Scapular Control & Trunk Tension

I believe that scapular control and trunk tension are subjects that I have written about previously, but never together.

Today we shall examine why a combination of these 2 principles form the basis for the effective and efficient execution of most strength-based movement patterns that are expressed through the upper body.

Let us take a look at some classic bodyweight strength-building exercises for the upper body. The first 2 movements that spring to mind are the pull up and the push up.

Who are the guys (or gals) that you see struggling with these 2 exercises? They are mainly people whose shoulders are shrugging up in the pull up, and those individuals whose shoulder blades are excessively retracted during the push up.

I have covered the general cues for the scapular (shoulder blades) in an earlier post, so I shall not go into them again in any great detail here.

Just a quick summary for those of you who haven’t caught my previous article on the relationship between upper body strength and scapular positioning:

1. The scapulae should be depressed and retracted for most hanging/pulling movements such as the front lever and the pull up.

2. The scapulae should be depressed and protracted for most pushing/pressing movements such as the planche and the push up.

3. When you become proficient at a particular movement you may be able to perform it with any shoulder positioning, although the general cues that I’ve outlined above in the previous 2 points optimises your strength and power output.

So let’s go back to the 2 examples that I’ve highlighted earlier on: elevated shoulders during the pull up and retracted shoulder during the push up.

For people who are new to these 2 exercises and who have not strengthened and conditioned their scapular complexes sufficiently, inadequate scapular stabilisation and control can be a real problem.

When your shoulders shrug up during the pull up instead of being neutral or depressed, your lats (the large wing-like muscles that line the sides of your back from armpit to waist) tend to become disengaged, and that makes it extremely difficult for you to generate much pulling force on the bar, seeing as how the lats are the powerhouses for most of our bodyweight pulling movements.

When your shoulders blades are protruding from your back during push ups, the excessive retraction usually relates to a sagging bodyline, and makes it harder for you to engage the muscles of your chest optimally in the pressing phase of the movement. When the scapulae are out of whack with the rest of your body, your upper body musculature becomes inefficient, as alot of these muscles are actually attached to the shoulder blades.

The other important facet concerning strength-based upper body movements is the creation and maintenance of trunk tension.

You will invariably find that keeping your abs and glutes slightly tensed during exercises like the pull up and the push up makes them easier to perform. If you are new to this technique you may find it unfamiliar and hence uncomfortable at first, because your body is a creature of habit and you will often feel some mild discomfort doing something that you are not used to doing initially.

But once your body gets used to expending that certain amount of energy to tighten your trunk, you will find that many bodyweight movements become easier to perform, because it is far easier to move something rigid, as compared to shifting a sagging mass of loose muscle and tissue.

You may be able to get away with minimal trunk tension and sloppy scapular positioning on some of the “easier” bodyweight movements, but as you progress to the more advanced stuff that are mechanically disadvantaged in terms of leverage, a combination of sound scapular control and voluntary trunk tension becomes a must. Most of the time for alot of these moves your entire body down to your legs has to be tensed about as rigidly as a board for you to even have a hope of holding the positions.

If you can hold a front lever or a planche with loose shoulders, sagging abs and legs that flop around in the wind, I take my hat off to you, for truly you can claim to have achieved absolute mastery of these movements, with monstrous strength to boot. 

For the rest of us mere mortals, we have to rely on scapular control and trunk tension to attain these gravity -defying moves, to keep our all-too-human flesh aloft with the refined application of muscular effort and mental focus.

So whenever you are performing bodyweight strength moves that involve the upper body, always remember to keep your body taut and your shoulders accordingly tight for the movement that you are executing, and you will be able to optimise your strength and power output, to make these moves as easy as they can ever be. 🙂

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

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