This post ties in nicely with a recent one, How I BUTCHERED My Pull Ups For YEARS. In that post I shared how a lack of scapula awareness while doing pull ups, and muscle ups for that matter, led to me ultimately ending up in snap city aka injured.
That post was very one-dimensional and only touched on pull ups. In this post though, I want to elaborate further; I want to touch on all the basic moves and teach you what the scapula often does, compared to what it should be doing.
Like most things, the margin between success and failure is small, and sometimes it’s tough to see much difference between where you are and where you should be. But believe me, if you want real long term progress, you’ll need to have your shoulders in the right place.
This will reduce the injury risk as the wear and tear of being in a ‘incorrect biomechanical position’, will eventually catch up to you in the form of a nagging shoulder or flat out injury. Even if you avoid this likely feat you’ll still find your progress stalls, as the crossover from the basic moves you’re practicing, to the moves you’re wanting, is way less than it should be.
Are you the guy who can do loads of handstand push ups but can’t planche?
Or the guy with the heavy weighted pull up but can’t front lever?
Chances are your scapula isn’t in the right place to develop these static holds alongside your conventional bent arm strength.
Wide, flared elbow, arched back handstand push ups are going to do precious little for the planche, which requires strong protraction, a hollow chest and high anterior deltoid activation.
Similarly, rounded back, scapula elevated, arm-dominant pull ups aren’t going to even tickle the front lever, which requires strong retraction and depression of the scapula.
Let’s give you a brief primer of each basic movement pattern and what the scapula should be doing vs what it commonly does…
The Pull Up – ‘Cat Back’ Vs ‘Lat Back’
This was covered in extensive detail in the aforementioned post, but the common one here is over-focusing on just getting the chin above the bar instead of pulling the elbows down and back, and that being the driving force for getting your chin high enough.
One is to be arm dominant, the other is back dominant. We want back dominant. It’s a bigger and more powerful set of muscles, designed to pump out an impressive workload.
The arms are puny in comparison (even if you’ve got a decent set of Bi’s for the guys) and take longer to recover.
Even if you’re training for the muscle up, which requires a more hollow based pull up style, the depressed scapula is still a MUST as it’s so much more powerful, and saves your joints in the long run as the transition puts far less shear force on your rotator cuffs.
The Dip – Shoulders & Ears Being Friends Vs Enemies
If I had a pound for every time I’ve seen someone ‘able to dip’ that couldn’t even depress their shoulders an inch at the top of a dip, I’d be retired for years now.
Having the shoulders shrugged up during the dip is one of the most stereotypical mistakes – and it’s one even the advanced guys make more than they should.
When you let the shoulders lift right up at the bottom of a dip, the force on the front compartment of the shoulder is huge. Not only is it a vulnerable and unnatural position anyway, it’s often being loaded, heavily in some cases.
Just spending the time working really diligently to learn what depressed shoulders looks and feels like, when dipping, will pay dividends for your long term shoulder health and your stability in heavy dips. This way you’ll make gains without trashing your joints.
How many people have dipped super heavy and lived to tell the tale long term?
The Row – Shoulders Rolling Forwards/Caved Chest Vs Big, PROUD Chest
Brownie points if you even row to begin with. As we know, calisthenics is massively row starved where all everyone cares about is pull ups, dips and push ups.
Rows are just something people who can’t do pull ups do, right?!
I ignorantly thought the same many years ago and paid the ultimate price. So much so, I now sing rows’ praises like many people sing Jesus’ praises. They really have done so much for rehabbing and rebalancing my shoulder strength.
But even when you’re smart enough to row, you can so easily row wrong.
Pulling the hands to the chest is a great cue and marker for full range of motion, but only if you can do so without letting the shoulders roll forwards and the head of your humerus (upper arm bone) gliding forward in the shoulder socket (anterior humeral glide).
When the scapula isn’t fully depressed aka locked in, this will be much more likely to happen. This is why I like to depress the shoulders right before I go to drive the elbows back/bend the arms. Then as I pull up I retract my shoulder blades more and more until I reach the top.
This is a winning formula for both back activation and shoulder health in my book. And yes, this applies regardless of grip.
The Push Up – Shoulders Slack Vs Shoulders LOCKED IN
Time for your ego to wail and bleed. The push up is PE level basic yet common level butchered. Shrug ups are more common than pull ups yet the person doing shrug ups thinks they’re doing push ups.
The scapula isn’t bolted in aka DEPRESSED throughout. Some people can keep the scapula depressed at the top and then it all goes to shitville at the bottom, as they look like they’re answering a complex maths question…*shrugs*, ‘I dunno!’
Obviously some can’t even depress/down shrug at the top/high plank position. In this case it’s best to practice just the plank itself and keeping the scapula depressed for time, before you start doing push up reps. If you want to do push up reps alongside (which is smart) then do them on an incline to take some weight off.
This issue becomes more prevalent in the more advanced variations – ring push ups, one arm push ups, planche push ups and so on. Because these are heavier push ups, the potential for form breakdown is much higher. Try and do a fully squared hips & shoudlers, scapula depressed throughout, one arm push and let me know you find it?
Almost impossible. Watch.
But it’s a great goal to strive for and habit to get into.
BONUS – Ideal Scapula Positioning In Classic Static Holds (Levers etc)
I’ve touched on these many times over the years so I won’t elaborate massively here, but I’ll outline a quick primer on the main position you’ll want your shoulders/scapula in, when you’re training these static holds…
Front Lever = scapula depressed & slight retraction
*The reality here is because of the difficulty/force requirement of this move, you’ll most likely be in a neutral scapula position but the intent is always to retract and depress as much as you can.
Planche = scapula depressed & protracted
*Some will argue you can’t achieve the full protracted & depressed full, legs together planche but I’ve seen plenty of pristine examples. (Check ‘Calimnastic’ out on YouTube/Instagram)
Back Lever = scapula depressed & protracted
*The shoulder position is almost identical to the planche except the angle of force. In the planche the shoulders are more flexed and in the back lever they’re much more extended.
Handstand = scapula elevated & slightly protracted
*This is really the only time you’ll want to intentionally elevate the scapula in calisthenics based movements. Having the shoulders elevated means your trapezius will be the working muscle and this is much more efficient than the closed shoulders, anterior deltoid heavy version you commonly see.
Simple Implementation Ideas
There are many options. But the simplest way to make sure you really stay on top of this is to always do at least one perfect form, light set as a warm up every time you train. Yeah it’s boring but you’ll force a habit and won’t have to relearn it every so many weeks/months.
Another option is to have either a week each month/6 week cycle where you essentially deload and take the intensity down, and crank the quality up (form/scapula positioning in this case).
You can even do this one day per week as a lighter day if you want.
But the bottom line is this: you can’t go months and years without checking in on this stuff. Otherwise you’ll get so preoccupied with pushing the weight/reps/levels, you’ll slip into bad habits eventually.
If you already do this, kudos to you, you’re miles ahead of the game. If not, keep this in the front of your mind or you’ll suffer my fate; 8-10 months of shoulder issues and wondering if I’d ever get back to what I was capable of – and that’s just my left shoulder, never mind the issues I had on my right years ago!
With the grace of god I’ve managed to and much of it is thanks to this seemingly simple stuff, that’s often overlooked. Take the time to think about it and reap the rewards.
I’ve got your back as always.
Oh and happy 2022!
P.S. If you’d like a video version of this article, be sure to check out the YouTube video I have to go along with it…
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