The muscles you care about are the muscles you can see. After all, do you want to have big lats or strong hip flexors? That’s what we thought. However, as you may or may not already know, what you can’t see does matter. Enter the shoulder blades. Ok, ok, your shoulder blades are visible and you know they exist, but did you also know that they’re crucial for pressing strength, shoulder stability, and mobility?
Your shoulder blades, or scapula, are pieces of triangular-shaped bone that are the attachment point for 17 different muscles. When we put it like that, it sounds more important, right? While you can’t directly train your scapulas (they are bone, after all), you can perform movements to strengthen your shoulder blade support system. Below, we’ll dive deep into the best scapular exercises and provide more information about the area in general.
Best Scapular Exercises
- Reverse Band Flye
- Reach And Row
- Push-Up Plus
- Stability Ball Push-Up
- Band YTWL
- Overhead Carry
- Stability Ball T- Spine Extension
- Mini Band Wall Slide
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.
Band pull-aparts are good for the scapula, but band reverse flies are better. Both of these moves focus on scapular retraction (more on that below), but the banded reverse flye provides a longer range of motion (and therefore more tension). Also, because the range of motion (ROM) is extended, you can work the muscles around your shoulder bladed more fully than the limited ROM band pull-aparts provide.
Benefits of the Reverse Band Flye
- Targets the posterior deltoids and the major upper back muscles, including the rhomboids and trapezius
- Has a larger range of motion than band pull-aparts making them more effective for upper back hypertrophy
How to Do the Reverse Band Flye
loop a resistance band with handles around a pole or the column of a cable machine. Grab a handle in each hand and take a few steps back until the band is fully taught. Keeping your elbows straight, chest up, and shoulders down, pull the band apart until your arms form a T. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
These are performed with either a band or with a cable machine. This is a standard single-arm row with a twist. At the start of the movement, you’ll reach forward, moving one scapula away from the other to engage your serratus anterior and provide an active stretch in your upper back.
Benefits of the Reach And Row
- An increased range of motion, which gives you more muscle-building potential.
- Helps improve the overhead range of motion at the top of the movement.
- Trains the serratus anterior.
How to Do the Reach And Row
Grab either a D-handle attached to a cable machine or a resistance band with handles loop around a sturdy object. Walk back with the resistance in one hand until the band (or cable) is taught. Assume a split stance. Lean your torso forward and reach towards the anchor point and then pull the handle towards your hip while keeping your shoulder down and then stand up straight.
A lot of people finish the push-up by locking out their elbows. This isn’t wrong, but you want to push beyond lockout to protract your scapulas to specifically target scapular movement. This looks like rounding your upper back, but what it’s doing is training the serratus anterior — a muscle that attaches the scapula to the rib cage that gives you that cut look underneath your pec.
Benefits of the Push-Up Plus
- Engage the serratus anterior, a neglected muscle when it comes to shoulder health and performance.
- The extra range of motion provides more of a muscle-building stimulus to the triceps and pecs.
How to Do the Push-Up Plus
Set up in the push-up plank position, hands underneath shoulders and body in a straight line from head to heel. Lower yourself down toward the floor until your chest almost touches and then push up and then push your hands through the floor, protracting your shoulder blades by rounding your upper back as a cat would. Straighten your back out and then return to the starting position and repeat.
Doing any exercise on a stability ball will make it harder. That’s not to say doing every exercise on a stability ball is a good idea — but doing push-ups on one is. Your shoulder blades are responsible for movement but also stabilization. This is one of the few moves o the list that challenges your scapular stability by having you perform a basic move on an unstable surface. The balance and stability required to stay upright on the ball will target the stabilizing muscles around the shoulder blades, which will carry over to overall shoulder stability.
Benefits of the Stability Ball Push-Up
- The unstable surface of the ball recruits more abdominal muscle, further strengthening your core.
- Strengthens the stabilizing muscle of the scapula.
- A great way to increase the intensity of your push-ups without adding weight.
How to Do the stability Ball Push-Up
Start in a push-up position with hands centered on either side of the stability ball and both feet about hip-width apart on the floor. Brace your core, squeeze your glutes, and lower yourself down to the ball. Stabilize yourself and press back to the starting position.
