Monday, August 29, 2011

Training the Scapular Retractors and Depressors

Protracted shoulders are very popular these days. As a society, we work at desks all day and then we drive home from work and then we sit at home for a few more hours. The majority of the day is spent at work and once the day ends on the couch, we will have spent roughly close to 12-16 hours sitting down. The constant slouching and endless gravitational pull creates a "comforting" stress on the shoulder girdle that pulls the humeral head forward in the glenoid fossa. 

The gravitational pull that exists--although we tend to forget--takes a toll on the human body over a period of time. The effect it has on the body is more evident in the elderly and people of poor stature. The pull of the earth subjects tissue, organs, and appendages to subdue to its power over a long period of time.

The weak, deconditioned, and more immobile one is, they are more susceptible to the pressure exerted everyday by gravity. The stronger and more conditioned you are, the less likely your body “gives in” to the subtle stress of gravity. However, those that are chained to the seated position for years on end, become sandwiched between gravity’s sustaining pressure; and the reciprocal pressure of the object the body is located in between. In this case, it is the desk chair
I know there are days when your head feels like it is in a vice, but your body is literally in a vice every day, every hour.

Every part of the body should be pain-free, but the shoulders are exceptional in this regard because they dictate how functional one will be--both in the gym and in life. For anyone that has ever had shoulder pain or discomfort, it is a nagging disposition that hinders your physical outlook and confidence. Once we experience shoulder discomfort, we immediately stop all types of exercise that involve that area. This may not always be the most effective approach. Most shoulder issues can be resolved simply by addressing the scapula. 
 The scapula musculature includes the serratus anterior and lower trap region. The latissimus also serve as powerful stabilizers of the upper-body and do have a part in keeping the scapula stabilized during any shoulder movements. Targeting the stabilizers of the scapula can be tricky. Most trainees compensate any scapula stabilization exercises with shrugging, protraction, and poor ROM. 

I've been using a easy scapula stabilization exercise resembles a press. However,  I use the cable and position my body so the load is located in front of my body. Once in position, I step away from the cable tower a few inches in order to produce a "stimulus" that triggers me to retract the scapula and depress. Check out the video.

Unlike free weights, the cable tension from the front forces my posterior muscles to stabilize the load. A couple of things to remember if you try:
1.) Step away from the column. Leave yourself about 6-8 inches.
2.) You can adjust the height of each cable attachment. The lower your go, the more difficult the exercise becomes. With beginners, I try to stay about waist height and simply watch the load.
3.) Pack the neck.
4.) Keep a strong, tight core.
5.) Maintain a 90 degree angle at the elbows during the pressing portion (return) and explode upwards.

Lastly, you cannot do this exercise sloppy. It is not a "shoulder" exercise. Most guys will load up the stack and hit sub-maximum weights in order to "work the delts". Adding too much weight without adequate progression, will force the lifter to let the arms slide in front of the body. This will relax the scapula retractors and depressors. Not the goal. Keep the weight challenging, but under  your control. This will allow the arms to stay in-line- with the torso.

Try it out and let me know what you think!


  1. Nice way to activate the serratus. For retraction I prefer to use the cable columns and do standing rows with each arm pointing out 45 degrees then lead with scapulae for the pull. I haven't had good retraction in 15 years till I started doing this for the last month. Good stuff John, I am going to have to try it.

  2. Thanks Akyoda. Give it a try and tell me what you think!

  3. I bought this DVD along with the Stronger Seniors Yoga for my mother, who is neither a senior or immobile, but healing from a major surgery to her abdomen due to a cancerous tumor. Seeing a once very active women sitting on the couch killed me. These DVD's have got her active again and has allowed her to heal at the same time. There is accommodations for all levels of ability, and you can choose a long workout or a basic one. It also seems she has more energy and is happier, which is very important to the healing process. I found that I got a good workout as well. These DVD's are great and I recommend them for anyone.


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