Scapular retraction is an essential skill for any trainee to master. This movement, which involves bringing the shoulders back and chest out, improves lat engagement, keeps the shoulders safe, and allows for a natural lumbar curve. While scapular retraction may seem simple, effectively executing the movement requires good stability and proper back engagement. Scapular pull-ups are an excellent exercise for teaching scapular retraction because the movement is isolated to the shoulders.
The name “pull-up” may lead one to believe that the exercise primarily works the biceps, but in reality, it is an upper posterior movement that requires strong and functional scapular muscles. With regular use of scapular pull-ups, one can develop better kinesthetic awareness of the scapula position, which will enable them to climb harder and longer with good form, despite growing fatigue.
This guide will provide you with the information you need to learn how to do scapular pull-ups. You will learn the proper technique for performing this exercise, as well as tips for making it more challenging and effective. Additionally, you will discover the many benefits that scapular pull-ups have to offer, including improved scapular movement, increased upper body strength, and better overall pulling performance.
What Are Scapular Pull-Ups?
Scapular pull-ups, also known as scapula pull-ups, are a type of upper-body workout that focuses on activating the shoulders and back muscles. These exercises use a smaller range of motion than regular pull-ups, making them a great option for targeting specific muscle groups such as the lats, trapezius, rhomboids, and serratus anterior. To perform a scapular pull-up, one starts in a dead hang position with elbows slightly bent, then performs a reverse shrug to squeeze the shoulder blades together and lift the body slightly upward.
Scapular pull-ups can be thought of as partial pull-ups, the goal is to train only a portion of a full pull-up, more specifically to ensure that the scapula (shoulder blade) is moving properly up and down the ribs which allows for the large latissimus dorsi (lats) muscles to facilitate the pull-up and not the rotator cuff muscles (which is a bad idea). This is important not just for effective and efficient pull-ups but also to protect the shoulders. Scapular pull-ups are an isolation exercise that focus on activating the scapula, which is often overlooked when it comes to upper body exercises, despite being crucial for almost all upper body movements.
Muscles Used In Scapular Pull Up
Scapula Pull ups work the lats, trapezius, rhomboids, and serratus anterior muscles.
How To Do the Scapular Pull-up
Here are the steps to do Scapular Pull-ups:
- Begin by grasping the pull-up bar with a palms-away grip, hands shoulder-width apart.
- Start in a full, nearly passive hang position with shrugged shoulders.
- Draw your scapula down and together by “bending the bar” and thinking of a reverse shrug by pulling shoulders downwards. This will cause your head to shift backward and your chest to raise upward as your scapulas pinch together.
- Hold the top position for 1 second before returning to the starting position. The range of motion should be only a few inches.
- Repeat this movement for 6-12 reps, keeping nearly straight arms, tight spinal erectors and glutes throughout the exercise.
- Do 2 sets with a rest of 3 minutes in between.
- Once you have mastered the exercise, you can add a third set to your workout. A good long-term goal is to do 3 sets of 10 reps.
Note: At first, you may find this exercise difficult, but resist the urge to overdo it. Climbers who are very strong can perform this exercise using their entire body weight, but beginners can practice the move with less difficulty by keeping their feet on the floor (or raised on a chair) and extending their knees just enough to hang with straight arms from a pull-up bar. It is important to perform the exercise with proper form to avoid injury.
Benefits Of Scapular Pull Ups
Proper Training Technique and Shoulder Health
Scapular pull-ups are a great exercise for reinforcing proper posterior positioning and ensuring that the lat muscles are doing their job. This helps to keep the shoulders from being overstressed and overworked, which is important for maintaining shoulder health.
Progression to Full Pull-ups
Scapular pull-ups are a great technique for building up scapular strength as they mimic the first part of a pull-up, but do not require the strength to perform a full range of motion pull-up. As a result, they are a great way to progress towards full pull-ups.
Stretching Out the Spine
Pull-up variations, including scapular pull-ups, are great for stretching out the spine, back, and shoulder muscles. Scapular pull-ups start from a dead hang with the shoulder protracted, and each repetition provides a good stretch for these muscles.
Scapular pull-ups are a great exercise for strengthening scapular depression, which is important for shoulder health and stability.
This exercise also helps to strengthen the serratus anterior muscles, which are important for maintaining shoulder power and full range of motion.
