Think about all the pullups, bench presses, dips and rows you’ve done in the gym. Now what if I told you that you have been doing them wrong?
This oversight is limiting your progress in all of these movements, leaving you with less strength and less muscle, and it’s eventually going to leave you with a shoulder injury that will either restrict you to the pink dumbbell and bouncy ball section of the gym or force you to skip upper body lifting altogether while you recover.
About two years ago I was sitting with Nate Green in a restaurant in Long Beach. What started out with one flirty waitress grew into a group of girls from a nearby table, and Nate went into the line of questioning that he had worked out as part of his research for Built for Show.
“Picture what you consider to be your physically ideal man. He’s wearing boxer shorts and you have a 360 degree view from the neck down. What three areas are you going to look at first?”
One of the top three answers to this question (meaning the place a woman looks at first when she’s trying to decide if you’re worth taking to bed) is almost always “upper back.”
This same mistake that impairs your performance on pulls, presses, and dips also significantly shortchanges the muscular development of the upper back, making you look less appealing to the fairer sex. The good news, though, is that it’s fairly simple to fix.
The mistake: Focusing movement on the arms without initiating from the scapula.
It seems like a simple distinction, but it’s such a fundamental aspect of upper body strength training that it’s the equivalent of initiating a squat with the lower back instead of the glutes.
Why it happens
The North American lifestyle, coupled with common training practices, works to predispose most people to a number of postural imbalances. As far as the upper body is concerned, the main factors at play relate to what you’re doing right now. In order to read this, you’re probably sitting in front of a computer with your arms directed in front of you, your scapulae protracted forward, at least a small kyphotic hunch in your upper back, and your head is most likely too far forward.
Almost all of us do this to some degree for much of the day, whether on a computer, reading, writing, or even driving. Over time, this leads to postural adaptations. The muscles that fire in order to maintain this posture, mainly in your chest, are chronically tightened while the muscles in your upper back and traps are relaxed and weakened in turn.
This tight-chest/weak-back imbalance is exacerbated by the position of the spine. With the upper spine flexed into kyphosis and the head carried along with it, the thoracic spine gradually adapts and becomes limited in its ability to extend. Because the scapulae have a difficult time retracting when the thoracic spine is flexed, you’ve got a one-two punch for faulty scapular function. What all this means is that most North American lifters are prone to some degree of scapular dysfunction, and this will carry over into any upper body lift they perform.
Because the scapulae are unstable and tend to be somewhat winged and protracted (pulled forward), any movement will occur with the humerus pitched anteriorly in the capsule. This anterior translation weakens the force that you can eventually produce in an upper body movement. Any good bencher will tell you that a tight back and strong lats play a huge role in the lift, especially in the early portion of the movement.
Poor scapular function also makes the shoulder prone to impingement and injury. All that grinding you feel in your shoulder when you bench press probably has some roots in the position of your scapulae when you’re training. Fix the scaps and you fix the shoulder.
The last point here is that when all the muscles that should be involved in retracting and depressing the scapulae are left unused or are only partially activated, they aren’t going to grow. This means that your upper back, which is one of the main areas in need of serious hypertrophy in order to exude a look of strength and power (and is also one of the first places a woman looks for when she’s checking you out) won’t be up to par.
How to make it better
The first step is fairly simple: Understand that pulling movements should be initiated and finished with the scapulae. This may feel a bit foreign when you first start focusing on it. You’ll be working with muscles and movement patterns that aren’t as strong or habituated as your old ones. As you pull, think of keeping your head upright and pulling your shoulder blades into your back pockets.
Fixing this faulty pattern by addressing the weak link at your scapulae will eventually enable you to reach new levels of strength in these movements and provide benefit to the entire kinetic chain. Chinning, rowing, and pressing with strongly functioning scaps will ultimately carry over into generating more force throughout the chain, lifting with greater loads, and eventually, to building bigger, stronger arms.
Every repetition you perform in the gym creates an auto-associative memory within your cerebral cortex. This is why it’s crucial that quality should be emphasized on every rep. You’re building a pattern–essentially a habit–and the more heavily ingrained that pattern or habit is, the more likely it will be recalled in the future, particularly if your body is under stress and fatigue.
With enough quality reps over time, this pattern of high quality scapular function will become ingrained strongly enough that it will become the default movement you produce in any upper body movement, even under fatigue.
