If you want to be strong overhead, strong in general, you slouch a lot, or you’d just rather minimize the chances of injuring your shoulders, paying attention to the health and mobility of your scapulae — that’s your shoulder blades — is crucial.
They need to rotate at the right time in the right direction, they need to pull when they need to, and they need to help take pressure off of your chest muscles. Fortunately, scap health and mobility has become increasingly popular, and the following exercises have moved from physical therapy clinics to the average gym. If you want to avoid shoulder and back injuries both today and down the road, listen up.
How Do I Test My Scap Health?
There are so many moving pieces around the scap that it can be hard pick out dysfunctions, particularly among folks with a lot of muscle mass. But there are a few tests that may point you in the right direction.
“The first one is when we have athletes do a high row, meaning elbows stay at eighty to ninety degrees and then they’re drawn back to make a row position,” says Matt Unthank, MS, CSCS, the director of training at Crossover Symmetry, an exercise system designed for scap and rotator cuff health. “Then we look at the ability to adduct or retract the scaps during the row without shifting them upward. A lot of athletes don’t, maybe because of weakness, it could be tightness of muscles on the front side, the pec minor, the leviator, or the upper trap.”
The second test that a physical therapist might administer is simply bringing the arm overhead. The shoulder blade should upwardly rotate to match that, but athletes with shoulder pain are often missing that upward rotation.
“One more thing we see in a lot of athletes is scapular winging or tipping, which would be the medial border of the scapula pulling up and off the back,” says Unthank. “Ideally, you should be able to grab onto someone’s scapula and move them around the room and it should sit flush with the ribcage. But when we see weakness in those scap stabilizers, that causes it to move up and off the back, which would be a bad position.”
He’s not such a fan of the pencil test, however. That’s when you hold a pencil in either hand with your hands by your side. Some say that if the pencil points straight ahead (meaning your palms point straight to your thighs), you have healthy scaps.
“It’s a tad diagnostic,” says Unthank. “If someone’s shoulders are rolled forward and they fail the pencil test, they might have bad thoracic extension, but you certainly can’t say that anyone who slouches doesn’t have the mobility to hit some of these overhead positions. But it can be an indicator, sure.”
This is a phrase referring to the fact that strength, stability, and mobility, isn’t always a localized matter. In an overhead squat, bad ankle mobility can affect your ability to keep the torso vertical. In a sumo deadlift, poor hip mobility can make an athlete pitch and cause a bicep tear.
When talking about the scap, regional interdependence is important because poor mobility in the area isn’t just caused by weak scaps. Even if you have great scap mobility, thoracic kyphosis (aka slouching) can cause issues, as can tight pecs.
A good lifter has good dynamics around the shoulder blade. Can you get the scapulae to retract and then posteriorly tilt in the overhead position, upwardly rotating to track with what the arm needs to do overhead? Is there a good movement pattern between the scap and the humerus? Is the movement of the scap combined with control and stability of the rotator cuff to create a better position for overhead movement? These three questions all come into play in the program.
That’s why the following series of exercises addresses both the scap and other areas in the torso that exert an effect on them. They’re not the be all and end all, but these nine movements are the most fundamental and efficient ways of covering your bases when it comes to scap strength and mobility.
The Best Exercises for Scap Health
Band reverse flies
Band pull-aparts are good, but band reverse flyes are better. The force vector that happens when you’re doing band pull aparts is a little different; with the reverse flyes, the pattern of pulling the band across the body creates a stretching and pulling that gets the middle and lower traps firing in a more effective manner.
Of course, band pull aparts are miles better than nothing, but if one band is all you have, consider attaching it to an anchor and doing flyes one at a time.
Standing band rows
“A really effective way to set these up is to have a person standing and facing the resistance, rather than doing a bent over row with a dumbbell or a barbell,” says Unthank. “This requires more engagement of the core and the hips and you have to set up the position from the feet up, which I think creates a more functional position that’s going to relate better to what the person is doing for their sport.”
That said, if you don’t have bands or cables, a bent over row can still do a great job.
A lot of people finish the push-up by locking out their elbows but to really improve scapular movement it should finish with the scaps pulling around the body. The serratus interior is a muscle that attaches the scap onto the rib cage and to get it firing. Finish the push-up with protraction at the end range — push up, and keep pushing so the serratus is stretched tight.
Note that you’ll be stronger in some positions (like the “W”) than others, so it might be more effective to train each of them in separate sets. That way you’re not overloading one range of motion and underloading another. Got no bands? Try doing YTWLs lying facedown, using gravity for resistance.
Overhead walking lunges
The Y in particular is a super important exercise to improve the upward rotation of the scapula by getting the lower trap and the serratus anterior firing. That’s why it’s an excellent idea to also include overhead walking lunges into your scap health program, as it trains a functional movement pattern rather than trying to isolate the movement in a vacuum. Dumbbells or kettlebells are best but if your mobility needs a lot of work, doing them with a barbell will let you keep your hands a little further apart.
Best known as a brutal core exercise, the L-sit also requires you to depress the scapula on the back, training the lower trap. Push your shoulder blades out of your ears during this one. If it’s too tough, keep your feet on the ground and lift them off one at a time.
Eldoa T-6 T-7
“I’ve taken a lot of physical therapy classes but my Eldoa class is in my top three of all time,” says Steve Horney, DPT, CSCS, a physical therapist based in New York City. “This is one of the only exercises that make me feel like I’m getting the most activation out of my middle traps and scap stabilizers.”
The short version: sit crosslegged, push the knees toward the floor, brace the core, and press your hands together overhead. Watch the video above for a more detailed breakdown.
“Thoracic and rib mobility promotes scapular ability, which protects your shoulder,” says Horney. “If your brain senses a lack of mobility in that area then it won’t give your middle traps the ability to fire the way it should and there’s no way you can get your scap in the right place.”
Try to use your core to protect your lower back while you’re doing these. Bad thoracic mobility is also a product of bad posture, so remember that working this aspect is an all-day job. Don’t slouch and keep your core tight.
Roll the pec minor
Remember that talk on regional interdependence? Tight pecs protract and bring the scap forward, so you need to work your front as well as your back.
“The pec minor is like the middle trap on the front,” says Horney. “If it’s really right and bound up, it’s gonna be constantly telling the scap, ‘I got this, you relax,’ so you’re never going to get that good amount of neurological input to the middle trap.”
A lacrosse ball helps. Roll it on the area between the upper crease of armpit and the nipple and you’ll be in the vicinity of the pec minor. Remember that it should feel like a massage; if it’s too painful or you’re losing sensation, you’re probably not in the right place.
Stretch the pec major
Finally, stretch your pec major. You can do this on the bus or on any wall on the planet, just try to make it feel like you’re stretching your pec and not you shoulder joint. It’s anywhere between 60 and 120 degrees of elevation, and while some clinicians say they have a precise angle you should use, it’s a pretty independent thing. You’ll know it when you feel it.
This is a lot of exercises, but given our sedentary, slouchy lifestyles, it really is a good idea to focus on keeping scap health and posture in top shape and activating these muscles with one or two movements every day. Picking up a resistance band for your desk is a good start, or if you’re really dedicated, you can pick up a system like Crossover Symmetry for your home or workspace.
Featured image via @competitorstraining on Instagram