Stability and Balance
Scapular pull-ups help to improve balance, coordination, stability, and flexibility, making them an excellent choice for improving performance in sports and other forms of exercise.
No Special Equipment Required
Another benefit of scapular pull-ups is that they do not require any special equipment and can be done with just the right technique and some willpower.
Scapular Pull Up Muscles Worked
Scapular pull-ups are an upper-body exercise that works several muscle groups, primarily targeting the scapulae, or shoulder blades. These winged bones move up and down the back, gliding on the ribcage and attaching the arms to the torso via the shoulder joint.
The three primary muscles that control scapular retraction are the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and trapezius. These muscles work together to produce enough force to move the body upwards without the assistance of the biceps and forearms. Scapular pull-ups are an effective way to train and strengthen these muscles.
The core muscles, including the abs, transverse abdominis, obliques, erector spinae, and glutes, also contribute to the movement. These muscle groups work together to keep the body stable and in position during the exercise. The shoulders and arms also work during scapular pull-ups, allowing the body to support itself in a hanging position.
Additionally, scapular pull-ups can improve grip strength, especially when done on a thicker pull-up bar.
It’s important to note that scapular pull-ups are an isolation exercise that focuses on activating the scapula and the muscles that control the scapula. These muscles are often overlooked, despite being crucial for almost all upper body movements, thus regular use of scapular pull-ups can help to improve overall upper body strength, shoulder stability and movement.
Difference Between Pull Up And Scapular Pull Up
A pull-up and a scapular pull-up are both exercises that target the upper body, specifically the back and shoulder muscles. However, there are some key differences between the two exercises.
The main difference between a pull-up and a scapular pull-up is the range of motion. Scapular pull-ups are the initial portion of a full pull-up. Scapular retraction, the act of bringing your shoulders back and chest out, is the first action you need to take before you start pulling through your forearms, biceps, and lats. It is worth noting that scapular pull ups only have you practice the first two inches of the range of motion, while pull-ups have you lift and lower your body through a significantly more extended range of motion, resulting in higher lat and bicep activation.
Another difference is that scapular pull-ups are an isolation exercise that focuses on activating the scapula and the muscles that control the scapula. This is important because these muscles are often overlooked, despite being crucial for almost all upper body movements.
Scapular Pull Ups Variations
- Extended Scapular Pull Up: The extended scapular pull-up focuses on retracting the scapula as much as possible, with the ultimate goal of reaching a horizontal position and potentially a front lever hold.
- Assisted Scapular Pull Up: For beginners, the assisted scapular pull-up can make the exercise more manageable by allowing the use of the feet for support. They can also go for Australian pull ups.
- Burpee Scapular Pull Up: The burpee scapular pull-up combines the movement patterns of a burpee and a pull-up, adding a cardio element to the exercise. The exercise is performed by first placing the hands on the ground, jumping back into a push-up position, jumping the feet back up, lifting into a squat position, performing a scapular pull-up and then repeating the process.
- Weighted Scapular Pull Up: Adding weight to the exercise, such as with a belt or weight vest, increases the resistance and difficulty of the regular scapular pull-up.
Mistakes To Avoid When Doing Scapula Pull Ups
Some of the common mistakes to avoid when doing scapula pull ups are:
Doing Too Much Volume
Scapular pull-ups are a challenging whole-body exercise that trains multiple muscle groups and can lead to fatigue. It is important to account for the training volume and avoid doing more than a few sets in one session.
It is important to avoid using momentum when doing scapular pull-ups. Thrusting yourself up and not controlling the descent can turn the exercise into a modified kipping pull-up, taking away the benefits of the movement and making it less effective. Slow and purposeful execution is essential.
Using Arms Instead Of Scapula
Many people make the mistake of using their arms to do scapular pull-ups, but the movement is specifically focused on scapular retraction. Using the arms instead of the scapula defeats the purpose of the exercise and turns it into a half pull-up. To avoid this mistake, focus on engaging the scapula and keeping the arms straight during the movement.
Rahul is a sports and performance consultant. Over the course of his 15-year career in the fitness sector, he has held positions as a strength and conditioning instructor, gym owner, and consultant.
He is deeply committed to assisting people in finding happiness and feeling good about themselves.
Rahul has a master’s degree in exercise science and is a certified NSCA CSCS and CISSN.