Why you need to master scapular retraction

Whether you are lifting or into bodyweight exercises you need to understand the importance of shoulder retraction. Its relatively simple, shoulder retraction is the ability to pull your shoulder blades together towards your spine without shrugging your shoulders.

Imagine you have a pencil in between your shoulders, the idea would be to hold the pencil with your shoulder blades.  By understanding scapular retraction your back and chest movements will greatly benefit due to proper muscle activation.

A couple of examples:

  • During a pull up or barbell row, prior to the movement, you need to shoulder set your shoulder down and in (retraction) to effectively activate the lats and traps during the movement. If you are not in retraction, you are most likely in protraction (shoulder blades are spread away from the spine – think hunched posture), if this occurs your shoulders will bear a good portion of the weight you are about to lift. Not ideal for shoulder health as you run the risk of injury.  If you are rowing or pulling and you feel it in the shoulders, you need to learn how to retract your shoulder blades ASAP!
  • During a dip or bench press, a similar principle applies. You shoulder blades should be in full retraction prior to the movement. A simple body position cue, if you are on a dip bars or bench, your chest should be in front or ahead of the shoulder. If this is the case, you are most likely retracted. I caution to say stick your chest out because many will mix this up with thoracic extension and won’t focus on retraction. If you are squeezing your shoulder blades together and maintaining that position, your chest will be in the right position. Just like rowing and pulling if you are feeling dips or bench press in the shoulders your shoulder position is sub-optimal.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the shoulder should be completely absent during these movements, but rather not be the primary contributor. By understanding shoulder retraction, the weight will be optimally spread among the appropriate muscles and should result in a less strenuous movement and a reduced risk of injury.