When I first started lifting at 16, my workout consisted of three exercises: bench press, standing barbell curls, and lying tricep extensions, also known as the French press. This routine helped me achieve my measurable goal of building some muscle, as well as my ultimate goal of garnering more favorable attention from the opposite sex.
Yet, while looking back over 20 years worth of training, it’s comical how imbalanced and incomplete my routine was.
I had no idea how to set up a balanced program, what periodization was, how to warm up properly, or really do anything else that’s fairly common knowledge to the generally more educated lifting population these days—but the one thing I did get right was consistency.
If I’d known then what I know now, this knowledge plus the consistency I had in place would’ve resulted in much more rapid progress. I could’ve mitigated many of the injuries and dysfunctions I’ve since had to deal with just a bit more of the knowledge I have now.
One concept I now implement into my programs is to target the scapular (shoulder blade) muscles, which get much less attention than they deserve. This is likely because they’re on the backs of our bodies and aren’t as popular to train as pumping up the pecs or biceps.
To train the movements of the scapulae properly, let’s first talk some basic anatomy and biomechanics, dive into some common problems, then learn four advanced exercises to build scapular strength.
Basic Scapular Anatomy
The scapula is a triangle shaped bone that floats over the top of our ribcage. It’s unique because it is the only bone in our body that’s “suspended” as it’s attached to the body via muscles only while all other joints have ligaments for added stability. This muscular-only attachment of the scapula to the body provides for great mobility, but any dysfunctions in scapular muscles can result in poor positioning or stability of the scapula that can lead to pain and injury.
At the lateral-most aspect of the scapula is the glenoid cavity, which forms the socket where the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) moves around. As the arm moves, the scapula must move as well so the glenoid cavity provides an optimal interface for the head of the humerus to move without impinging on any structures.
Movements of the Scapula
When most people think of shoulder stability, they think of scapular retraction–pinching your shoulder blades together. This makes sense. For most of us, this feels like a very stable and solid position. But the reality is that your shoulder is a highly mobile joint that allows for a wide range of movements.
True stability is setting the scapula in the best position and keeping it solid for whatever movement you’re doing–whether it’s a one-arm push-up, pressing a barbell overhead, or throwing a fastball. There are six basic movements of the scapulae as described below.
- Retraction – Pinching your shoulder blades together like at the end of the concentric portion of a seated row is scapular retraction. It’s one of the most common coaching cues in fitness, but it’s often recommended inappropriately which can lead to shoulder problems (we’ll discuss these problems later). The rhomboids and middle trapezius are the primary retractors of the scapulae.
- Protraction – The popular push-up plus exercise trains protraction of the scapulae, where the scapulae move away from each other and wrap around the ribcage toward the front of the body. The serratus anterior muscle is primarily responsible for scapular protraction.
- Elevation – In scapular elevation, your scapula moves up toward your ears like in barbell shrugs, which is performed primarily by the upper trapezius and levator scapulae muscles.
- Depression – The opposite of elevation, the scapulae slide inferiorly (down toward the butt) when they’re depressed. Muscles responsible for scapular depression include the lower trapezius and latissimus dorsi. Just like the pelvis, the scapulae can tilt anteriorly and posteriorly. These movements are lesser known but extremely important if your goal is to lift hard and heavy without injury.
- Anterior Tilt – Imagine that the scapulae are cups of water, so dumping the water out the front of your body would be an anterior tilt. The pectoralis minor, levator scapulae, and short head of the biceps are the primary muscles that cause anterior tilt.
- Posterior Tilt – Conversely, posterior tilt would be dumping the water behind you. This movement is due mainly to contraction of the serratus anterior, with help from the lower traps
Now that you understand the basic movements of the scapulae, let’s talk about a term you might’ve heard before called scapulohumeral rhythm.
Scapulohumeral Rhythm: It’s Not Just “Down and Back”
Whenever you move your arms, the scapula must also move so the glenoid cavity and head of the humerus are in optimal alignment. This is called scapulohumeral rhythm. The movement most commonly associated with the term scapulohumeral rhythm is upward rotation during full shoulder flexion or abduction, which involves the scapula rotating up as the arm moves overhead.
