to compensate, which can lead to injury.

The benefits of the band pull-apart are somewhat different from those you can get from doing heavy rows or face pulls. Strength development will not be as strong. However, by practicing this against enough resistance, you are re-educating your rear muscles to function properly through continual repetition.

Better Posture

The muscles of your upper back need to have sufficient function and strength to help you consistently maintain a neutral spine. Sedentary jobs, computers, and smartphones force us into poor posture with hunched-over positions, and these structural muscles weaken.

Band pull-aparts can help fix poor posture

My wife is a hairstylist, and she’s only 5’2. Cutting and coloring hair force her to round her shoulders forward, which was causing her a lot of pain and headaches at one point. Daily pull-aparts have done wonders for her back muscles and posture. Her headaches are gone, and she’s learned how to engage these muscles while she works.

But that’s just one example. This study shows that elastic band exercises are effective for improving rounded shoulders and forward head posture. (1)

Stronger Rotator Cuffs

The rotator cuff muscles are crucial for shoulder health and function. The tendons of these muscles attach the humerus (upper arm bone) to the shoulder blade.

These muscles work together to stabilize the shoulder joint and keep the head of the humerus in its socket (the glenoid fossa). They also assist with overhead movements like pressing and reaching. Band pull-aparts train all four of these muscles.

And considering how little time most people spend working on their rotator cuffs, this can make a huge difference in your overall shoulder health. Talk to anyone that’s had rotator cuff surgery. It’s brutal. Avoid it.

Programming Band Pull-Aparts

As part of your warm-up

I do band pull-aparts in between warm-up sets for my first heavy compound movement of the day. I actually got this tip from Jim Wendler. I feel better when I squat (these warm up the “shelf” where the bar sits on my back), bench, pull-up…everything just feels better.

Every strength training workout can benefit from 2-3 sets of 20 pull-aparts while you’re warming up. The upper back is engaged to some degree during most exercises, so priming these muscles is a good idea. This will also help reinforce the mind-muscle connection to this area, reminding your brain to engage these muscles while performing other lifts.

On your off days

If your goal is to have overall healthy shoulders, a set or 2 of 15-20 reps every day is a great idea. The best idea is to do them in the morning before heading off to work. This will strengthen these muscles and remind your brain to engage them throughout the day.

Band Pull-Aparts Variations

Earlier I mentioned three different ways to perform your reps for specific purposes. You can also vary how you perform the movement.

3 Level Band Pull-Apart

Instead of focusing on one set movement pattern, say from straight in front of you and directly into your chest, hit 3 different angels to warm up the entire complex. This is a fantastic way to warm up your upper back, rear delts, and rotator cuffs before a workout.

Start with a band held just above head height and pull to your low chest. For the 2nd rep, move the band down the standard band pull-apart position, with the band just at the top of your chest. For the 3rd rep, hold the band a little lower, just below your chest, and pull at an angle up toward your nipple line.

After completing the 3rd rep, go back up to the standard position for a 4th rep, then above your head for a 5th, then back down to standard for a 6th rep, and so on.

Count high, medium, low, medium as 1 rep. Your 2nd rep truly starts when you get back to the high position. Perform 1 set of 8 reps prior to a workout for a great warm-up.

Diagonal Band Pull-Apart

Hold the band so one hand is above your shoulder and the other is around the level of your belly button. Pull the bands apart diagonally. Your high hand goes up, your low hand goes down.

Complete 10-20 reps in this position. Rest. Then complete a 2nd set, switching which arm is high and which is low.

3 Position Pull-Apart

This variation trains all 3 hand positions; palms up, palms down, and palms neutral (facing each other). When your palms are neutral or facing up you will train the muscles responsible for external rotation. When your plans face down, you’ll hit your internal rotators.

Perform 7 reps with your palms facing down, immediately into 7 reps with your palms neutral, and finally 7 reps with your palms down. Kind of like 21s for your rotator cuffs!

3-D Pull-Apart

This variation will target scapular upward rotation along with scapular retraction.

Hold a band shoulder-width apart, with your arms extended down by your thighs. Perform a front raise and then a pull-apart. Lower your arms back to thigh level, and then repeat.

These are much harder than they sound! Burn, baby, burn!

Tall Kneeling Pull-Apart

Band pull-aparts are an isolation movement, so your lower body shouldn’t be helping. Your core should be tight, hips neutral, and all movement taking place by the target muscles.

But, just to be sure, try performing your pull-aparts from a tall kneeling position. Kneeling positions are great for training core and hip stability, and they lower the chance of cheating reps. If these are a lot harder for you than doing them from standing, you are likely using your legs, hips, or are arching more than you think are.

No home gym is complete without a set of resistance bands. They are cheap, portable, and have a variety of uses. Use them for strength sessions, to help rehab any injured areas, and to warm up before a weights workout. A set with three to five bands of different resistances won’t cost much, and you’ll never run out of different ways to use them. Especially if you check out our Resistance Band Exercises Hub page!

Rogue Fitness Monster Bands – I use these to warm up and cool down for every training session. And I use them to stretch daily. These are amazing and they last!

Crossover Symmetry – This is the system I used to rehab a small labrum tear in my left shoulder. I still follow their program every day!

Conclusion: Band Pull-Aparts

Resistance band pull-aparts are a great way to target your rotator cuffs and upper back muscles and warm up before a workout. They can be performed in multiple ways, but the palms up version is the safest for the joint and strengthens muscles that are often neglected. Try the different variations described in this article, keep the reps relatively high (10-20), use deliberate motions, and watch your shoulder health improve.

Learn how to perform archer pull ups, an advanced pull-up variation
Learn how to correctly and safely perform the chest supported dumbbell row
Learn how to perform the dumbbell burpee
Learn how to perform the dumbbell Romanian deadlift

References

  1. Kim, Tae-Woon et al. “Effects of elastic band exercise on subjects with rounded shoulder posture and forward head posture.” Journal of physical therapy science vol. 28,6 (2016): 1733-7. doi:10.1589/jpts.28.1733
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AUTHOR

Matt has been a personal trainer for more than 18 years. He is also a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, has a master's degree in teaching, and is a former competitive powerlifter and CrossFit athlete. His passion is helping others get in shape from mid-life and beyond.

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