The Scapular Pull is like my favourite chin-up assistance exercise ever. It’s really great for developing your muscular awareness of the scapular (shoulder blade) and mid-back muscles, and that’s where you want to initiate the pull when you’re doing a pull-up.
A brief side note: when people use the term ‘chin-up’, they are usually referring to hand placement – the palms are facing towards you, at about shoulder width. When they say ‘pull-up’, it’s the same basic movement, but with the palms facing away from you, usually a little wider than your own shoulders. Semantics, maybe – but that’s the difference between the two terms. Same exercise, different hand placement. You can also do it with a mixed grip – one hand forward and one hand back. Dunno what you’d call that. A mixed-up-vertical-chin-pull? Bit of a mouthful.
Back to the point!
Firstly: if you cannot yet hang from a bar for thirty or more seconds, you are not ready for this exercise. Even if you have built up the strength to be able to hang for a while, your non-contractile connective tissues (fascia, ligaments, etc.) may not yet be strong enough to keep you stable and safe in this position. Proceed with awareness and attentiveness. Pay attention to the feelings in your body, and make sure you get enough recovery (sleep and food) in between training sessions.
You can, instead of pulling your whole weight, hang from a lower bar so that your feet are gently resting on the ground for the entire duration of the exercise (as pictured above), or you can use a seated pull-down machine instead, if you have access to one.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: Having just written Part Five in this series, and explained how to do the Pullover, that might be a better exercise to add into your training program before this one. Depends on you. Have a read if you like, and see what you think]
There is a difference between the scapular and shoulder joints. They function differently, muscles interact between the two, but most arm movements will involve some sort of movement or stabilising action between the two joints. Although we don’t need to spend too much time on the anatomy and physiology of shoulder function, it’s good to cover it a bit. I like it when people understand why they’re training the way they are – it’s better for training longevity; it’s good when you understand the purpose behind what you’re doing.
Typically, if you go to a gym and you’re taught how to do a pull-up, or a pull-down on the pull-down machine, they’ll tell you to keep your shoulders down. The problem is that if you keep your shoulders down and you fully extend your elbows with your arms overhead – you can pinch your shoulder and cause problems in the joint. It’s the scapular joint that allows your shoulders to extend to match and support your elbow extension – so when you start the pull-up – if you’re starting from a position of completely straight arms, you need to have your shoulders up around your ears. In this position, the scapular and shoulder joints are working to support each other, and ultimately it leads to good, strong, safe pull-ups, where you pull your shoulders down and start to bend the elbows together. Then, when you get to the top and your chin pops over the bar – it doesn’t actually matter if your chin goes above the bar, because your focus is pulling through the back. You are arched, your shoulders are pulling back and down, and everything feels nice and solid and well-supported. Everything is engaged as it should be to support a nice, safe, fluid lift.
Unfortunately, if you don’t already have strong shoulders and scapular muscles, the scapular pull can be a bit much for many of us. Injuries can result from overtraining, or from trying to flex through too large a range of motion too soon. So proceed with caution, see how your body feels, see what feels strong, safe, supported, and what feels unsafe, shaky, unreliable. Do more of the former, and less of the latter.
Also, when it comes to loading up with weight – if you try this exercise with too much weight on the bar, it’ll just be uncomfortable. Too little, and you won’t be able to get a feeling for what it’s actually doing. If you pick a good weight for you, you’ll feel the pull coming from your mid-back, but it’ll probably take a while to build up your awareness. You need to search for the sweet spot, pay attention to the feeling in your muscles and joints, and increase the resistance with patience, over time.
Essentially, if I haven’t made it quite clear yet, the purpose of this exercise is to develop the muscular awareness of your back (so that you can learn how to initiate the chin-up with your back muscles, and get more muscle in general behind the movement, and so progress better). It works by strengthening your scapular muscles, and improving the general flexibility and integrity of the joints. In this context, when I use the term ‘strengthening’, I’m referring not simply to the strength of the actual muscles, but more to the strength and sophistication of your neuro-muscular connection. It’s in the nerves! It’s your brain, as much as your body.
Anyway, as the pictures indicate, you’re basically pulling the shoulders down towards your hips, so you swap between the two positions, as pictured. Move smoothly, with control and awareness. If you look closely, you might be able to make out the shoulder blades too – when the shoulders are up, the blades are rotated out – you can see the lowest point of the shoulder blade is turned out to the side – and when the shoulders are down, that lowest point is pulled back towards the spine. But it’s subtle.
It’s pretty simple on the face of it.
Don’t think of lifting your body up, imagine you’re pulling your shoulders back and down, towards your hips, while imagining a slight arch in your back – this way the muscles of your spine are always engaged, and you’re never hanging in a completely relaxed position; your muscles are primed for the lift.
