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Strength Training Technique: Scapular Movement During the Push-up

Written on January 9, 2013 at 4:09 pm, by Eric Cressey

I absolutely love including push-up variations in strength training programs, but only if they’re done with correct technique.  Check out today’s video to make sure that you’re getting the right scapular movement on your push-up variations:

Addendum: several folks have asked for a video of what a good push-up looks like, so here you go!  Take note of how the shoulder blades protract – but still remain “snug” to the rib cage – at the top of each rep.

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37 Responses to “Strength Training Technique: Scapular Movement During the Push-up”

  1. Matt Soper Says:

    It would be helpful to see a push-up done correctly to contrast with the one shown to us done incorrectly. Thanks!

  2. Scott Hanson Says:

    Eric,

    This is very interesting. How do you cue this? Do you back up and have them just do some scap pushups?

  3. Jini C Says:

    Eric,

    Great info as always.

    One question…how would you cue your athletes then, particularly those who have a tendency to be too “down and back,” to correctly move their scapula during a push-up?

  4. bill kenik Says:

    sorry, but this was worthless.

    what is the correct way?

    i’ve been doing fingertip pushups since high school (1977). i’ve been working out since 1975.

    i’ve had an acl reconstruction. i’ve been through rehab and as such, understand some medical terms, but what was presented here means nothing to me.

    i obviously can’t watch myself do the exercise. if i had someone tape it, i still wouldn’t know what to look for, nor could i explain to someone watching me what to look for.

  5. Justin Says:

    Are pushups appropriate for improving scapular winging if the winging shows during pushups/planks?

    What pressing variation is best for individuals with this issue?

    Thanks

  6. Jason Hodges Says:

    You said that protraction was especially important in athletes who tend to be stuck in “down and back” retraction. What about us desk jockeys who might be more stuck in an elevated or protracted position? Still recommend full range of scapular motion on the pushups? Would you include scaptions in the mix? I think I am thinking more of correctives.

  7. Zach Even - Esh Says:

    EC – awesome my man. In that case would U want the athlete to work into push up plus every rep?

  8. Eric Cressey Says:

    Zach,

    To some degree, yes.

  9. Eric Cressey Says:

    Jason,

    It’s okay to protract as long as they’re not increasing an already excessive anterior tilt. The scapula still needs to move freely to maintain the congruency of the ball and socket, but you need to be careful not to let kyphosis or anterior scapular tilt increase.

  10. Brian Bochette Says:

    Eric, What are your thoughts on scapular retraction during the bench press? Many people cue maximal retraction throughout. While this tends to be a more stable scapular position, do you have the same concerns about glenohumeral joint congruency? On the plus side, maintaining scapular retraction lends to good force tranfer from the rest of the body and generally keeps the rotator cuff in an advantageous position, but I have wondered if it may lead to a sub-par orientation of the glenoid during the lock out when finishing the lift.

    p.s. Thanks for all of your thoght provoking posts.

  11. TC Says:

    Hey Eric
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge with the retraction and protraction in the push up movement. Certainly make sense about the congruency of the ball and socket. Is there a video somewhere we can see the protraction of the shoulder in the push up?

  12. Yudy Says:

    Hi Eric,
    Great video! Regarding your last response, would propping your feet on a stool reduce your concern for anterior tilt of the scapula during protraction?

    Do you also cue protraction prior to the down-dog position when doing a yoga pushup?

  13. Jackson Says:

    Eric,

    kind of an unrelated question, but I have no where else to ask you. Let’s say you have an athlete that has been training for strength in the off-season; he builds the strength slowly. Now let’s say he lost his strength by a lot. What would you suggest for him to get it back. I remember reading Kelly Baggett’s article; he said you gain strength back 3x as fast as it took you to gain it. Hopefully you can response to my lengthy question!

    Thanks Eric, much love. :)

  14. Bryce Taylor Says:

    Considering the scapular protraction is greatest in the saggital plane, this is a great instructional video showing not only poor congruency but a length/strength relationship of the cuff. Thanks.

  15. Gabe Says:

    Eric,

    Awesome stuff! What about pushups with a more foreward lean, as in the gymnast Pseudo-Planche pushups?

  16. Annie Kuhn Says:

    Would like to have seen the “correct” push up!

  17. Eric Cressey Says:

    Brian,

    I think a bench press is a bit of a different story because of the approximation the load creates. So, I don’t think the congruency is as hard to achieve. Still, for folks with a really adducted scapulae posture, benching probably isn’t a great option – particularly if they’re cued “back” from the start.

  18. Eric Cressey Says:

    Justin,

    My suggestion would just be to “make it look good.” If you can correct the winging before the push-up and then train through the correct pattern pain-free, then it’s a good exercise!

  19. Karlie Says:

    Eric,

    Hey love your stuff, but a little stumped on this one. I am curious about the type of athlete you see who is stuck with the scapula back and down. I treat many athletes daily with scapular dysfunction or diskinesis, but do not often see the type of dysfunction you’re describing. I also think it is also important to note when talking about getting that full ROM through the pushup, that that slight amount of protraction and retraction is huge as far as strengthening the serratus anterior, which as you know, is a scapular stabilizer and weak on most people. Thanks for all you do and looking forward to your response.

  20. Eric Cressey Says:

    Lots of questions on what “ideal” push-ups look like, so I’d just say that it would be to protract the shoulder blades (so that they aren’t “touching” the spine). Just make sure to keep them “on” the rib cage (you don’t want the inside, middle border to pop off, which would be indicative of anterior tilt). Note the protraction in this video; it’s subtle, but should show the difference:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_1BDnOVKso

  21. Eric Cressey Says:

    Gabe,

    I’m not a huge fan, as they exacerbate humeral anterior glide in the bottom position and take folks into a bit too much extension. If that’s your thing, though, you could do a lot worse!

  22. Eric Cressey Says:

    Jackson,

    You’re right (and so is Kelly); strength comes back very quickly. I’d start back up with some work in the 3-5 rep range. Should bounce back very quickly.

  23. Eric Cressey Says:

    Yudy,

    It would “theoretically” get you more recruitment of the serratus anterior, but people who move like crap can usually find a way to continue to move like crap in spite of the exercise you give them! So, you’d need to cue it appropriately to get the benefits.

    Yes, we cue protraction on the yoga push-up.

  24. Eric Cressey Says:

    Karlie,

    Thanks for your post. I see it a lot in overhead athletes and folks who spend a lot of time standing (really, any extension/rotation sport athletes). It’s particularly problematic in a population that’s been cued “down and back” for years and years.

    Your experiences may be different if you work with folks who are sitting long hours at desk. Still, I’ve found these folks can benefit from these cues as long as you pre-set the scapula to a neutral position.

    Hope this helps!

  25. Karlie Says:

    I do find that a lot of the volleyball players I work with have a hard time controlling scapular elevation and retraction, but have found very few stuck in retraction. I will start to look for it; you can’t find what you don’t look for I suppose:)

  26. Teri Chadwick Says:

    I’m with Matt Soper. Would love to see a video that shows correct form and scapular movement. I was sitting on the edge of my seat, and then the video went black…. : )

  27. Derrick Blanton Says:

    I like it. And I would even go a bit further.

    Think of the scaps as another “agonist”. If during a push up, you actively think about spreading (protracting) the scaps, you will find the pecs, delts, and tris firing into the floor stronger than ever. Try it.

    If the scaps are free to move as the arms move, then in a controlled fashion…move them. They are a team. This team is beholden to the T-Spine. The T-Spine is beholden to the pelvis, i.e. the hips and abs.

    This goes for OHPR as well (but obviously not bench press).

    Yes, I realize this scares the shit out of people who have had it drummed into their head to “put their shoulder blades in their back pocket”, and are terrified that their scapula might move around on their rib cage, and particularly concerned that their upper traps might go into elevation. (This is similar to an over-correction stability mindset that finds it very frightening and uncomfortable to NOT hyperextend their lumbar spine when they SQ and DL. “But I don’t want my back to round!”).

    Perhaps the ‘down and back’ mantra came out of corrective cueing techniques for the kyphotic trainee with tight pec minors, pulling their scaps down on top of their humeri into anterior tilt. In order to bring the scap back to neutral the down and back cue was born. But it is tricky to extrapolate technique cues from a dysfunctional posture, and apply them to a functional posture.

    Release the pec minor, and get the upper and lower trapezius in balance. Get the glutes and abs strong to support and stabilize the pelvis and torso. Get the T-spine strong and active.

    Fantastic, now we no longer need the workaround. It is no longer necessary to scrounge for stability with excessive scapular control. You now have the necessary stability in the core and T-spine to move the limbs, yes even under load, without hyper-restricting your shoulder blade.

    TO BE CLEAR: I’m not suggesting that you don’t need scapular control. You do. Dynamic scapular control. You need the shoulder blade “on the CNS leash”. When going overhead with the arms, you need to be able to posteriorly tip the scapula to open up the angle of the A/C joint, (and to do this you need a pec minor that is not yanking it down from the other side like a tug of war over a wall), and then you need to be able to roll the whole structure upwards, or in the push up example, outwards.

    Sample corrective exercise: Face pull and up. Or if you like, lying scarecrow and up. This will teach the posterior tip and upward rotation two step.

    In a way, the scap is like the hip. It stabilizes, but it moves. You don’t lock the glute when you SQ. You tighten it, and then MOVE it. Brett Jones calls it a “sticky scapula” which makes great sense. “It’s sticky, but it ain’t stuck.”

    I think I’m going to make a T-shirt of that…:)

    Just my (lengthy) opinion, and I’m always open to differing ideas. Discussions and articles like this help me learn. Anytime, you do a post that involves scapular control and positioning, watch the comments and questions roll in. It is a confusing and perplexing topic, but I think we are all pointing to true North, just from different sides of the globe.

    Thanks, EC.

  28. Zach Moore Says:

    Hey Eric,

    Nice post! I was actually writing a very similar post on this related to rows. People fail to let their shoulder blade glide around their rib cage at the beginning of a row. Therefore, when they row the weight up they are just getting humeral extension because the scapula is already retracted.

    Keep up the good work.

  29. k Says:

    so you wouldn’t keep shoulders “packed’during a pushup? would a cue be to keep them “down towards the hip?

  30. Ryan Says:

    Really helpful! I gotta say, the way you speak and explain concepts in your videos is really helping me figure out how to present myself as a personal trainer at work. Thanks man!

  31. Christian Poulsen Says:

    Hi Eric
    Nice with your demostrastions of different exercises.
    However, is it possible when you demostrate push up, where scapula is in focus, that the person during the push up, has taken his t-shirt off? It would be more easy to see movement pattern.

    Again thanks for your work!

  32. Eric Cressey Says:

    Kyle,

    No, I wouldn’t use that cue. They should retract as the humerus extends/horizontally abducts, and they should protract as the humerus flexes/horizontally adducts. Throughout, it should remain tight to the rib cage. Cueing them down toward the hip usually causes scapular anterior tilt and humeral anterior glide. Hope this helps.

  33. Brenton Says:

    Eric,

    Just wanted your opinion on the DNS approach and its principles. Many that follow this approach state the scapula should hardly move at all when performing a push-up and stay flat on the rib cage. In the cases of winging scapula a push-up plus would be a useless exercise.

  34. Eric Cressey Says:

    Brenton,

    I haven’t seen the full explanation of this in my experience with DNS, if it is, in fact, that case. I think it would go against the concept of joint centration, as you can’t have a wide range of humeral movement (0 to 90/100 degrees of elevation) without some scapular upward rotation past the 30-degree mark. I’d be curious about the context in which this was described, though.

  35. Andrew Says:

    Interesting post on the mobility wod with Kelly Starett. Thoughts?

    http://www.mobilitywod.com/2013/01/pressing-mechanics-and-the-knee-pushup-up-disasterfroning-and-bailey-edition.html

  36. Braden Says:

    Are you ever concerned with too much movement in the shoulder during a push-up? I have heard about what some people call a “false range of movement” where it is said there is too much shoulder and not enough pectoral engagement. Thoughts?

    Thanks Eric.

  37. Eric Cressey Says:

    Braden,

    The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint; it’s supposed to move.

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