Scapular Stabilization Exercises

11 Scapular Stabilization Exercises for Injury Prevention & Strength

July 06, 2020

Your scapula, aka shoulder blade, is the base of your shoulder complex and the foundation of any shoulder movement. It is used in virtually every movement that involves your upper extremities. It is also one of the most mobile and versatile joints in the body. There are many muscles that attach to the scapula, which give you the stability and mobility needed for upper body movements. These muscles are known as scapula stabilizers. If the muscles that act to stabilize and mobilize your shoulder blades are weak or imbalanced, you are vulnerable to injuries, poor biomechanics, and long term postural problems. Therefore, it is very important to focus on scapular stability for the longevity of your fitness.

In this post, we will be discussing everything you need to know about scapular stabilization. We will also provide 11 essential scapular stabilization exercises so you can learn how to activate, strengthen and improve the mobility of your scapula stabilizer muscles. The end goal is to prevent injuries and be more powerful in your movements.

Exercises for scapular stabilization will be beneficial for those who have scapular instability problems AND for those who don’t but want to maintain good scapula stabilizer muscle strength. 

Scapular stabilization exercises

WHAT IS THE SCAPULA?

The scapula is more commonly known as the shoulder blade. Needless to say, you have two scapulas, one on each side. They are flat, triangular-shaped bones located in your upper back.

Pull your shoulders back. That is your scapular making the action.

The scapula plays a vital role in the overall function of the shoulder, which means it is used in nearly every upper body movement. Your scapula attaches the humerus (upper arm bone) with the clavicle (collar bone), and they are connected to the ribcage by ligaments and muscles.

On the whole, there are 17 muscles that attach to your scapula, which we will get into shortly.

Most people don’t realize that the scapula is highly mobile. It can move in all directions. Your scapular takes on a key role in stabilizing other joints during shoulder movements.

Unfortunately, the scapula is one of the most overlooked areas of the body when it comes to fitness, which is why many people have scapula stability issues and pain, not to mention poor mechanics when lifting weights.

This is why we are addressing scapular stability. We want to help you prevent injuries, move better, lift stronger, and improve the longevity of your posture.

scapular stabilization

WHAT IS SCAPULAR STABILITY?

The muscles controlling your shoulder blades are your scapular stabilizer muscles. They coordinate with the muscles around your shoulder joint (rotator cuff muscles) to control arm movements. These muscles stabilize and mobilize the shoulder joint. Injuries that occur at the shoulder are often traced to poor stability of the muscles surrounding the scapula (not just your rotator cuff muscles). To improve scapular stability, we must strengthen these muscles. But to be able to strengthen them, we must learn how to activate them.

The first step in understanding how to activate and strengthen scapular stability is by looking at our scapular stabilizer muscle anatomy.

SCAPULA STABILIZER MUSCLE ANATOMY

The major muscles of the scapular stabilizer include:

  • Serratus Anterior
  • Rhomboid
  • Levator Scapulae
  • Trapezius

scapular stabilization muscles

While those are the main muscles, the scapulothoracic joint (getting scientific) coordinates with 17 muscles in total.

  1. Serratus Anterior
  2. Supraspinatus
  3. Subscapularis
  4. Trapezius
  5. Teres Major
  6. Teres Minor
  7. Triceps Brachii long head
  8. Biceps Brachii
  9. Rhomboid Major
  10. Rhomboid Minor
  11. Coracobrachialis
  12. Omohyoid inferior belly
  13. Lattisimus Dorsi
  14. Deltoid
  15. Levator Scapula
  16. Infraspinatus
  17. Pectoralis Minor

To have good scapular stability, you need to strengthen all of these muscles.

In terms of mobility, the scapula joint works with three other joints to provide movement for the arm and shoulder.

  1. Acromioclavicular (AC joint)
  2. Sternoclavicular (where your collarbone connects to your sternum)
  3. Glenohumeral joints (aka your shoulder joint)

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO HAVE GOOD SCAPULAR STABILITY?

Weakness in any of your scapular stabilizer muscles, especially the major scapula muscles - serratus anterior, latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and trapezius muscles - will negatively influence the way your scapular moves and how the shoulder joint functions.

The scapula is your foundation of support for the shoulder joint and all the movements of your upper extremities. With poor scapular stabilization, you are at risk of all types of injuries, such as shoulder impingement, shoulder instability, muscle strains, cervical strain, and nerve entrapments.

We all know about the kinetic chain. When one link is weak, the whole system will fail. The scapular is the first link in the kinetic chain of movements involving your upper extremities. 