As you pull, allow the body to rotate slightly back. Your eye-line should be a little up, and the slight torso rotation comes from the feeling of pushing the bar forwards, towards the wall. Clearly it’s your body that moves in space, not the bar, but in relation to your torso the effect is the same. As you pull your shoulder blades down, press the bar forwards.
You can experiment with that action now, without holding onto a bar, if you lift your arms up above you and just use your imagination and see what sort of movement you can get through your shoulder and scapular area. Of course, the dynamics will change when you’re hanging from a bar.
These different-but-related actions can all be achieved by focusing on that strong mid-back-pull that I’ve been talking about. As your awareness deepens, you’ll feel a difference between the muscles that pull your shoulders down, those that pull your shoulder blades in, and those that rotate your chest up, but it’s all initiated through that mid-back-pull. What you’re seeking is a strong squeeze underneath the shoulder blades and in between them and your spine. That transfers into – and enables – the chest rotation and lift, which is how the full chest-to-the-bar-pull-up starts.
When we (finally) get to the actual chin-up and pull-up exercises, you might notice that we’re not simply moving up and down, there’s an arc, a slight rotation too. It helps you to pull more weight.
The hands are wide when we practice the scapular pull, because this will probably be the most comfortable position for your shoulders. If you have the hands closer together, you are more likely to feel a pinching sensation in the shoulders. With the wider hand placement, the shoulder blade movement should feel very natural, like the arms are sliding back into the torso and out again in a smooth line – your hands are naturally extending out at a comfortable angle from the shoulder. Play around a bit, the right position will be different for everyone, and as you progress you may want to try an underhand, narrower grip to get a better feel for how this move will apply to the full chin-up.
The elbows do not bend. They can bend a little, that’s okay. But if your arms try to take over, and much elbow flexion is taking place, either you’re trying to pull your body too far through space, or the load is too heavy. Lighten the load, focus the movement in the shoulders and back only, and start small. Increase the range of movement as your awareness improves, as you feel it’s safe to do so.
If you’ve been following my chin-ups training recommendations thus far, for a few months, you may benefit from incorporating this exercise into your training. You could perhaps start with some shoulder warm-up exercises – rowing, arm circles, whatever works for you to get the blood flowing and warm up the joint nicely. Then proceed with a couple of sets of squat-pulls, as outlined in my first post on chin-ups, and follow them with some of these scapular-pulls, and finish off with a few sets of any number of grip and forearm exercises. Mix it up a bit and see what you respond well to. Work for a sense of satisfaction in your training sessions, and if you have a feeling of progress, yay! You’re doing it right.
It’s always hard to judge your progress when you’re working from not being able to do a chin-up, to being a little closer to being able to do a chin-up. Pay attention to how much weight you feel you are using, and try to progress that slowly, without overdoing it.
Even if you can already do a few chin-ups, if you’re like most people you muscle it through with your arms only. The shoulders are raised and tight when you’re at the top, you’re craning your neck to get your chin up, and you don’t feel safe or strong enough to go all the way down to the bottom. This is ‘okay’, as it were – but unless you develop strength and awareness in your back you’ll find progression really hard to come by, and you might find everything is just too damn tight after a period of time, training like that. Then once you do develop your back, you’ll wonder how you ever managed before, because everything starts to feel so much more smooth and well supported.
When I started incorporating this exercise into my training, in a relatively short period of time I went from being able to do four or five chin-ups to being able to do eight or nine, and – because of the increased muscular awareness through my shoulders and back – I went from being able to do zero pull-ups to being able to do three.
It was very exciting, and very useful.
I think that’s about as much as I can explain it all here. The rest needs to be experienced – feel free, play around, see what it’s like, and come back for more details as your awareness deepens. Developing a firm mind-body connection and muscular awareness of your mid-back will help enormously when it comes to progressing your chins.
When we’re focused on weight, rather than health, we seem to want results immediately. It’s rare to see people thinking more than one beach-going season ahead. But when you focus on your health and development, you realise that you want to be healthy in years to come as well as now, and you start to think about it all a little differently. You might be tempted to suck it up, risk injury, and tough it out for short term goals, but the only way you’ll still be training in ten years is if you use your own sense of enjoyment and satisfaction as your compass. Like learning new things? Acquiring skills? Take your time. Work enough, but not too much, at something that interests you. Something that stimulates your curiosity and sense of achievement. We’re all going to be here for a while, if you’re working on your health, maybe even longer. So what’s the rush? You can spend a year on chin-ups, and it won’t be wasted time.
Anyway, ask questions if you got ‘em.