Scapula – The Secret of Calisthenics

I wish I was aware of the importance of scapulas, when I first started body weight training… The reason is that, you can’t improve as a Calisthenics athlete without having complete scapular control.

Hence, this post is dedicated to this hidden area of strength, called scapula.

I say “area of strength” in view of the fact that, while working on your scapula you will experience impressive strength gains and realise your true upper and lower body potential!

And I say “hidden”, because most trainees overlook this critical element, due to lack of knowledge or just out for boredom, since scapulas are not muscles and you can’t gain them!

scapular muscles from behind

Precisely, the scapula is not a muscle it’s a bone.

It is part of the shoulder joint and connects with the Clavicle and the Humerus.

Scapulas consist the connection points between your trunk and your arms.

There are several muscles connected to each scapula, as you can see in the picture.

but why is scapula so important?

The proper scapula position is the key for the most efficient muscle contractions, while performing different Calisthenics exercises, effecting your progress and gains. Having a mobile and stable scapula is really important in various pulling and pushing exercises, as well as in those done in support or hanging.

Consequently, scapulas help you perform these exercises in Full Range of Motion, which is the only way to acquire strength and control at all angles of the movement.

I can’t stress enough how important performing in Full Range of Motion is, when working out!

Going through a Full Range of Motion will result in: 

  • Better muscle balance
  • Better joint stability
  • Proper activation of the working muscles
  • Better overall movement quality
  • Enhanced overall effectiveness

Additionally, if you know the movements of your scapulas and you can apply them in different exercises, you can insure your continuous progress, as well as prevent injuries. The bad scapula position is a common reason of shoulder injuries, as it can put your joints in a bad position, not to mention the injury of the muscles that are connected to the scapula.

Hence, not the scapula bone itself, but its movements and positions in different exercises are the secret!

scapula movements

We can describe the scapula movement with the movements of the shoulders, since those two are connected.

The shoulder blade is capable of 6 movements which are the following: elevation, depression, retraction, protraction, upward rotation and downward rotation.

In calisthenics the most important movements are the elevation, depression, retraction and protraction as well as their combination too.

If you have never tried these scapula movements, then, as a first step, you should do them isolated in order to build neuromuscular connections and gain full control of the movements.

An effective way to do that is by raising your arms in front of your body and perform the elevation and depression:

and then the retraction and protraction:

When you will fill comfortable enough with these movements and will be able to connect them to a circular motion forward and backward, then you can do the same thing in knelling support:

This is a really good way to move around your scapula as part of your warm up.

These scapula exercises have two in one, mobilisation and stabilisation affect.

Thanks to the concentric and eccentric phase, we can move and strengthen these movements in the biggest possible range of motion between the upper and lower end points.

By doing these exercises we are increasing the range of motion, while becoming stronger as well!

If somebody’s hypermobile, he could use these exercises to stabilise the joints and strengthen the muscles. On the other hand, if someone has tight shoulders, he could use them to stretch the muscles and increase their range of motion.

Scapular stabilisation exercises

Firstly, as the most basic, we have the scapular push ups:

In this exercise you need to do active scapula protraction and passive scapula retraction with depressed shoulders, straight hands, engaged core and posterior pelvic tilt.

You can use it to strengthen your shoulders and better stabilise your scapula, for it’s movements during any push-up variations or any pushing exercise in the horizontal plane.

Not to mention that the upper end point of the scapular push up is the first step towards the planche, since during this skill you have to maintain depressed and protracted scapula as well.

The next exercise is the scapula retraction in hanging:

Here you need to do the opposite of the previous exercise, so depressed and protracted scapula with locked arms and tight core.

With these exercises you can strengthen the first phase of the inverted rows (or Australian pull ups), the scapula activation.

This movement helps your pull ups as well, if you want to do them with perfect implementation and in full range of motion. It is also essential, in order to be able to touch the bar with your chest.

Moreover, an example of this exercise from the advanced moves is the front lever. There, you need to strive for a depressed and protracted scapula, even if it’s mostly impossible to maintain, due to the unfavourable mechanical position.

The next important movement is the scapular depression, which you can do in support or hanging:

The scapular depression is a very important basic for the stable supported position on the parallel bars, as well as the ring support hold and other more advanced ring exercises.

On parallettes, it can be performed with the support of your legs at the beginning and then, as you progress, without any support.

When hanging, the scapula depression is not only important for the perfect pull up, but it also improves your grip strength and endurance.

Besides that and contrary to the popular belief, hanging is not bad for your elbows, wrists and shoulders. The opposite is actually true! It really helps to decompress and relieve your joints, as well as your spine too.

Returning to the exercise itself, it’s really important to perform it in a decent range of motion, in order to have more control and muscle activation. In such manner, you will improve any pulling exercise in the vertical plane, from the regular pull up to the advanced muscle up.

Thus, with only this exercise you can fix the most common mistake that people do while doing pull-ups, the Full Range of Motion! Which also happens to be one of the most important reasons why they can’t learn the muscle up too.

Conclusion

In conclusion, you can see that learning and strengthening the scapula movements is essential in calisthenics.

If you want to perform simple movements like the push up or pull up the fastest and most efficient way, not to mention the most advanced moves like the handstand, planche and front lever, you need to work on your scapula strength and stability.

This is the secret key to a strong upper body and it has to stop being overlooked as of today!

This post is dedicated to Alfie, my closest friend for the last 12 years.

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