Scapula Exercises

3 Myths of Scapula Exercises

Scapula exercises are very common and usually a needed component to any rehabilitation or corrective exercise program.  Like anything else, there seems to be a few commonly accepted themes related to scapular exercises that many people take for hard fast rules.  No program is right everyone!  Here are 3 myths of scapular exercises that I thought would good to discuss.


Pinch Your Shoulder Blades Together

Pinch your shoulder blades.  Squeeze your scaps together.  Retract your shoulders back.  Pack your scapula.  These are all common coaching cues given during scapular exercises.  The goal of all of these concepts is essentially to get into better posture and “set” your scapula back, ultimately resulting in better posture and better movement patterns when performing exercises.  Given that as a society we have an abundance of people with posture.  The classic Upper Body Cross Syndrome of forward head, rounded shoulders.

Normal scapulohumeral rhythm requires a sequence of shoulder and scapular movement simultaneously.  Pinching your shoulder blades together is essentially contracting your middle trapezius to fully retract your scapula and then move your arm.  While this isn’t nearly as bad on shoulder mechanics as lifting your arm in a fully protracted position, I don’t think it is most advantageous to lift your arm in a fully retracted position.  By holding your scapula back, which is essentially performing and isometric trapezius contraction, you are likely limiting the normal protraction and upward rotation that occurs with arm elevation and movement.

Scapula Exercises

If the goal of this common coaching cue is to improve posture and improve mechanics while exercising the arm, maybe a better cue would be to instruct thoracic extension.  Perhaps even combine this thoracic extension with upper cervical extension such as when performing the chin nod with postural exercises like we talked about recently.  This truly improves your posture.  Realize that you can still have a very kyphotic and rounded thoracic spine and retract your scapulas.  Retracting the your scapulas isn’t a bad visual, but the goal is to really get your thoracic spine extended.


Work on Mobility and Strength to Improve Scapular Symmetry

Scapula StrengthWe’ve all been guilty of assessing someone’s posture, finding this forward head rounded shoulder posture, and then assuming we need to work on things like pec and upper cervical mobility while strengthening the lower trap and deep neck flexors.  These are all good things to work on, however this is likely a simplistic view.

First let’s take a step back and get something out of the way.  Your scapulas are not symmetrical.  The vast majority of people are not symmetrical and I would bet even people that are close have subtle differences.  The fact is, we are unilateral creatures.  We are typically one hand dominant and we typically function with predominant movement patterns that are related to this.  This tends to really become an issue when we start to talk about people that perform a repetitive unilateral activity all day.  I’m not just talking about athletes like baseball pitchers, you sitting there at your computer using your mouse in your right hand counts too.

This inherently creates asymmetries throughout the body, including the hips, spine, rib cage, and of course the scapula.

In my opinion, scapular position is more related to rib and thoracic position than anything else, including tight muscles and weak or inhibited muscles.  The scapula rests on the rib cage and thus moves with the rib cage.  Do you need to work on these muscle imbalances?  Absolutely.  However, proper alignment is needed as well and should be assessed first.

Everyone says “mobility before stability,” right?  Well, I’d like to add to that.  How about this:

Alignment before mobility before stability.


Perform Scapular Exercises Bilaterally

Ah, the old YTWL exercises.  I’ve discussed why I really don’t do a lot of the classic YTWL exercises either prone off the table or on a physioball.  I don’t love the upper trap activity needed to stabilize the head and just don’t feel like you get the proper movement pattern you are looking to achieve.  Perhaps it helps with posture.  I am sure there are pros and cons.

However, and probably more importantly, we don’t really tend to perform movement patterns that invovlve moving your arms like in this fashion.  When was the last time you retracted both arms such as during the T exercise?

If I am looking to strengthen a muscle, I am going to stick to my unilateral prone exercises and focus on strength and motor control.  That is my priority.

Then, when function and movement patterns becomes my next priority, I wonder if it is best to work on reciprocal scapular activities anyway?  Far more often we uses our arms in this fashion – one arms pulls while one arm pushes.  This can be seen in some of our most common activities like walking, jogging, and running as well as unilateral overhead sports like tennis, volleyball, softball, and baseball.  Here is a great example from Northeastern University:

Are there times when you should work your scapulas bilaterally?  Sure.  Just off the top of my mind I would do this in swimmers (expecially for the breast and butterfly strokes) and people that have to push and pull large objects at work all day.  It goes back to specificity of training.

