Bent Arm Strength, Straight Arm Strength & Scapular Control

As promised, here’s some of the more important stuff that I learnt during the Ido Portal certification course that not many people know, but which everybody should.

Upper body strength is often the favoured focus of most male fitness enthusiasts. Let’s be honest, training the legs is downright boring as compared to the stuff that you can do with your upper body.

This is because our hips, the major joint through which most lower body movements are expressed, are capable of much lesser complexity as compared to our shoulders, the primary joint through which virtually all upper body movements originate.

Those of you (and this should mean all of you) who have read Convict Conditioning should know that there are 3 main upper body movements (overhead pressing, forward pressing and pulling), as compared to only 1 for the lower body and legs (the squat).

Humans crave complexity, as articulated most expertly by Ido Portal. We get bored doing the same thing the same way. We are seized by a constant need to find new and more challenging ways to do the same thing once the old method has been mastered. This is human nature.

The focus on this post will be on a few of the central tenets that underpin the whole concept of upper body strength:

Bent arm strength, straight arm strength and scapular control.

There are only 2 major types of upper body movements as expressed through the arms – pulling and pushing/pressing.

There are also only 2 main types of upper body strength – bent arm strength and straight arm strength.

Bent arm strength refers to the type of strength that is required in any upper body movement in which the arms are bent at the elbows at any point in time during the execution of the movement. Some classic examples include your conventional push ups, pull ups and dips.

Straight arm strength refers to the type of strength that is required in any upper body movement in which the arms are kept straight at the elbows throughout the entire duration in which the movement is executed. Some examples are front levers, back levers, side levers (human flag), planches, handstands, iron crosses etc.

Bent arm strength generates movement in the upper body by bending the elbows and thus engaging the surrounding muscles of the arm (mainly the biceps and the triceps). Straight arm strength generates movement in the upper body by pivoting the entire body on the shoulders alone, and the elbows are kept straight and locked by muscular effort.

That straight arm strength is more challenging as compared to bent arm strength is a simple observation to make.

Many people can do “planche” push ups, but out of every 10 of these guys, I’d go so far as to say that probably only 1 or 2 can hold a proper planche with straight arms. This is because bent arm strength is something that comes to us quite naturally, and it is by far easier to develop as compared to its straight arm cousin.

You’ll notice that most of the straight arm strength movements are extremely disadvantaged in terms of mechanical leverage. Great strength is required to hold the arms locked out and supporting the rest of the body in the required position.

The difficulty also increases because there is greater demand on scapular stabilisation and control in straight arm positions as compared to bent arm movements.

The scapulae, or shoulder blades, are the bones that connect the humerus (upper arm bone) with the clavicle (collar bone) as defined by wiki. The scapulae are very mobile structures, and their movement is linked to the engagement of the many muscles that are attached to them, such as the trapezius, the rhomboids, and the serratus anterior to name but a few.

Ido Portal brought across the concept that scapular stabilisation and control is the true source of upper body strength, especially at very high levels of strength and power output and connected to the development of straight arm strength in particular.

If you can stabilise your scapulae, they will form a powerful platform upon which great strength can be generated. But if you fail to stabilise your scapulae and if they shift away from a power position when your perform certain upper body strength movements (esp. for straight arm positions), your strength and power output will be greatly reduced and hugely limited, to the extent that some of these movements become nigh on impossible for you to perform.

In general for upper body movements there are 2 planes of scapular movement that you need to concern yourself with – the vertical and the horizontal planes.

The scapulae can be moved up and down. When you shrug your shoulders, the resultant upward movement is known as elevation. When you bring your shoulders down below their normal, neutral positions, the resultant downward movement is known as depression.

The scapulae can also be moved towards the front and back. When you push them forward of their normal, neutral positions the resultant movement is known as protraction. When you bring them back as if you’re trying to squeeze something between your shoulder blades the resultant movement is known as retraction.

General scapular cues for straight arm hanging/pulling movements and positions such as the pull up and the front lever are for the shoulders to be depressed and retracted. General scapular cues for straight arm pressing movements and positions such as the push up and the planche are for the shoulders to be depressed and protracted. And of course the shoulders should be kept neutral in both the vertical and horizontal planes of movement for the conventional handstand.

Of course when you become extremely proficient at these moves you can perform them with virtually any shoulder positioning; however at the start it is best to stick to the most optimal shoulder positions for maximum strength and power output.

Ultimately scapular control is a form of muscle control, for the movement of the bone is dependent on the movement of the adjacent muscles. Don’t worry at first if you are having trouble with some of these shoulder positions; some of them may be relatively new to you and it will take time and effort to cultivate the control that you desire with practice.

Hopefully what I’ve shared in this post will be useful for you; they were a great insight for me that cleared up some of my long-time confusion concerning upper body strength training. Become a master of scapular control and straight arm strength, and you will scale new heights in your upper body strength training that you may never have dreamed of previously. 🙂

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~


One Response to Bent Arm Strength, Straight Arm Strength & Scapular Control

  1. Ammar says:

    Very nice post and well put together under one roof about straight arm and bent arm strength.

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