In this article, I am going to break down how the scapulae are meant to move during the pull-up, and in general, and I will provide you with some fantastic exercises that will help you improve the controlled mobility of this area, including some exercises that are very specific to the pull-up. These exercises will have a positive carryover to your pull-up specific performance, and will benefit the overall health of your body.
In terms of movement, the scapulae can move in 6 directions, and each movement is produced by specific muscles:
Primary muscles responsible for movement: upper trapezius, levator scapulae
Primary muscles responsible for movement: lower trapezius
3) Protraction (abduction):
Primary muscles responsible for movement: serratus anterior
4) Retraction (adduction):
Primary muscles responsible for movement: rhomboids, middle trapezius
5) Downward Rotation:
Primary muscles responsible for movement: rhomboids
6) Upward Rotation:
Primary muscles responsible for movement: upper and middle trapezius
While this video is of a chin-up (palms facing me versus facing away from me like during the pull-up), you can really see some good controlled scapular movement. During the ascending portion of the movement, I am drawing my shoulder blades in towards my spine and down towards the opposite hip (retracting, depressing, and downwardly rotating), and during the descending portion of the movement, my shoulder blades are performing the reverse movements (protracting, elevating, and upwardly rotating). I am not just going through the motions or am allowing my body to free-fall from the top position. I am moving my scapulae with control and intent. This takes strength, controlled mobility, and technique, and is achieved by performing the right exercises, with proper form, and on a consistent basis.
**I should note that I prefer to perform all of my pull-ups and chin-ups with my legs straight and feet dorsiflexed.
When many people perform pull-ups, lack of scapular controlled mobility (I use this term in place of stability) is one reason why many people struggle to keep their body from swinging back and forth of the bar like a pendulum. This will make the entire body less stable, and will dramatically increase the overall distance the body has to travel to the bar. Now rather than travelling to the bar in a short and straight line, the body will be forced to travel in a longer and more inefficient arc, which will make performing one, or many reps, significantly more challenging. Your goal should be to make the path your body has to travel to the bar as short as possible. Short = efficicient.
This exercise develops scapular stability. Just to be clear: this exercise is NOT for your arms. Many people make the mistake of using their arms to perform this exercise. ALL of the movement should be occurring due to the controlled movement of your shoulder blades.
- Place a resistance band around your wrists. Choose a tension that allows you to use proper form at all times.
- Adopt a split stance and put one foot against a wall. Your torso should be 3-6 inches away from the wall.
- Your head, torso, and hips should be in a stacked position, and your chin tucked.
- Bend your elbows to approximately 90 degrees, set your forearms so they are in an “11 o’clock position, place your forearms against the wall so they are chest height, and press them out against the band. When you do this, you should feel the muscles around your shoulder blades kick in.
- Before each rep, take a deep breath in through your nose (360 degrees of air around your spine), brace your core (2-3), tuck your rib cage down towards your hips (close the space in your midsection), and squeeze your glutes.
- Engage the muscles around the shoulder blade area, and use them to draw your shoulder blades together and towards your spine (retract). When you do this, your arms should move apart. Now use the muscles around your shoulder blades to control your shoulder blades as they move apart and away from your spine (protract). When you do this, your arms should return to the starting position.
- For the duration of the exercise, make sure that your arms remain in a vertical (11 o’clock) position, and do not allow the band to lose tension.
- For the duration of the exercise, your head, torso, and hips should remain in a stacked position. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend or your ribcage to flare.
- As for your breathing, do what feels the best for you. Be sure to take deep breaths in through your nose (360 degrees of air around your spine), and exhale through your mouth.
Make this exercise easier by using no resistance band, sliding the band down your arms so it is closer to your elbows (versus your hands), or using a band with less resistance.
Make this exercise more challenging by using a band with more resistance, using two bands, or increasing the range of the movement.
This pull-up regression will help you become capable of supporting your bodyweight from a hanging position, and also hones in on the scapula stabilizer muscles. This exercise develops upper body strength, scapular and shoulder stability, grip strength and lumbo-pelvic stability, as your body must remain in a hollow body position for the duration of the exercise.
- This pull-up regression will help you become capable of supporting your bodyweight from a hanging position, and also hones in on the scapula stabilizer muscles. This exercise develops upper body strength, scapular and shoulder stability, grip strength and lumbo-pelvic stability, as your body must remain in a hollow body position for the duration of the exercise.
- Set your grip so your palms are facing away from you, and are approximately shoulder width (or slightly wider) apart. You may also use a neutral grip where your palms are facing one another.
- Set your body so it is in a hollow body position. Take a deep breath in through your nose (360 degrees of air around your spine), brace your core (4-5), tuck your ribcage towards your hips (close the space in your midsection), squeeze your glutes, straighten your knees, contract your quads and hamstrings, and dorsiflex your feet (you may cross one foot over the other). This will stabilize your pelvis, spine, and legs, and will prevent you from swinging ahead of the bar like a pendulum.
- Without bending your elbows or initiating the movement with your arms, use your scapula stabilizer muscles and draw your shoulder blades together and down (bring each shoulder blade down towards the opposite hip), and lift your body a few inches. Pause in the top position, really contract your scapula stabilizer muscles, and lower yourself in a controlled manner to the starting position.
- Do not disengage the muscles for the duration of the exercise. Your elbows should be close to fully extended, but not hyperextended.
- On the lowering portion of this movement, your shoulder blades will perform the reverse movement as they did on the way up.
- For the duration of the exercise, your head, torso, and hips should remain in a stacked position. Do not allow your lower back to hyperextend, or ribcage to flare.
- As for your breathing, exhale just after you have initiated the scapular movement and have drawn your shoulder blades together and down; inhale and “reset” as you are descending, or do a full reset when you are in the bottom position.
Make this exercise easier by performing a modified version on a Smith Machine (fixed bar), barbell that is set up in a squat rack, or TRX/rings. Your feet will be on the ground, and your body will be in an incline position.
Make this exercise more challenging by hanging two sturdy towels on the bar, and performing this exercise while holding on to these. You mayperform negative reps and take 3-5 seconds to lower yourself down, or use additional resistance.
This exercise will help you develop shoulder and scapular stability, and shoulder mobility.
- Keep your elbows and wrists locked, and arms relaxed. Focus on performing the movement by moving through the shoulders and shoulder blades, not by shrugging your shoulders, moving through your elbows or wrists, arching your lower back, flaring your ribcage, or by extending your neck.
- Keep your head down and chin tucked. You can also lightly press your tongue against the back of your upper teeth as this helps activate the deep neck flexors.
- For the duration of the exercise, your head, torso and hips should remain in a stacked position. You will achieve this by keeping your core braced (2-3 out of 10 in terms of the intensity of the brace), tucking your ribcage towards your hips, and squeezing your glutes.
- Lift the stick only as high as you can while maintaining proper form.
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Here are a few more pull-up specific articles I've written:
1) 10 Reasons Why You Aren't Excelling At Pull-Ups
2) Dominate Your Pull-Ups With This Advanced Exercise
3) Ab Wheel Roll-Outs - A Great Exercise For Improving Your Ability To Perform Pull-Ups