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The Scapular Pull-up: taking scapular stability to a useful level

August 21, 2012

The topic of scapular stability has been a popular one for quite some time now and for good reason.  Proper scapular motion is of utmost importance for avoiding subacromial impingement, controlling posture, as well as for kinetic force transfers from the torso outwards and/or from the hands inwards.  However the key word to be taken from the previous two sentences is not only ‘stability’….but MOTION.

Aside from the tedious efforts of trying to tell our patients/clients to set their scapula during prolonged sitting or standing tasks using the upper limb, there is really no other situation where the static position of the scapula is of utmost importance.  I have had many-a-patient with ‘winged’ scapula statically who, when challenged during movement tasks, are able to maintain good, functional scapular motion.  Motion which will act to avoid unwanted impingement, whilst maintaing the force couple between the torso and arm.  Once again, as I have discussed many times, static appearance does not provide functional information.  While the last sentence may make sense to most…it is not simply a matter of nomenclature as it is quite common to hear people diagnosed with ‘scapular instability’ simply because their medial scapular boarder isn’t ‘pasted’ to the thoracic cage.  Further, it is still more common for those diagnosed with this ‘ailment’ to be given exercises aimed at correcting a static problem.  For example one might prescribe “strengthening” of the serratus anterior due to the fact that one part of the muscle ‘sticks’ to the medial boarder of the scapular while the other ‘sticks’ to the rib cage (the word ‘stick’ being used facetiously of course).  Thus to approximate sticky point A to sticky point B…prescribe  repetitive bouts of bringing points A & B together thus ‘shortening’ the muscle.  Hmmmmm….does that mean that if you do bicep curls for long enough you will walk around with your wrists at your shoulders…unable to straighten the elbow as the biceps has become shorter??

Now, before I get a bunch of links to EMG articles demonstrating the effectiveness of this exercise or that exercise for ‘activating’ the serratus anterior (or any other scapular stabilizer for that matter), let me tell you that I have already read them.  I am fully aware of which makes the EMG readings spike more than others and I make use of said exercises early on in the rehabilitation process to build/recoup baseline strength.  However how many functional situations do you know of that requires to do a push-ups plus?

The fact of the matter is (imo), that with any stability/rehab training the LAW of specificity applies.  Thus, even if you are beginning the rehab program with some of the more common scapular exercises (push up plus, dynamic hug, clocks, field goals, etc.) there HAS TO COME A TIME WHERE REHABILITATION STOPS AND PERFORMANCE STARTS.  This may seem obvious to you in the context of this discussion, but I assure you that it is not in practice.  If it was, there would be a plethora of “advanced” scapular setting exercises floating around in cyberspace, comparable to the ones in line with the push up plus…but there are not.  What is the difference?  Rehab exercises bring the body BACK to a certain level of function (or tissue health), performance training makes improvements.  How then to distinguish the exercises….most all performance tasks are a combination of movements across articulations working simultaneously or in sequence.  Thus, in the case of scapular ‘stability’, we must attempt to teach the system to MOVE as the scapula maintains a proper position/course.

Can more be said about this?  Yes….and I assure you that if you remain as a follower of this blog (or have in the past) this will not be the first you have heard, or will hear of this concept.

….on to the exercise:

First off, I do not own the rights to this exercise (NOR DOES ANYONE), I must have learned it along the way somewhere…or invented it….who really cares anyway, it won’t matter to the person you are prescribing it too.  The exercise is one using bodyweight loading with which you will challenge the ability to set the scapula from a hanging position whilst activating the spinal erectors, and gluteus groups in the process.  Thus this exercise is excellent for activating the entire “Back Functional Line” as it is sometimes referred which consists of the Latissimus connecting into the thoracolumbar fascia into the contralateral gluteus maximus, as well as portions of the “Spiral Line” linking the cervical erectors/rotators to the contralateral rhomboid & serratus (just to note, I hate the ‘naming’ of lines as well as describing them via muscular ‘landmarks’ as it really takes away from the reality that is the myofascial continuum….more on this in the next few posts).  The scapula is very important in linking these ‘chains’ by way of creating a stable base where force can transfer in either direction coupling contralateral sides of the body.  Thus it really works to couple the cervical spine-upper limb-torso-lumbar spine-lower limb functionally.  Activation of this continuum is of utmost importance for almost all functional tasks as it will ‘stabilize’ the entire posterior body during loaded rotations, as well as allow for proper upper to lower force transfers (and vice versa).

The cues for the exercises are to simultaneously perform scapular depression and retraction to lift the body (keeping elbows straight so as not to ‘cheat’ with the arms) and forcefully arch the spine activating the erectors (C-spine to sacrum), and pelvis whilst contracting the Glutes.  You should also cue them to pretend they are ‘bending the bar’ in order to optimize latissimus activity.  The effort is held at the top with a strong isometric effort.

So we have an exercise which actually begins to load scapular motion to a functional degree using bodyweight; that couples the activity of several articulations; and will promote base stability while allowing for peripheral mobility.

You may recognize the motion as the first phase in a proper pull up…and you would be right if the ‘pull-up’r’ understands that the proper pull up contains 3 main components – Scapular retraction, scapular depression, and external GH rotation – whilst this is the correct form, it is seldom to form utilized.  Using the scapular pull-up as a way to prep the nervous system before a ‘pulling workout’ is a great idea btw.  Otherwise, used as an exercise in and of it self, it also acts as a good lever progression as you begin to add GH flexion at the top (ensure that you are also trying to pull the bar laterally in opposite directions for the lever).

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