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How to master the scapular pull-up

Bodyweight training allows you to keep progressing on a basic skill by adding new stimuli through dozens of variations of the same move. Lounge decodes one such move: the scapular pull-up

Knowing how to do a basic pull-up will help in understanding the scapula
Knowing how to do a basic pull-up will help in understanding the scapula (Unsplash)

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The best part about bodyweight training is that you can keep progressing on a basic skill and use different versions throughout your training routine to keep your muscles refreshed by adding new stimuli. With push-ups, pull-ups, and squats being the base for most of these moves, it is no wonder that they have dozens of variations. And the skill of the month for December is how to add a tweak to your pull-up and transform it into a scapular pull-up.

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Knowing how to do a basic pull-up will help in understanding the scapula or the scapular pull-up and appreciating its intricacies. But it is also okay to learn this move while you are working on your conventional pull-up. In fact, a lot of trainers agree that it should be learnt before the full range, regular pull-up.

The muscles the scapula pull-up will target are the lats, rhomboids, traps, and serratus anterior muscles

Scapular pull-ups, also known as scapula pull-ups, are an upper-body workout that uses a smaller range of motion than a regular pull-up to activate your shoulders and back muscles. When performed properly, scapular pull-ups lead to increased upper-body strength. The primary muscle groups targeted by scapular pull-ups include the lats, trapezius, rhomboids, and also the ‘boxer’s muscle’, technically known as the serratus anterior muscles. This is an important muscle because “it is largely responsible for the protraction of the scapula, a movement that occurs when throwing a punch. Furthermore, the serratus anterior acts with the upper and lower fibres of the trapezius muscle to sustain upward rotation of the scapula, which allows for overhead lifting,” says a paper titled Anatomy, Thorax, Serratus Anterior Muscles.

To work these muscles, they must be isolated from the general pulling-up pattern of the conventional pull-up. A masterclass article on performing the move puts simplifies it: “To perform a scapular pull-up, start in a dead hang position with your elbows slightly bent. Perform a reverse shrug to squeeze your shoulder blades together and slightly lift your body upwards. Hold at the top position before you lower back to the start position.”

Let’s break this down. The first step is to perform a dead hang while keeping in mind all the pull-up rules: squeeze glutes, engage the core and make sure the pelvis is tucked in and the elbows slightly bent when you are about to engage into the scapula.

Now here’s the key area where this pull-up differs from the conventional one. According to an article on Hevy, an app which offers workout guides and tracking, initiating a scapular pull-up would require “bringing your shoulders back and down.” This will elevate your body immediately. It is as if you’re doing a reverse shrug using a pull-up bar. “You can think of a mental cue such as bending the pull-up bar with your hands, allowing you to engage your back better and produce more force. Hold the retracted position for a second or two, making sure to feel your back muscles working. Relax your body and allow your shoulders to move forward and up. Exhale,” the guide adds.

Also read: Fitness: Why you need to do the glute bridge

The video guide below on how to perform a scapular pull-up will also help

Conventional pull-ups can, over the long term, trouble your shoulders with niggling pains. The scapula pull-up is something that will take the shoulder out of the picture and add the load to the back muscles, which should be the primary mover during this pulling exercise. “Usually, [the shoulder pain] is because of the forward shoulder position. Scapula retraction is an important part of pull-ups that many people forget about. Scapular pull-ups are a great treatment for this kind of pain,” says a Calisthenicsworld guide titled Why you should do scapular pull-ups.

The reason why scapula pull-ups can become part of your training to master the basic pull-up is that this exercise can help you get to doing one with a full range of motion. Scapula retraction is the first feeling you must look for before doing a conventional pull-up because if you don’t, it increases the risk of shoulder impingement. A full-range pull-up will also increase your lat and bicep activation, and it is important to support these with the larger back muscles.

There are lots of exercises to train yourself to activate the scapula because that is where most people might get the exercise wrong. SaturnoMovement has a video on all the floor exercises you can do in a follow-along routine to make sure your shoulder blades are strong and activated. These include scapula push-ups, face pulls, and even scapula rows.

While it is important to learn the full range of motion moves, especially with body weight, you can also play around with partial moves to isolate specific parts of the body. Mixing these up will provide the perfect balance.

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