Scapular instability can lead to poor movement patterns or deficits in muscle strength. With uncoordinated movements at the scapula level, you can end up injuring your elbow, wrist or hand.

Your shoulder requires both mobility and stability to support and stabilize your upper extremities. Your shoulder joint and scapula joint are the foundation of this all. Think of it like a house. A house is only as sturdy as the foundation it rests upon. In order to keep all of your upper extremities stable and have greater distal strength, you need to have robust scapular stabilization.

Sports where scapular stability is especially essential:

All sports and activities require good scapular stabilization. However, ones that stick out as particularly important are racquet sports (Boxing, Baseball, Volleyball, Tennis), high impact sports like Football, and, of course, Weightlifting/Powerlifting.

In summary, here are the benefits of doing scapular stabilization exercises:

  • Preventing injuries
  • Eliminating muscle deficits
  • Increase power in overhead throwing, swinging and lifting motions
  • Improving and maintaining good posture

scapula stability exercises

WHAT CAUSES SCAPULAR INSTABILITY?

There are various factors that can cause scapular instability problems, and oftentimes, there are multiple issues at play. The most common reason for scapular instability problems are:

  • Poor biomechanics and not understanding how to perform certain exercises correctly.
  • Bad Posture
  • Overtraining
  • Underuse

Poor Biomechanics & Improper Form

Sometimes people don’t actually have weakness in their scapular stabilizer muscles, they simply just don’t know how to perform a movement correctly. If you don’t know when to depress or retract your scapula during overhead movements, you are putting your scapular in an improper position that is not conducive to stabilizing the movement. This also puts more stress on other joints. 

It should be noted that movement doesn’t necessarily just mean exercises. A lot of people move their scapular abnormally in everyday movements due to improper repetitive use of the shoulder. This is something that can be fixed with scapular mobility and strengthening exercises.

Bad Posture

If you have poor posture, such as Kyphosis (hunchback posture), you will likely have scapulohumeral rhythm and shoulder instability issues.

Without proper spinal alignment, it is physically impossible to have the correct alignment of the scapulae.

It would be highly advisable to fix your posture problems as a whole, not just your scapular stability. However, the scapular plays an important role in posture so both should be addressed.

Work on keeping your scapula in the correct position for good posture - The correct position for the scapula (aka shoulder blade) is back and rotated down. Keep it top of mind to maintain this position when standing and walking. Eventually, it will become natural.

Overtraining

Too much of any good thing can be bad. In an attempt to stay fit, sometimes we push ourselves too hard and don’t give ourselves the chance to recover properly. Oftentimes, scapular instability is a temporary thing caused by overtraining. If your scapular stabilizer muscles are overworked, and you attempt to do bench press, your scapulohumeral rhythm and stability won’t be at full capacity.

Unfortunately, it’s somewhat hard to tell if you are overtraining these muscles, as you use them for every upper body movement that involves your arms. Thus, it’s important to plan a fitness regimen correctly, as to give your body the rest it needs.

Underuse

If you aren’t putting your scapular stabilizer muscles to work, over time, you will lose a significant range of control and strength. When muscle weakness around the scapula occurs, injuries follow.

best scapular stabilization exercises

HOW TO TEST SCAPULAR STABILITY STRENGTH?

The two main tests for scapular instability are the winging test and the retraction test.

Scapular Retraction Test

This is possibly the most important test for scapular dysfunction. You will need a buddy to perform this test.

  1. Start in a standing position, bring one arm up, to a 90 degree elevated position with the thumb pointing up.
  2. From here, the person assisting you will press down on your hand to try to move it down towards your body.
  3. You should try to resist this motion.

If you feel pain, or weakness occurs at the scapular, you will know you have scapular instability/dysfunction that needs to be addressed.

This same test can be don’t where the person assisting you presses down on your upper trap, thus compressing your scapula. Then, they also press down on the arm to try and move it towards the body while you resist.

Winged Scapular Test

This test will help you look for winged scapula dysfunction. Basically this is a protrusion of the scapula, meaning it moves outward towards your side body when it should be retracted and in. This is due to scapular stabilizer muscle weakness or movement control issues in the encompassing musculature (most often the serratus anterior).

  1. Stand in front of a wall, a few feet away. Reach your arms to the wall and place your palms on the wall at waist height. Press your hands flat against the wall.
  2. If one side of your scapular protrudes in a noticeable way, you likely have scapular winging and unstable shoulders.

Note: You will need someone to take a picture for you or record this yourself so you can check to see.

Another easy way to know if you have joint instability (or laxity) in general is to look at other joints of your body. The easiest would be your fingers, thumb and elbow. If your fingers bend back far, your thumb can touch your forearm, or you have elbow recurvatum (hyperextension), then you clearly have overly lax joints so you need to strengthen your stabilizer muscles. You can see what we mean with this shoulder exam video

Overall, people with overly lax joints will have joint stability issues at the scapular level. Strengthening the muscles around the joint and avoiding flexibility training if you are hyperflexibile can fix joint laxity issues (ligamentous laxity).

What if I don't have scapular stability issues?

Even if your scapular stabilization is normal, you will benefit from performing the below scapular stabilizer exercises as they will reinforce scapular stabilizer activation from various positions. These exercises will be great as a warm-up, to prime your stabilizer muscles before pull or push workouts. 

scapula exercises for posture

HOW CAN I IMPROVE MY SCAPULAR STABILITY?

To improve scapular stability, you need to learn how to activate your scapular stabilizer muscles. It’s important to create this mind-muscle connection so you can keep everything tight during exercises that involve heavy loads or when you swing a bat, throw a punch, etc. Overall the goal is to strengthen your scapular stabilizer muscles, though. You also want to make sure you have normalcy in your scapular mobility.

Now, the purpose of this article is not to go in-depth into scapular mechanics. We are here to show you exercises for your scapular stabilizers that will be perfect for a daily regimen to improve your scapular stabilizer strength and prime (activate) those muscles before you do exercises involving your upper extremities.

The scapular stabilization exercises that we are going to show you should be used before your lifting sessions or before playing sports. These are warm up exercises. They will help you learn how to engage your scapular retractors correctly for pulling movements and how to activate your serrates anterior and rotator cuff muscles during pressing exercises. That way you will have good shoulder stability when lifting, thus avoiding shoulder injuries and eliminating muscle imbalances.

Before we jump into the 11 scapular stabilization exercises, let us quickly go over the various types of scapular stabilization movements.

scapular stability

WHAT ARE SCAPULAR STABILIZATION EXERCISES?

When you think of scapular stabilization, you most likely imagine scapular retraction, which is when you pull your shoulder blades towards each other.

However, this is not the only movement that you should think of for scapular stability. Your shoulder blades are a highly mobile joint, so you want them to be stable in all shoulder positions and movements.

There are 6 movements for your scapula that you need to consider:

  1. Retraction: Moving your shoulder blades in towards each other - when you do a rowing motion.
  2. Protraction: Moving your shoulder blades away from each other - when you reach or press forward.
  3. Elevation: Moving your shoulder blades up towards your head - when you shrug your shoulders.
  4. Depression: Moving your shoulder blades back down towards downward towards your feet - when you begin a pull up.
  5. Anterior Tilt: Moving your shoulder blades towards the front of your body - when you hunch your shoulder forward.
  6. Posterior Tilt: Moving your scapular toward the rear of your body at a diagonal angle pointing down - when you reach your arm over your head.

Now that we understand all the positions of the scapula that we need to be stabile in, let’s go over some of the best scapular stabilization exercises that work the various angles and positions.

11 BEST SCAPULAR STABILIZATION EXERCISES


1. Knee Scapular PU

shoulder blade stability exercises

This is a good strengthening exercise for scapular stability from the retraction, anterior tilt, and protraction position.

Strengthens: Serratus Anterior

3 sets x 10 reps

  1. Assume a position with your knees underneath your hips, hip-width apart, and your hands underneath your shoulders, shoulder-width apart.
  2. Let your chest drop between your arms so your shoulder blades merge together “retract”.
  3. From here, push through the palms of your hands slowly and round through your back to a protracted position. You will feel your shoulder blades spread apart.
  4. Then repeat. Down and up, slowly. Be sure to breathe in on the way down and out on the way up.

2. Modified Plank With Protraction

shoulder blade exercises

This exercise is going to be the same as the one above but it is more difficult as you are doing it from a forearm plank position. This will further strengthen the scapular stability from the protraction and retraction position.

Strengthens: Serratus Anterior, Levator Scapulae, Rhomboid

3 sets x 10 reps

  1. Assume a forearm plank position with your feet hip-width apart and your forearms underneath your shoulders, shoulder-width apart.
  2. Let your chest drop between your arms so your shoulder blades merge together “retract”.
  3. From here, push through the palms of your hands slowly and round through your back to a protracted position. You will feel your shoulder blades spread apart.
  4. Then repeat. Down and up, slowly. Be sure to breathe in on the way down and out on the way up.

