What is Scapula

 

The scapula is an often term used by calisthenics coaches and experts. Beginners or athletes new to the approach might wonder: what is the scapula?🔍

🤜Your shoulder blades, or scapula, play an important role in your overall health and fitness. They are the foundation for many calisthenics exercises, and if you want to get the most out of your workouts and improve overall shoulder health, it is important to understand their function and anatomy.

🎯In this article, we will discuss what the scapula is, its anatomy, and how you can use it to improve your strength and mobility.

We’ll cover the following topics:

  • 📌 What is the scapula
  • 📌 Functions
  • 📌 Importance to calisthenics and daily movements
  • 📌 How to develop them

Let’s get started!

 

🤔What is the scapula?

The scapula is a triangular-shaped bone that makes up the back wall of the shoulder socket. It is responsible for connecting the upper arm to the thorax and plays an important role in many movement patterns aside from the movements you can do in calisthenics.

The scapula functions to:

  • ✅ Stabilize the shoulder joint
  • ✅ Provide a base of support for muscle attachments
  • ✅ Facilitate smooth and coordinated movement of the arm
  • ✅ Protect the nerves and blood vessels that pass through the shoulder region

💪Muscles controlling the scapula

To gain control over the scapula, strengthening and mobilizing the surrounding muscle groups is the key. There are more muscles and nerves connected to the scapula but these four muscle groups are the primary stabilizers for the shoulder blades.

👊Serratus anterior – AKA puncher’s muscle, the serratus anterior helps protract and retract the scapula. It’s also an excellent cue to distinguish protraction from shoulder abduction.

👊Rhomboids – This muscle helps stabilize the scapula region during retraction. Weak rhomboids will result in weak and incomplete retraction of the shoulder blades.

👊Trapezius – Also known as traps, this muscle group consists of the upper, middle, and lower traps that help facilitate movement in the scapula. They help out in elevation, outward rotation, retraction, and depression.

👊Levator scapulae – This muscle functions by assisting in elevation and downward rotation movements.

 

💥Why is the scapula important in calisthenics?

 

Scapula

💥The scapula is important in calisthenics because it is the foundation for many exercises. Without a strong and stable scapula, you will not be able to perform exercises such as pull-ups, push-ups, or dips effectively.

From basics movements to even advanced ones, developing a strong and mobile scapula is a must. or else, you might get yourself injured in the long run, get inefficient movement patterns, and experience pain and weaknesses in the shoulder joint.

Scapula positions

Here is the list of scapula movements you need to know so when performing calisthenics exercises, you’ll know how to position the scapula properly.

✔️Depression – This motion signifies pressing the scapula downward. Imagine pushing your shoulders down and away from your ears.

✔️Elevation – Most commonly used for handstands, the scapula elevation can be done by shrugging your shoulders towards your ear.

✔️Protraction – The cue for protraction is pushing your scapula apart as possible. Take note that the chest shouldn’t necessarily close or cave inward.

✔️Retraction – Pinching the scapula together moves the scapula into a retracted position. This is commonly associated with pulling motions and the bottom position of basic push exercises.

✔️Upward rotation – When you raise your arms overhead, the scapula move in an upward rotation.

✔️Downward rotation – In contrast, moving them back into position or further into extension as if performing shoulder dislocates.

These movements all together provide a stable base for upper body and arm movements. Hence, it’s vital to strengthen and mobilize the scapula to achieve a strong and stable upper body. Having weakness in this area will immediately manifest in form of weak shoulders or even pain and tightness in the area.

Although, we take for granted the scapula, especially when with the current work office conditions where we tend to hold a single posture for an extended period of time. Also, people tend to focus on the major muscle groups when working out.

Training the scapula is a must to achieve healthy shoulders while also maximizing the performance of your workout.

🔥Scapula placement for major exercises

Not every exercise has the same scapula position. Each movement demands different scapula positioning to improve shoulder stability and exercise efficiency and safety.

Here is the ideal scapula placement for upper body exercises. For lower bodywork, it’s common to keep it in a neutral position since we’ll just be focusing on the lower body.

💯Push-ups – Depression, protraction at the top, retraction when you go down and at the bottom position. But positioning can also vary depending on the push-up variation. For example, pseudo planche push-ups use a full retraction throughout the range of motion. For handstand push-ups, the scapula is always elevated.

