Proper Scapular Activation in Pull-ups

Do you want to do more pull-ups? Of course you do right? Doing more pull-ups will make you stronger, allow you to do more work in your workouts, and therefore making you more fit and sexy!!!!

In my 17 years of fitness coaching and 33 years of being an athlete myself, one thing I have seen again and again is the inability of many to properly activate the middle/lower trapezius and rhomboids to correctly control your scapula in the pull-up.

You have probably seen this but just didn’t realize what it was you saw. You or a “friend” hanging from the pull-up bar and as the pull-up begins, the shoulders shrug up high next to the ears. From a performance standpoint this is inefficient in that you are asking the upper trapezius to do too much work and not as much work is done by the lats. Not only is it inefficient, you are risking long term durability of the shoulder joint and your ability to continue performing pull-ups in your fitness training.

How do we fix it?

  1. Scap pull-ups
    1. Begin in a normal pull-up position with a palms-away grip and hands shoulder-width apart.
    2. From a full hang, with just slightly shrugged shoulders, you want to draw the scapula down and together, thus raising your body slightly but without bending your arms and pulling as in a regular pull-up. The best learning cues are: Try to “bend the bar” and think about doing a reverse shrug (i.e. shoulders drawn downward). Do this, and you’ll feel your head shift backward and your chest raise upward, as your scapular pinch together.
    3. Hold the top position for one second, then return to the starting position. The range of motion is only a few inches to a foot or two (when you get really strong!).
    4. Do six to twelve reps, keeping nearly straight arms and tight spinal erectors and glutes throughout. At first you may find this to be a difficult exercise (a sign that you’ve found a critical weakness to correct!), but resist the urge to overdo it.
    5. Do two sets with a three-minute rest in between.
  2. Band Pull-Aparts
    1. Grab a mini to light looped band just outside of shoulder width while holding your hands at chest height.
    2. While always keeping tension in the band, pull the band apart by pinching your shoulder blades together until your hands are at least in line with your torso, then bring it back to the start position just outside of your shoulder width.
    3. Do 15-25 reps, keeping the arms straight the entire time as well as bracing your abdominals.
    4. Do 2-3 sets with 1-2 minutes rest between.
    5. Experiment with different hand positions to get a “feel” for what gets the most activation out of your middle to lower trapezius muscles.
  3. Bent over barbell rows
    1. Grab a barbell with a double overhand grip at the same width you would normally use in the overhead press.
    2. Hinge at the hips until your body is just above being parallel to the floor (think hang position of a clean)
    3. Pull the barbell towards your belly button or upper abdominals
    4. Initiate the movement by retracting the scapula and hold the weight for a single count before slowly returning it to the starting point.
    5. Choose a weight that you can perform 6-8 reps with excellent technique.
    6. Do 2-5 sets and add weight as you become stronger with the movement.

The list here is not exhaustive by any means but if you incorporate them 1-2 times per week or at a minimum on the days there is more pull-ups, hit it before class, you will begin seeing fast progress in both your pull-up strength and endurance.

-Coach Neal Thompson

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *