The name “pull-up” would imply using your arm muscles to lift your chin up and over a bar. However, the basic pull-up is not a biceps-focused exercise but an upper posterior movement which means you need to have strong and functional scapular muscles to do them efficiently. But you also need to understand proper scapular movement and that is where scapular pull-ups are an excellent pre-pull up training technique that will help you to optimize your pulling performance.
In this guide, you’ll find a short detailed video demonstration with written exercise instructions, best variations, and more.
In This Exercise:
- Target Muscle Group: Latissimus dorsi, trapezius
- Type: Strength, technique
- Mechanics: Isolation
- Equipment: Bodyweight
- Difficulty: Intermediate
What is A Scapular Pull-Up and Why Should You Do Them?
You can think of scapular pull-ups as partial pull-ups. The idea is to train just a portion of a full pull-up, more specifically to ensure your scapula (shoulder blades) is sliding up and down the ribs properly which allows the large latissimus dorsi (lats) back muscles to facilitate the pull-up and not the rotator cuff muscles (bad idea). This is important not just for effective and efficient pull-ups but also to protect your shoulders.
How To Do Scapular Pull-Ups
Scap pull-ups strengthen your back muscles and reinforce proper pull-up posture and technique if done right. Below we’ve included step-by-step exercise instructions plus a detailed video demonstration.
Step 1: Setup/Bar hang
- Grab the bar with a full or thumbless overhand grip, arms spaced roughly shoulder-width apart or a few inches wider. Let your body and head drop down into your shoulders and relax your back muscles. Try to eliminate swaying back and forth before you begin scap pull-ups.
Step 2: Bend the bar
A common yet effective technique to lock your lats in position is to pretend you’re bending the bar. You’ll do this right before you perform the scap pull-up.
Step 3: Retract, pull, and protract
There’s more that goes into a perfect pull-up than meets the eye. Pay attention to the small details and you’ll have a better understanding why your muscles need to move and function the way they do.
- Pull your shoulder blades back (retraction) and pull down on the bar while keeping your elbows fully locked out. Slowly drop yourself back down into the starting position and allow the shoulders to protract (extend) upward.
Pro tip: Your elbows should always be fully extended with no bend at any point during scapular pull-ups.
Check out the short video tutorial below to watch a demonstration and explanation of scapular pull-ups.
If you’d like a more in-depth explanation of scapular pull-ups including a detailed anatomy lesson and demonstration, we recommend taking a few minutes to watch the following video.
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Why are scapular pull-ups a good idea? Here are a few benefits to be expect from this variation.
Learn proper training technique and keep your shoulders healthy
The whole idea of scapular pull-ups is to reinforce proper posterior positioning and ensure the lat muscles are doing their job. This will, as previously mentioned, ensure that your shoulders ae not overstressed ad overworked.
Progression to full pull-ups
The good thing about scapular pull-ups is they mimic the first part of a pull-up but you don’t actually have to be strong enough to perform a regular full range of motion pull-up. It’s a great technique to build up your scap strength and even better because your body weight is the resistance.
Aim to do a little better each week combined with other techniques to build your pulling strength and you’ll eventually own the pull-up!
Stretch out your spine
Pull-up variations are great for stretching out the spine, back and shoulder muscles. Scapular pull-ups start from a dead hang with the shoulder protracted and you return to this position each repetition which means you’re getting a good stretch in the meantime.
Are there any drawbacks to doing scapular pull-ups?
Requires grip strength
If you can’t hold onto a bar and hang for at least 30 seconds, you probably cannot do bodyweight scapular pullups. Start with one of the other variations like machine assisted or cable pulldowns that are more ideal for beginners.
These are the best scapular pull-up variations that you should consider including in your workouts as they’re ideal for building strength, muscle, and function ability.
1. Scapular pulldowns
Scapular pulldowns will do the same thing although instead of pulling yourself up, you’re pulling a bar or resistance bands down. Cables or a fixed lat machine are perfect options and the technique should be exactly the same. The advantages of pulldowns are that you can use less weight than your body. Even if you ever plan to do a pull-up, you can learn and develop proper scapular functioning as it pertains to resistance training.
2. Machine assisted pull-ups
Another alternative for beginners or those who cannot hang their weight from a bar, pull-up machines are a great piece of equipment. You can adjust how much assistance you want while tracking your progress each time you hop on the machine. Another advantage is you can practice as much as you want without your grip being a limiting factor.
3. Front levers
This is the exercise you want to do when you want something even more challenging than bodyweight only pull-ups. Front levers are a gymnastic based calisthenics exercise suitable for more advanced exercisers and it’s an awesome test of strength that will earn you looks at the gym!
Like pull-ups, you just need a pull-up bar to do them.
4. Basic pull-up
Scapular pull-ups can help you prepare for your first pull-up or improve your pull-up performance. You probably got the idea by now that pull-ups are the end goal. It’s, in our opinion, a must-have back exercise, and science has shown that it is the superior option for activating the latissimus dorsi muscles (1).
How To Program Scapular Pull-Ups
Scap pulls are great for beginners and intermediates who can still benefit from practicing proper training techniques and optimal lifting mechanics. However, advanced exercisers shouldn’t think they’re too good for such exercises, especially when doing weighted pull-ups.
Many times during a set of pull-ups we get tired or the last few reps are extremely challenging and the poor form starts to take over, causing heavier use of the rotator cuff muscles which you don’t want. Then later on you start to feel these little body pains.
It’s always a good idea to practice the little things that help to ensure we stay injury free and get the best results possible. There’s a saying that often holds true for many things the human body included – “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.
The key to effective scapular pull-ups is focusing more on quality than quantity. A few sets of ten reps each with perfect technique is more than enough for most people.
- 2-3 sets x 10 reps
Scapular pull-ups work all the same muscles as regular pull-ups. We’ve included a description of their anatomy and function below.
The trapezius or traps is a superficial muscle that spans the upper back. It’s a interesting muscle that has three sections of fibers: upper, middle, and lower.
The upper fibers are responsible for elevating the scapula and extending the neck. The middle fibers retract (adduct) the scapula, the lower fibers depress the scapula and aid the upper fibers during upward rotation of the scapula.
These actions help to rotate the scapula against the levator scapulae and rhomboids. The traps are also an important postural muscle group.
The latissimus dorsi or lats for short is a broad, flat muscle that spans from up near the neck and down the back. It helps to adduct, medially rotate, and extend the humerus. The lats are also involved in moving the trunk forward and upward when the arms are positioned overhead like during pull-ups and pulldown variations.
The scapular pull-up is a top-tier technique that anyone can use to build upper posterior strength and reinforce optimal scapular positioning and movement. Pull-ups are more involved than just pulling yourself up to a bar, at least if you want to build an amazing back and see consistent and lasting progress. The little details matter when trying to maximize your gains.
We hope this guide will serve you well in improving your pull-up performance!