Different push-up progressions here:📌 8 Challenging Push-up Progressions to Spice up Your Training

💯Dips – You can benefit most from a retracted scapula for dips. This allows you for maximum chest activation in the exercise. At the same time, maintain a complete depression in every portion of the exercise to keep your shoulders stable and safe.

The same protocols apply to ring dips:📌 The Ultimate Ring Dip Tutorial

💯Pull-ups – As you engage from a dead hang, depress and retract the scapula through the movement. You can either sustain the depression and retraction at the bottom to start in an active hang each rep or go into an upward rotated and elevated dead hang.

There’s also the case of a protracted scapula during pull-ups or chin-ups. This is also known as a hollow position. This lessens the demand from the lats and transfers it to your arms and core. It’s not necessarily incorrect.

Pull-up progressions here:📌 The Ultimate Pull-up Progressions

💯Handstand – For handstands, elevation is a must. You will automatically rotate your shoulder blades upward when you move your arms overhead, but for elevation, you need to actively shrug your shoulders. This will stabilize your shoulder when you subject your full body weight as you go into a handstand.

Learn the handstand here:📌 How to Achieve the Freestanding Handstand

💯Planche – Protraction, and depression are optimal for stabilizing your shoulders and maximizing force output to hold the planche. Collapsing the shoulders into elevation and retraction is a weakness and unsafe for the joints. If this happens, consider regression in an easier planche progression.

To learn more about the planche, read here:📌 The Planche Ultimate Guide

💯Front lever – Front lever scapula is an interesting discussion. Usually, it’s advised to perform with a retracted and depressed scapula. However, gravity pulls the scapula into a neutral or even in a protracted position. You might not perfectly hold a fully retracted scapula in the front lever, but it’s enough to keep you in a neutral-looking position. But keep depressed shoulder blades for maximum control.

For a front lever tutorial, check:📌 The Ultimate Front Lever Guide

💯Back lever – The same situation applies to the front lever. The back lever position pulls you naturally into a retracted scapula, but you have to push down into protraction. Keep your shoulders depressed as well.

💯Muscle-ups – Since this move is a combination of both dips and pull-ups, the scapula position is also a combination of the two movement patterns. From the dead hang, activate your scapula by depressing and retracting your shoulders. As you transition into the dips, maintain them in full retraction and depression.

💯Squats – As mentioned earlier, the scapula assists in upper body movements. For bodyweight squats (or even weighted variations), a neutral scapula is good enough since you’ll primarily be focusing on the lower body.

 

🏆How to strengthen the scapula?

⭐️One of the best ways to strengthen the scapula is by doing calisthenics.  This is because calisthenics works on all aspects of the muscle, including the tendons and ligaments. This means that you not only build strength in the scapula but also improve its range of motion and flexibility.

While you can strengthen already the scapula with the calisthenics fundamentals such as pull-ups, push-ups, dips, bodyweight rows, and the rest. You can also directly train the scapula with specific scapula exercises such as the following below:

Direct scapula exercises

👊Scapula push-ups

This exercise is excellent for improving your depression, retraction, and protraction. It’s also scalable and you don’t need any equipment at all to perform the exercise.

Just make sure you’re executing the movement through your scapula. A common mistake is bending your arms which transfers some power into your arms and chest. Keep them locked out and externally rotated.

Scapula push-ups also transfer directly to pushing exercises such as planche, push-ups, and dips.

How to perform:
  1. Begin in a regular push-up position on the floor.
  2. While maintaining the same body posture with arms still straight, retract the scapula only.
  3. When you reach the retracted position, pause for a few moments.
  4. Slowly go into full protraction.
  5. Pause for a few moments.
  6. Repeat this motion for reps.
Coaching pointers
  • Keep arms straight
  • Scapula should only be moving
  • Maintain depressed shoulder in the whole movement
  • Core engaged
  • Straight body posture

Easier: Go down to your knees

Harder: Place a resistance band over your upper back with your hands holding them in place

👊Scapula pulls

To improve your pull-ups and rows, and your scapula retraction and depression, you must perform scapular retractions.

Once you get enough strength in this exercise, you can even transition to deepen it into a front lever.