3. Scapular PU

scapula push ups

Again, taking the difficulty on this exercise up a notch. This is the same exercise but from the high plank position, which will allow for more mobility work.

Strengthens: Serratus Anterior, Levator Scapulae, Rhomboid

3 sets x 10 reps

  1. Assume a high plank position with your feet hip-width apart and your hands underneath your shoulders, shoulder-width apart.
  2. Let your chest drop between your arms so your shoulder blades merge together “retract”.
  3. From here, push through the palms of your hands slowly and round through your back to a protracted position. You will feel your shoulder blades spread apart.
  4. Then repeat. Down and up, slowly. Be sure to breathe in on the way down and out on the way up.

4. Scapular Hold w/ Mace (Under/Over Grip)

steel mace stability exercises

This is a great isometric scapular stabilization exercise using the steel mace. It’s going to work all of your stabilizer muscles as you need to hold the mace in position. The heavier the mace, the harder it will be.

Strengthens: Serratus Anterior, Rhomboid, Trapezius

Great for improving posture as well!

3 sets x 20 seconds each side (up to 1 minute if you can)

  1. Hold the mace offset with the hand towards the end of the hand in an overhand grip and the other hand with an underhand grip. Your hands should be about hip-width apart and the mace offset from there.
  2. Pull the mace in about a couple inches away from your navel (belly button).
  3. Keep your shoulder blades retracted and your core tight. Really feel and activate those muscles.
  4. Hold for allotted time and release.

Be sure to alternate the side the mace is on.

5. Scapular Hold w/ Mace (Over/Over Grip)

scapular stability with steel mace

This is a similar exercise but it’s going to work your scapular stabilization from depression and posterior tilt position.

Strengthens: Rhomboid, Trapezius, Serratus Anterior, 

3 sets x 20 seconds each side (up to 1 minute if you can)

  1. Hold the mace offset with both hands in an overhand grip. Your hands should be about shoulder-width apart and the mace offset from there.
  2. Pull the mace in just above your sternum, and about and inch or two from touching your chest.
  3. Keep your shoulder blades pulled down and back and your core tight. Really feel and activate those muscles.
  4. Hold for allotted time and release.

Be sure to alternate the side the mace is on.

6. Banded A

exercises for scapular instability

Here we have a scapular stabilizer exercise from the scapular posterior tilt position. It is an anti-rotation exercise that is great for the upper and lower traps and serratus anterior. This is a position that must be worked but not many people do it.

This will also give you a nice stretch in your chest, which is important for mobility.

Strengthen: Trapezius, Serratus Anterior

3 sets x 10 reps, pause for 1-5 seconds with each rep from the working position.

  1. Hold the band at the end and raise your left hand straight up above your shoulder.
  2. Grabbing the other end of the band, bring your right hand up towards your left hand, just underneath and in front of it.
  3. From there, pull down all the way and stretch the band until it is taut and your right hand is down by your side.
  4. Repeat and make sure you breathe

7. Banded Y

resistance band scapular exercises

This seems like very similar exercise due to the movement but this one is going to work your downward anti-rotation and anterior tilt position. It’s basically the opposite of the last exercise. All in all, this exercise is going to teach you how to keep your shoulders down and back (the stable, non-moving side), while the moving hand will be worked from the forward position (anterior tilt).

This will also give you some mobility in your pectoral region.

Strengthen: Levator Scapula, Rhomboids, Lower Trapezius

3 sets x 10 reps, pause for 1-5 seconds with each rep from the working position.

  1. Hold the band at the end and place your right arm to your side body.
  2. With your right hand holding the other side of the band, bring it down to the front of your right hand.
  3. From there, pull up all the way and stretch the band until it is taut and your left hand is overhead.
  4. Repeat and make sure you breathe

8. Banded W

banded W scapula exercise

The exercise works the shoulder joint through the external rotation with scapular retraction and posterior tilt. Definitely an important one for all-around shoulder health.

Strengthens Infraspinatus, Teres minor, Lower trapezius.

3 sets x 10 reps

  1. Grab the band with one hand on each side. It’s up to you how close your hands will be, the close they are to the center the more tension there will be.
  2. Tuck your elbow to your side and keep your hands at waist distance.
  3. Externally rotate your shoulder away from your body in a straight horizontal path.
  4. Slowly return to starting position and repeat.

9. Banded Diagonals

how to improve scapula stability

This is an exercise that sort of mimics real-life movement. Often times, especially during sports, your arms will be moving in different directions, receiving force for various angles. Your scapular needs to be prepared for this. Your shoulder blades will be squeezing together at a diagonal angle. The shoulder blades will slide along the ribcage as the Humerus raises and lowers.