The take home message is that you don’t have to work your scapulas bilaterally, and there is some very clear reasons why you would actually want to do the opposite and work the reciprocal push-pull pattern instead.


I hope this at least stirred some thought and discussion.  There is a time and place for everything, however sometimes there seems to be an overwhelming approach in one direction.  Maybe these 3 myths of scapula exercises will make you stop and think next time your are working on improving scapular strength, what do you think?


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34 replies
  1. Aaron Leach
    Aaron Leach says:

    You mentioned in a previous post you have the patient peform the W’s before they do flexion exercises of the shoulder to cue them to retract the scapula? Can you elaborate…

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      Aaron, thanks, I like to do the W’s actively before elevation exercises for certain people. However, I will do the W and then relax in that posture, holding just the posture, which is essentially spine and rib position. I don’t actually cue to squeeze the W and hold. This gets you in a good posture without the isometric hold of the scaps.

      Try doing this and then relaxing your arms and scaps, feels good doesn’t it?

      Does that make sense? I see the potential for confusion.

  2. Angelo L Todaro
    Angelo L Todaro says:

    When you talked about the myth of pinching the shoulder blades together, is this for just overhead work or all exercises that have scapular rhythm, including rows, single and double arm? I’m performing them right now and focusing on thoracic extension and a slightly packed neck and feel far more normal than pinching the shoulder blades together. I’m getting into a great posture position at the finish of the row and my lats are super engaged.

    Thanks for getting the wheels spinning Doc! Total light bulb over my head right now! The stuff you put out is great!

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      Thanks Angelo. It really depends on your goal. I would argue if you pinch your shoulders back, hold this position and perform the row you are performing a lot of shoulder extension and elbow flexion (lats and biceps) and not as much scapular retraction (traps etc).

      If you are more worried about functional movement, you wouldnt want to pinch your shoulder blades before your row, in fact you want to work the sequence:

      Grip -> retract the scap -> extend the arm

      I would actually also add a spiral pattern of forearm pronation and a bit of shoulder IR to ER too but if that is too complicated and over your head just stick to the above thought.

      Functional movement is all about a coordinating your timing of sequential movements.

      • Angelo L Todaro
        Angelo L Todaro says:

        Not over my head at all. In fact I’ve been using the supination/pronation pattern while doing any cable/TRX row for quite some time. Similar to the mechanics of throwing a punch. Supinated slightly when humerus is close to the body and pronated when shoulder is flexed and humerus is out in front of the body. Thanks again Mike! Looking forward to the next awesome info!

  3. Chris Johnson
    Chris Johnson says:

    Great post Mike!!! I get sick to my stomach when I hear people cue pinching the shoulder blades as that strikes me as incredibly unnatural. I also like your thinking re: reciprocity of movement. This is a huge piece for me when working with runners and triathletes. Keep up the great work! I thought this was one of your best posts.

  4. Steven Rice Fitness
    Steven Rice Fitness says:

    Thanks Mike.
    I see thoracic mobility exercises here, but I’m wondering if you suggest t-spine extension strength work(and what)?

  5. Solveig Hlodversdottir
    Solveig Hlodversdottir says:

    Thank you for this great post!
    Interesting point about using reciprocal scapular exercises instead of bilateral exercises. More functional and natural.
    But I often see a problem with those who are always retracting their scapulae to get a better posture that they have no feeling for posture and movement of their thorax and ribs. When they try to extend their thorax they just extend the lumbar and cervical spine and hold the thorax stiff although the mobility is OK. It is often difficult to change this
    Have you any comments or good advice about that?

    • Caryn Grogan
      Caryn Grogan says:

      Great post!
      I agree with the previous post, that I also tend to see those who have poor postural awareness and have a tendency to extend through T-L junction or lumbar spine. I have tried the tall kneel position to help with stability with upper extremity work. I have also added thoracic mobility on foam roller to improve restrictions prior to exercise but often times the poor movement pattern is still there and it can be difficult to correct. Any suggestions?

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      Good observation, maybe because we cue posture by retracting the scaps and extending the lower back. Look towards thoracic mobility, perhaps lumbar mobility is a compensatory pattern.