This is performed with either a pair of dumbbells, your own body weight, or a looped band. The benefit here is that you’re hitting all the aspects of movement that your shoulder blades enable. Ipso facto, the muscles needed to engage in those specific planes of motion will get stronger and more fluid. Note that you’ll be stronger in some positions (like the “W”) than others, so it might be more effective to train each phase of the exercise of them in separate sets.
Benefits of the Band YTWL
- Develops better scapular stability by strengthening the shoulders and upper back.
- Trains the upper back from various angles that mimicks either in daily activities or on the sporting field.
How to Do the Band YTWL
Anchor a looped band at the upper chest level, grab either end and then take a few steps back. With your arms in front of you, raise arms overhead in the shape of a Y for five reps, then a T for five reps, and then the W for five reps. Keep the elbows high with the L movement as you pull the band towards you and then rotate up for five reps.
The overhead carry is performed with either a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, or a trap bar. No matter what variation you do, it’s one of the more difficult of all the carries. Overhead carries strengthen scapula stability by training your scapula muscles in a difficult position and improving overhead stability for movements such as overhead press, squats, and clean and jerks.
Benefits Of The Overhead Carry
- Improves overhead stability, core stability, and scapular stability.
- Increased strength and hypertrophy for your upper back muscles and shoulders due to the time under tension from having weight overhead.
- It can be done with a variety of equipment.
How to Do the Overhead Carry
To do a barbell overhead carry, start by cleaning and pressing the weight overhead. Or, you can start with the bar loaded in a power rack. Ensure that your hands shoulder-width apart. Your biceps should be by your ears, and your wrists should be straight and neutral. Take small, slow, and deliberate steps while looking straight ahead. If you need to turn around, please do so slowly.
Best known as a brutal core exercise, the L-sit also requires you to drastically retract the scapula, training the neglected lower traps, which is important for scapular stability. Push your shoulder blades down and away from your ears while performing this. If it’s too tough, keep your feet on the ground and lift them off one at a time.
Benefits of the L-Sit
- It’s a total body strength exercise that trains the lower traps, which is important for scapular stability.
- L-sit trains your entire core, including rectus abdominals, obliques, hip flexors, quads, triceps, shoulders, pecs, and lats.
How to Do the L-Sit
With straight arms, place your hands on the equipment and hold tight. Lift your legs and keep them straight until they are parallel to the floor, and you are the shape of an L. Bring your shoulders back and down, keep your back straight, and look straight ahead with a neutral neck.
Thoracic mobility promotes scapular stability, which improves shoulder mobility. If your body senses a lack of mobility, then compensations will be made up and down the kinetic chain, leading to pain and injury over time. There are tons of T- Spine extension variations by not many that lock in your lower back and work against gravity like this one.
Benefits of Stability Ball T- Spine Extension
- Lying on the ball reduces lower back pressure since you’re not supporting as much of your body weight.
- Improving thoracic mobility helps get you into the starting position with barbell squats and the lockout position of the overhead press.
How to Do Stability Ball T- Spine Extension
Lie your stomach on a stability ball with your hands behind your head and ankles crossed over behind you. Gently extend your upper body by taking your chest off the ball without arching your lower back. You should feel a tightening of the upper back and a slight stretch in your chest. Return slowly to the starting position and repeat for reps.
This is an excellent exercise that takes wall slides to a new level. The stock standard wall slide works the scapular retractors, outward rotators, and lower traps. Adding the mini band further strengthens your outward rotators and scapular retractors as your hands resist the band pulling you in.
Benefits of the Mini Band Wall Slide
- These help increase shoulder mobility and the strength of your upper back muscles and scapular stabilizers.
- Help improve the overhead range of motion and position.
