It’s kinesiology hour applied to calisthenics! There’s a bit of info that’s constant regurgitated incorrectly all over YouTube and various forums in regards to instruction on a simple shoulder movement that I want to clear up. By the end of this post, you will have a better understanding of the actions of the shoulder and shoulder blades.
So first, a little review of all the ways the shoulders and shoulder blades (scapulae) can move:
- The shoulder blades can move backwards and forwards (retraction and protraction):
- Scapular retraction is the pinching of the shoulder blades back together.
- Scapular protraction is the pushing of the shoulder blades forward and apart.
- The shoulder blades can move up and down (elevation and depression):
- Scapular elevation is when the shoulders are shrugged up to cover the ears, like in a passive dead hang.
- Scapular depression is when you pull the shoulders down, away from the ears, like in an active dead hang or L-sit.
- The arms can move up all the way above your head (flexion) or down all the way behind you (extension).
- Shoulder flexion is when you raise your arms up, like in a handstand pushup, planche or overhead press.
- Shoulder extension is when you pull your arms down to lift your torso up, like in a row, pullup or front lever.
- There are more actions of the shoulders but these are usually the most relevant with bodyweight exercises.
- Any exercise usually involves many of these actions simultaneously.
Here’s a visual representation of the above actions
Here’s a hilarious video by Tyson Edwards who made a song showing the scapular movements 🤣
- The exercise he’s doing and the lyrics:
- Row: Retract so nothing snaps,
- Plank: Protraction for satisfaction,
- Handstand: Elevation to feel elation,
- Active Hang: Depression so you’re not like depressed.
Now here’s the bit that needs a wee bit of clarification:
Basic scapular pulls and arching scapular pulls are exercises that provide a solid foundation for all pulling-exercises (such as pullups and front levers). They are often used as a warm-up as well.
Basic Scapular Pulls
A basic scapular pull is one where you simply hang from a bar, go into a passive dead hang by relaxing your shoulders so they slide up to cover the ears (shoulder elevation) and pull them down away from the ears (shoulder depression) and repeat. During shoulder depression, the shoulder blades naturally retract as well so scapular retraction is occurring as well.
Video of those Basic Scapular Pulls (Elevation paired with Depression+Retraction):
Arching Scapular Pulls
An arching scapular pull (aka arching active hang) adds another layer of action: Instead of just performing shoulder elevation and depression/retraction, you also perform shoulder extension. Shoulder extension is when you pull your arms down to lift your torso up.
Video of Arching Scapular Pulls (Elevation paired with Depression+Retraction+Extension):
Internet trainers often don’t teach that aspect correctly…
I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve heard people say that an arching scapular pullup is a basic scapular pull but with the addition of retraction. No! It is the wrong cue and all it does is reveal a hole in your understanding of how the body works.
How trainers who don’t understand basic kinesiology explain it like this:
- Basic Scapular Pullup = Elevation -> Depression 👎
- Arch Scapular Pullup = Elevation -> Depression + Retraction 👎
What it actually is:
- Basic Scapular Pullup = Elevation -> Depression + Retraction 👍
- Arch Scapular Pullup = Elevation -> Depression + Retraction + Extension 👍
If someone was not formally trained with anatomy, I understand how they could mess this up, but what’s happened over the years is people regurgitate/parrot whatever was said in older videos/posts without knowing they’re wrong.
- The guy in this video says the arching scapular pull trains depression and retraction. It trains depression, retraction and extension. The extension is what causes your torso to go up (towards horizontal from a dead hang). It is a major action of the lats.
- The gal in this video regurgitates the same info as above.
- Even Ido Portal gets this wrong! For the arching scapular pull, all he does is cue that retraction should be happening here. Well, retraction is already happening, but it’s the extension/pulling down that should be happening!
If you pull the shoulders down away from the ears, you are naturally going to be depressing and retracting because when you bring the shoulders down, the shoulder blades will be coming together as well (retraction). If you want to arch the back by raising the torso up toward horizontal, you do so by pulling the hands down to perform shoulder extension as it’s called. That is how one performs that movement. It takes a ton of strength to pull off meaningful range, and it takes time for it to improve but it can be done with practice. This “shoulder extension” (driving the elbows/arms down) is exactly what you do in a front lever with straight arms. It is also exactly what you do in a pullup but with bent arms.
Anyway, did you ever think you’d read 800 words on this topic? Neither did I! But hopefully you understand shoulder mechanics a bit better now as a result! Did you enjoy this post? Would you like me to delve into anatomy/kinesiology more? If you have any questions, please let me know!