Without scapular upward rotation, impingement of the humerus on the subacromial bursa (padding between bones) or rotator cuff tendon can occur, resulting in damage, pain, inflammation and if repeated with enough frequency and force, tearing.
The muscles responsible for upward rotation of the scapula are the serratus anterior, upper, and lower trapezius. It’s incorrect to think the rest of the scapular muscles aren’t working because whenever the scapulae move, all of the scapular and rotator cuff muscles must be active to some degree to ensure the head of the humerus stays centered in the glenoid cavity.
While upward rotation is commonly associated with scapulohumeral rhythm, the other primary movement is retraction/protraction of the scapula with horizontal pulling/pushing movements, respectively. This natural rhythm provides the greatest range of motion and optimal alignment of the shoulder joint.
Let’s go through a real-world example.
Say you’ve been taught to always keep your scapulae “down and back” when you’re in the gym. This is a coaching tip that is unfortunately common these days and is applied to all sorts of exercises from chin-ups to push-ups to overhead presses.
And let’s say you train MMA and boxing–two sports whose athletes I’ve had many experiences working with. Whenever you throw a punch, you’ve trained yourself to keep your scapulae retracted, so this pattern might carry over to your sport. But without full scapular protraction, you can lose up to around 4-5” of reach from your punch. This can be the difference between landing the blow or missing (and your opponent successfully countering your attack).
You can go ahead and test this out for yourself right now. Make a fist and put your left arm straight out in front of you while you cycle between full retraction and protraction of the scapula and notice the difference in reach between the two. If you’ve never done this before, the range might be quite surprising.
Now, while we’ve talked about scapulohumeral rhythm in vertical and horizontal push/pull movements, the reality is that there’s a proper rhythm of movement of the scapula and humerus whenever the arms are moving in any plane of motion, such as pulling down at an angle like during a high to low cable row, the scapulae must go from slight elevation and protraction to slight depression and retraction.
Training this coordinated movement between the scapula and humerus keeps the shoulders healthy and the muscles doing what they were designed to do.
If you’re suffering from painful and/or tight shoulders, it’s likely that you’re also suffering from dysfunction of one or more of the muscles that attach to the scapula. Three common problems for lifters with weak scapular muscles are:
Common Problems for Lifters with Weak Scapular Muscles: Impingement
The bursa and rotator cuff tendon both occupy the space between the humerus and a part of the scapula known as the acromion.
Impingement typically occurs when the arm is up overhead—whether it’s there to load up a fastball or to press a barbell overhead—and the scapula doesn’t move enough (or at all), leading to the humerus pinching the bursa or tendon. The result is repetitive trauma to the affected tissue leading to pain, inflammation, and sometimes in the case of the rotator cuff tendon, a complete tear.
Common Problems for Lifters with Weak Scapular Muscles: AC Joint Sprain
Two bony processes of the scapula, the acromion, and coracoid (AC), are connected by various ligaments to the clavicle. The AC joint is the joint between the scapula and clavicle. While there are muscles that connect the clavicle to the humerus (pec major, deltoids), ribcage (subclavius), spine (trapezius), and skull (sternocleidomastoid), there are no muscles that connect the clavicle with the scapula.
Thus, injuries of the AC joint are sprains and not strains, since sprains refer to damage to ligaments whereas sprains refer to damage to muscle. Sprains take longer to heal than strains because of the relatively lower blood supply of ligaments versus muscles, so we want to avoid them at all costs.
AC joint sprains can be the result of acute trauma (i.e. falling onto an outstretched hand) if the scapular stabilizers aren’t strong enough and/or shoulder extension mobility is limited. Dips are an example of a movement that can result in an AC joint sprain due to repetitive trauma.
At the bottom of a dip, the position of the shoulder combined with the force of gravity and the contraction of the pec major (which originates on the clavicle) results in shearing forces on the ligaments of the AC joint and, done frequently enough, can result in a sprain.