How to Do the Mini Band Wall Slide
Put a mini band around your wrists, one foot to the wall, the other foot back. Place your forearms on the wall at shoulder height. Breathe all the air out of your lungs and stand up straight. Slowly slide your forearms up the wall until your elbows are extended. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat,
All About the Scapula
The scapula, commonly known as the shoulder blade, is a bone that 17 different muscles are attached to. This bone is vital for one’s ability to move their arms and a variety of ways. Almost every upper body movement involves the mobility and stability of the scapula. Here are the six different types of movement that your scaps allow for:
- Scapular Retraction and Protraction: Protraction and retraction of the scapula involve your traps, pecs, rhomboids, and serratus anterior. You retract your scapula when performing movements like barbell rows and single-arm rows. Protection is simply the opposite motion. Your chest and serratus anterior muscles push your scapula apart when doing push-ups or bench presses.
- Scapular Elevation and Depression: This motion, which looks like a shrug, is when your rhomboid and traps raise and lower the shoulder.
- Scapular Upward and Downward Rotation: Your scaps engage in upward and downward rotation when bringing your arms out and up, similar to how a lateral raise looks.
Your scapula is the anatomical glue that connects many muscles and enables a myriad of movements. Simply put: Without your scapula — a bone that acts as a fulcrum to so many muscles — you couldn’t use your arms.
Anatomy of the Scapula
The scapula connects with the humerus at the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint and with the clavicle (collar bone) at the acromioclavicular (AC) joint. This series of connections is how the scapula connects your arms to your trunk.
It is a triangular and flat bone that serves as an attachment site for 17 upper body muscles. (1) Two large muscles attach to the anterior of the scapula, where it rests against the thorax.
- The subscapularis muscle, which is part of the rotator cuff, attaches to the scapula’s front.
- The serratus anterior muscle, which attaches around the medial edge of the scapula near the spine and passes anterior to the scapula and wraps around the chest wall
Along with the others, these two major muscles pull and push the shoulder blades, much like a lever, to move mainly the arms.
The Benefits of Training Your Scapula
Let’s clear one thing up: You can’t actually train your scapula. It is a bone. When anyone (us included) says “train the scapula,” they mean the muscles that stabilize, support and move the scapula bone. It’s harder to sell the benefits of scapula training because it is not visible. If someone were to ask you whether you wanted a pair of shredded, 18-inch arms or stable shoulder blades? Well, come on.
Still, it’s important to give the muscles around your scapula attention. Stronger shoulder blades typically mean more stable and mobile shoulders — and that can translate to stronger overhead presses, smoother snatches, and less back-rounding during deadlifts. Now we’re speaking your language, huh?
If the muscles around your shoulder blades are stronger, then that means they’re more supportive. In a roundabout way, this means you can pack on more muscle. Think about it like this: A stronger shoulder blade support system (in this case, your traps and upper back muscles) can retract more forcefully. And scapular retraction is usually the primary cue for performing moves like barbell rows and pull-ups. Strong muscles related to the shoulder blades mean a stronger scapular retraction, which may translate to more rows and pull-ups (and other muscle-building moves).
The same logic applies to stabilizing heavy weight overhead. When you do a clean and jerk and have to support, say, 300 pounds overhead, it’s your shoulder blades that are the focal point of all those supporting muscles. A stronger support system for your scapula means a better ability to support overhead loads. Is training your shoulder blades sexy? No. But you should do it.
Programming Suggestions, Sets, and Reps
Because the scapula attaches to so many muscles, they will be trained during back and chest movements. We suggest selecting two to three exercises from the list above and performing them as a part of your warm-up. For the L-sit and farmer’s carries, we suggest doing these for time and distance. Start with two to three sets of 10 seconds and 30 steps. (We like measuring farmer’s carries in steps since it’s more practical than trying to measure yards or feet.)
For moves that you can count with reps, stick with two to three sets but aim for six to 10 reps. You don’t want to go all out here. Use a light weight, lift with control, and feel the muscles work here.
More Scapula Training Tips
Now that you have a handle on the best scapula exercises to strengthen your shoulder region, you can also check out these other helpful shoulder training articles for strength, power, and fitness athletes.
- 3 Essential Prehab Exercises To You Keep Lifting For Longer
- The 7 Best Mobility Exercises fr Better Movement
- 4 Mini Band Exercises to Improve your Shoulder Mobility
- Miniato MA, Mudreac A, Borger J. Anatomy, Thorax, Scapula. [Updated 2020 Jul 27]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538319/
Featured image: Paul Aiken/Shutterstock