How to perform:
  1. Begin in a dead hang position with a pronated (overhand) grip.
  2. From there, depress your shoulders.
  3. Retract your shoulders as much as possible and hold the position for a few seconds. This is known as the active hang.
  4. Lower down with control.
  5. Repeat for reps.
Coaching pointers:
  • Choose a grip width close to a shoulder-width position that’s comfortable for you
  • Move along your capable scapular strength
  • Keep a straight arm
  • Engage your core

Easier: Perform in a bodyweight row position instead

Harder: Pull deeper with a wider range of motion as if going into a front lever already

👊I-W-Y-T’s

This exercise is popular in physiotherapy, and for a good reason. These holds are actually a single exercise with varying arm placement to improve the strength and mobility of the scapula.

The different angles help you target different positions of elevation and retraction. The Y’s and I’s are also excellent for overhead mobility to improve your handstand.

It’s also very easy to remember the motions since their names refer to the shape you will be making with your arms and body.

How to perform:
  1. Lie down on the floor with your stomach on the floor.
  2. Tilt your hips backward to engage the core.
  3. Depending on the exercise, position and raise your arms accordingly:
  • I’s – Arms overhead and off the floor.
  • W’s – Extend your arm sidewards then pull your elbows towards your hips so that your arms resemble the letter W. Arms off the floor.
  • Y’s – Arms overhead and off the floor and in a Y position.
  • T’s – Extend your arms sidewards and lift off the floor.
  1. Hold the position for a specified time.
Coaching pointers:
  • You can use one position or change position from time to time
  • Core engaged
  • Posterior pelvic tilt – A good cue is to make a gap between the floor and your stomach
  • Full-body tension
  • Full retraction
  • For I’s Y’s – Full elevation
  • For T’s and W’s – Full retraction
  • You can hold the position or transition to lifting your arms on and off the floor

 

👊Scapula rotations

Mobility is an important factor for healthy shoulders. Scapula rotations are fantastic and very easy to perform. It’s also a good warm-up to loosen up the joints before an upper-body training session.

How to perform:
  1. Rotate your shoulders clockwise while passing through a maximum range of motion of elevation, retraction, depression, and protraction.
  2. Go counter-clockwise with the same number of reps and quality of motion.
Coaching Pointers:
  • Perform the exercise slowly
  • Be aware of scapula positioning while moving the shoulders
  • Exaggerate the peak of each scapular movement
  • Core engaged

By doing these exercises consistently, you will notice a huge difference in your shoulder stability and strength. Not to mention, your posture will also improve as a result!

But scapular exercises are not limited to these movements alone. There’s a variety of variations also available.

You can also perform them loaded with resistance bands or even weights. Just make sure to progress gradually as weighted variations are easy to overdo.

 

🔥Scapula workout

Here’s an example of a scapula workout. This should be performed in your primary exercises to overload the scapula. However, some of these movements can also be performed on your warm-up and rest days. Check this article for a complete warm-up explanation: The Ultimate Guide to Calisthenics Warm-up

Scapula Workout

Scapula push-ups – 3 sets of 8-12 reps

Rest in between sets 60-90 secs

Scapula pulls – 3 sets of 6 – 12 reps

Rest in between sets 60-90 secs

I’s, Y’s, T’s, W’s – 3 sets of 5 – 8 reps or 10 to 20-sec hold

Rest in between sets 60-90 secs

Scapula rotations – 3 sets of 10-15 reps

Rest in between sets 60-90 secs

Play around with what works for you. You can also use two of the exercises to complement your upper body workout and then use the others in other sessions for example.

Workout day 1 – Scapula push-ups, scapula pulls

Workout day 2 – I’s, Y’s, T’s, W’s, Scapula rotations

Workout day 3 – Scapula push-ups, scapula pulls

There’s a lot of flexibility involved when creating a workout for your scapula. Just keep it consistent and you will see progress.

Aside from these exercises, also make sure you are staying attentive in scapula positioning and motion when performing the training movements.

 

📌Takeaway

The scapula is a very important but often overlooked body part. By taking care of your shoulder blades and surrounding muscle groups, you will not only notice an increase in strength and stability but also see improvements in posture.

Start including these exercises in your routine and pay attention to your form. Even performing a single set of these every day of these exercises will do wonders for your scapular health.🩺

The scapula is, of course, just one part of the equation. You still need to train the rest of your body to actually feel, see, and reap the results.🩺

If you want a personalized training routine that can take you towards your goals efficiently and safely as possible, then check out The Movement Athlete.🤳

👊Begin your personalized calisthenics journey by taking a short assessment to know what your body can do and what you need to work on.

 

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