  6. Kevin Jacobs
    Kevin Jacobs says:

    I think it’s pretty obvious that only working on scapular strengthening exercises when addressing postural deficits isn’t a wonderful approach, as often it’s the low back and legs that need to be addressed. However, when scapular strengthening exercises are used, therapists are often treating shoulder dysfunctions. I can greatly see advantages of the “pinch shoulder blade together” concept in this specific scenario. Seeing that in the early degrees of shoulder elevations, the scapular muscles are working to stabilize and not contribute to active elevations, then I believe it’s very advantageous to raise the arm with scapular retraction within this range to improve shoulder biomechanics. Also, with impingement patients, having improved scapular position can improve subacromial space. With older kyphotic patients, how much are we really going to be able to impact their spinal position? Strengthening weak scapular stabilizers is something that we can do.

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      Kevin agree with many of your points. Realize that I never say one way is right or wrong, just that we should be cautious when we think things are definitive.

      If you pinch your shoulder blades together and isometrically hold your scaps in a retracted position, what do you think that does to your subacromial space when you elevate your arm? I would be worried that you are intentionally altering the normal scapulohumeral motion and preventing normal protraction and upward rotation. Your scaps need to protract to the elevate the arms properly and avoid impingement.

      Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying never to coach this, just to keep an open mind that it isn’t a definitive thing you should do with every person, every time.

      Thanks for your feedback!

  7. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    I really like this because I sometimes get caught in doing both sides. I have some PRI training and learned some techniques to work with the rib cage. I have done this with patients with winging scapula’s and the gap is gone afterwards. So I agree the ribcage and thoracic spine are more important with the scapula than we realize.

  8. Kevin Jacobs
    Kevin Jacobs says:

    Mike -With initial shoulder elevations, the scapula is in the setting phase and reaches 1:1 ratio with increasing shoulder range, so I would never advocate trying to keep the shoulder blades retracted throughout the entire movement. I do see the advantage of elevating the arm with scap retraction in the early stages of active elevations. I would also suggest that if the scapula isn’t stabilized during initial shoulder elevations, then this alone can alter normal scapulohumeral rhythm and I believe this is where the importance of scap stabilizing exercises lies. I just didn’t want to lose sight of this importance and understand that you aren’t discounting these notions. I definitely agree that there are many factors to consider when treating patients and agree that each person should absolutely be looked at with an open mind.

  9. Kirk
    Kirk says:


    I am guilty of using the T, Y, and W with my 13-14 year old baseball players. The problem I face is I try to incorporate some mobility, strength, and speed work at the end of our practices and I feel limited as to what I can do for shoulder health while dealing with a large group (20-24 athletes) and limited equipment. Any suggestions?

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      Kirk, nothing to be “guilty” about. YTWL’s aren’t awful, I would rather do them than nothing. I just don’t prefer to do them bilaterally, with both arms simultaneously. Single arm, they are even better.

  10. Matt
    Matt says:

    One challenge when cuing for thoracic extension is that a great many people can’t actively get thoracic extension in the mid thoracics and tend to get it in the lumbars or low thoracics — flaring their rib cages out. Do you have specific cues you use for that?

  11. Ben Gaffney
    Ben Gaffney says:

    I agree that scapular retraction is an over prescribed, unnecessary, and unhelpful instruction. While I am a Western (Australian) trained physiotherapist by trade, much of my opinion regarding postural cues is informed by the Chinese Internal Martial / Healing arts such as Tai Chi. In Tai Chi stance, when one bends the knees, the entire torso becomes markedly straighter, more vertical, and more relaxed. This posture negates any need to retract the shoulder blades for the purpose of improved posture. This bent knee stance is the kind of stance used in Tai Chi and other Chinese internal martial / healing arts (and by many belly dancers too). It allows marked relaxation not only of scapular retractors, but of neck, lower back, and hip muscles as well. The “load” of the body move onto the thigh muscles and out of the trunk muscles. It is helpful for lower back and hip pain as well as cervical, shoulder, and thoracic pain and tension. Do try it and get back to me with your thoughts on the matter.

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      Great thought Ben. I too would much rather cue something in the body that results in a natural posture of the shoulders than trying to force it! I’ll have to try that more.

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