Updated: Feb 21, 2019
You hear it all the time in a studio, an instructor telling a student to engage the upper back. This is great, it can help prevent injury and let a student use more muscle groups to achieve moves, however many students have no idea what this means.
Scapular retraction is the term for pulling the shoulder blades inward, like you are holding an orange between the blades. This engagement activates the rhomboid and trapezius muscle groups, which helps support the body in inversions and pull-ups. These muscle groups are smaller than the lats and pecs and it is easy to forget to activate them, especially when doing complicated movement. The other important step in scapular retraction is to depress the shoulders back and down as the shoulder blades squeeze together in scapular retraction.
Here is our favorite chart of incorrect and correct scapular retraction and shoulder engagement.
Many students will return to the last two photos when they are about to hop into a move. These engagements are hard on the body and can cause injury. We constantly remind students to find scapular retraction during class with cues and reminders, but if a student has never felt this engagement they may not understand. Another important component is to not just engage the rhomboids, which are dead center from the shoulder blades, but to activate the lower traps which are below the shoulder blades and wrap up the sides of the spine to join the upper traps. It requires extra engagement to activate the lower traps and many students will have to practice activating the lower traps. Here is a great post on Upper Back Imbalances.
Ways to Feel Scapular Retraction
Scapular Retraction Push-up
This push-up is a small movement push-up and the arms should not be bending like a regular push-up. Begin in plank, students may also do this on the knees. Squeeze the shoulder blades together, keeping the shoulders back and down and let the chest drop toward the floor a few inches. The shoulder blades should be moving inward. Using the traps and rhomboid lift the chest back up to a flat plank pose. This should only be small movement. This is a Pilates exercise.
Single Arm Row
This move has the same concept as the scapular retraction push-up. Begin in a table top position, using a hand weight pull one shoulder blade inward in a single arm row. Keep the arm straight, do not bend at the elbow or wrist. Activate the rhomboid and trapezius muscle groups, with control lower back down. Single side isolations can help students breakdown the movement if they are not understanding it. This row is a great way to build strength in this area. You can do three sets of 12, two times a week to start building strength.