When you do a pullup, the movement is complete when your scaps are locked in, down and back, as hard as possible.
You’ll probably notice how much more difficult it is to lock your scaps in well instead of just popping your chin over the bar. The bar should be pressing into the lower part of the sternum, not just below your chin or at your clavicles. Your elbows should finish behind your rib cage.
You’ll also notice how much more solid you feel when you do it this way, and pretty quickly you’ll begin to feel a new level of strength and muscle mass developing in your upper back.
Correct Pullup form is demonstrated below – crappy to the left, good to the right:
Always start the bench press by taking a big belly full of air, slightly arching the thoracic spine, and locking your shoulder blades down and back as hard as you can. You should feel a lot of tension in your lats.
In order to keep this tension, you’re going to need a good liftoff from a spotter. Reaching back over your head to pop the bar off the pins is a good way to lose the tightness in your back and pull your scaps out of place. As you lift, maintain that tension in your upper back. Even as the bar locks out and descends, don’t let your scaps drift out. Crazy bell presses are a great tool for teaching this tight bar path.
Due to postural flaws or motor pattern inefficiencies, many people don’t finish a horizontal row with their shoulder blades. Instead, their scapulae remain only partially retracted and they finish the movement by drawing their elbows as far back as possible, which wrenches the humeri forward in the shoulder capsule. Instead, start and finish the pull with your shoulder blades and ensure that your humeri stay seated solidly back in the capsule. The elbows only need to come back as far as necessary to get your scaps locked in.
Keep the head back and the cervical spine neutral during all pulling movements, including chins and pullups as well as rows. Don’t allow yourself to cheat your way through the movement by popping your chin forward to create momentum.
If you care about the health of your shoulders, don’t descend further into a dip than you can go with your shoulder blades fully retracted. As soon as your humeri start to pitch forward, you’re endangering your shoulders and reinforcing a faulty motor pattern.
A good way to speed your progress is to add in some drills to activate the necessary muscles around your scapulae and improve the ability of your thoracic spine to extend. I stole just about all of these from Mike Robertson, creator of Assess and Correct, so if you want to get really in-depth on this stuff, his material is a great resource. These can all be done in a few minutes and would be a good add to your warm-ups. Doing them between sets of upper body lifts as an active rest interval can be helpful as well, and is a good way to get the most out of your time in the gym.
Band Scapular Depressions
Here, you’re going to let the band pull your shoulder blade upward and then use your lower trap to depress it by pulling down towards your hips.
Banded No Money Drill
This one works to activate the scapular retractors, primarily the rhomboids and middle and lower traps. In this one, make sure that the scaps stay locked down. Don’t allow your upper traps to dominate and pull your shoulders up to your ears.
Banded Scapular Protraction
The serratus anterior is an extremely important muscle for quality scapular function. It is often the first muscle to shut down in any sort of scapular dysfunction, so it’s crucial to keep it working well. It functions to keep the scapula locked down to the rib cage and is critical in movements involving scapular upward rotation.
Side Lying Rotation
This one improves thoracic mobility. Keep the top leg bent at ninety-degrees with the bottom leg straight. Brace the abs to prevent motion at the lumbar spine and rotate over as far as you can, following your hand with your head.
Pec Minor Broomstick Stretch
The pec minors have a tendency to become chronically tight. When you see someone whose shoulders always seem to be pitched forward, the pec minor is a likely culprit. Lengthening it will allow the shoulder capsule to fall back into a more natural, safe position.
One simple distinction when you train upper body can make the difference between continual training and injury, between getting stronger and being stuck on a plateau, between developing a massive, well balanced upper back and being that guy who only looks like he works out until he turns around. Pay attention to what you’re doing with your shoulder blades, and you’ll be ahead of the game.
Written by Craig Weller
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums - One Quick Fix for a Stronger Back and Shoulders discussion thread.
About Craig Weller
Craig spent six years as a member of a Naval Special Operations Force known as SWCC, the Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen.
The methods which result from this training philosophy are designed to deliver maximal results with improvised or non-existent equipment in as little time as possible for men whose lives depend on their physical abilities.
This passion for showing others the path to a stronger, healthier body stayed with Craig and led to the founding of Barefoot Fitness with facilities in South Dakota and Denver.
You can keep up with his training methods on Facebook.