Common Problems for Lifters with Weak Scapular Muscles: Winged Scapula
Finally, one of the most popular maladies of the scapula, winged scapula is often attributed to weakness of the serratus anterior. However, it isn’t just weakness of the serratus anterior that contributes to winged scapula.
Facilitation of a muscle, which means a muscle does more work than it’s supposed to, also contributes to the serratus anterior shutting off when it’s supposed to be working. So, we could strengthen the serratus all we want, but until the facilitated muscle is treated, it won’t matter.
Or, if the serratus anterior is truly weak, we’ve got to strengthen it, but then we’ve got to ensure it’s re-integrated into the different movements that we perform, whether in the gym, sport or daily life. That being said, this article isn’t about fixing dysfunctional movement patterns, activating weak-ass muscles, or any other rehabilitative idea. I’ve included this section on common problems because if you suffer from any of these issues, there’s no way in hell you should try any of the exercises I’m about to show you.
Go and fix your shoulder problems because if you incorporate these exercises into your routine, your problems will be multiplied in magnitude since the following exercises require a great deal of strength.
4 Exercises for Strong, Stable, and Pain-Free Shoulders
There are two common denominators in all four of these exercises: one is to maintain straight elbows, which keeps the focus where we want it (on the scapular muscles) and two is to focus on scapular posterior tilt to ensure the scapulae stay flush to the ribcage and the serratus anterior is active.
This is likely the most needed exercises in this article because we rarely train in shoulder extension and my guess is that if you’ve been putting in a lot of reps on the bench press, your shoulder extension mobility sucks.
For lasting mobility gains we need to not just lengthen the tissues via passive static stretching, but build strength in the muscles that help us enter, stabilize, and exit that range, otherwise we’ll simply tighten back up.
The goal with this exercise is to lift the hips as high as possible, but only with the scapula staying flush with the rib cage via posterior tilt and the spine staying as close to neutral as possible.
- Start with your hands on the ground behind you with your fingers pointing towards your feet (harder) or away from each other (easier).
- Keeping your spine tall, lift your hips just off the ground and retract and posteriorly tilt the scapulae.
- While maintaining spinal and scapular position, lift the hips as high as possible.
- Start with 10-second holds and build up to 30-second holds for a total work time of 1-2 minutes.
2. Arched Hang
The arched hang is great for building strength in scapular retraction while simultaneously stretching the entire front of the body (anterior line) and mobilizing the spine into extension–a position we need to work to counteract the effects of modern life on our posture.
- Hang from a bar with your hands shoulder-width apart.
- Initiate the movement by fully retracting the scapulae, allowing the torso to arch around the scapulae and the legs to hang freely.
- Perform 3-6 reps of 5-10 second holds.
3. One Arm Downward Dog
While you’ve likely done this exercise or at least been in this position when doing Hindu push-ups, chances are your focus wasn’t on scapular position, which should be elevation when the arms are up overhead to avoid impingement of the bursa and/or rotator cuff tendon. Do not try to pinch your scapulae down and back during this technique.
- Get into the downward dog position with spine in neutral and scapulae elevated.
- Lift one hand off the ground and maintain spinal and scapular position.
- Alternate sides and perform 3-6 reps of 5-10 second holds.
4. One Arm Scapular Pull-Up and Transfer
Finally, the most difficult of the four exercises–the one-arm scap pull up and transfer trains scapular depression, retraction, and grip strength so if you can’t effectively hang onto a bar with one hand, work on that before trying this technique.
- Hang from a bar with your scapulae slightly retracted and depressed.
- Slowly let go with one hand without letting the body uncontrollably swing and lower into scapular elevation.
- Without using momentum, return the hand to the bar by depressing and retracting the scapulae and repeat on the other side.
- This is one cycle–perform 2-4 cycles.
Each of these four exercises works a different element of scapular strength and stability, and if you integrate them all into your routine you’ll build strength, stability, and mobility for pain-free shoulders.