Strengthens: Serratus Anterior, Teres Major, Infraspinatus, Rhomboid, Trapezius

3 sets x 10 reps

  1. Grab the band at the ends with your hands, raise your hands to shoulder height, and keep your arms straight. They will be straight out in front of you.
  2. Diagonally pull the band apart so that your top arm is straight up at a slight angle away from your body and your bottom arm is down to your side at a slight angle away from your body.
  3. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.

Be sure to do this exercise on both sides evenly (switch the top and bottom hand)

10. Banded Dislocates

scapular mobility exercises

Mobility is an important aspect of scapular stabilization. This will help you increase the overall effectiveness of your pushing and pull exercises. It will give you the range of motion you need for optimal muscle growth and power.

Focus: Scapular Stabilizer Mobility

3 sets x 10 reps

  1. In a standing position, hold a band in front of you at stomach level and keep a slight bend in the elbows.
  2. Rotate your arms overhead. Keep tension on the band.
  3. When the arms reach above your head at full flexion, shrug your shoulders slightly as to allow the arms to continue rotating until the band passes behind your head and touches your back.
  4. Then rotate your arms back to the starting position through the same motion, and repeat.

11. Band Pull Aparts

resistance band scapula mobility

This scapular stabilization exercise combines both scapular stability and mobility, as many of these exercises do. It focuses on scapular retraction and is one of the most common warm-up exercises for shoulder health. 

Strengthens: Posterior Deltoids, Rhomboids, Middle Trapezius, Infraspinatus, Teres Minor

3 sets x 10 reps

  1. Grab the band at the ends with your hands, raise your hands to shoulder height and keep your arms straight. They will be straight out in front of you.
  2. Pull the band apart by retracting your shoulder blades. Your arms will move straight back and to your sides so that the band is pressed to your chest and completely taut.
  3. Pause, and slowly return to the starting position and repeat.

WHEN TO DO THESE SCAPULAR STABILIZATION EXERCISES?

For those who don’t have any major issues with scapular stabilization but want to stay ahead of the game and maintain a sturdy foundation, perform these scapular stabilization exercises before a push or a pull workout. Incorporate them in your warm-up. You don’t have to do all of the 11 exercises above, just focus on the positions your shoulder blades will be in for the workout to come...and mobilize them too!

Note: The above applies to weightlifters and athletes.

If you have scapular instability problems, you should perform these exercises in a more regimented manner. Meaning, you will do a scapular stabilization based workout two times a week. You can do these in the morning or evening, at a time when you are not planning to do a subsequent workout. This will sow the seeds of your fitness so you can eventually do rigorous push and pull workouts with considerable loads, relative to your strength. Focus on building a solid foundation before you get into lifting heavyweights. You will be thankful you focused on these basics, as jumping right into weightlifting when you have scapular instability or pain can lead to an injury that will keep you out of the game for much longer than it would take to just get your scapular stability and mobility up to par in the first place.

Note: Scapular stabilization exercises are especially important for those who have scapular stability issues, those coming off a shoulder injury, and beginners to weightlifting in general. And it should be noted, this doesn’t mean you can’t do regular fitness regimens, just start light. You will also build your scapular strength through basic movements like overhead presses, push ups, rows, and so on, so long as you know how to activate your scapular stabilizers correctly for these exercises. So, we recommend that you do both, but work up in weight slowly. 

what are scapular stability exercises

TIPS FOR SCAPULAR STABILITY DURING STRENGTH TRAINING

  1. Understand the mechanics of each movement you are going to perform during your workout. A simple Google search will teach you how your shoulder blades should be positioned for any given exercise (i.e. bench press).
  2. Prime yourself before a workout by doing a few scapular stabilization exercises. So, if you are doing a push workout, then focus on protraction, retraction, and anterior scapular tilt warm-up exercises.
  3. If you have scapular instability issues, it should be addressed before you start working out with weights. You need to walk before you can run, right?
  4. Start light and focus on good form when you begin lifting weights. Gradually progress in weight load.
  5. Continue performing scapular stabilization exercises even if you feel your scapular stability is strong. If you don’t use it, you can lose.

Have questions about scapular stability and these scapular stabilization exercises? Feel free to contact us or leave a comment below!

Want a steel mace? It’s a great tool for building joint stability, especially at the scapular level. The offset load does a really great job of honing in on stabilizer muscles.

Buy a steel mace from SET FOR SET

What about resistance bands? Resistance bands are great for targeting stabilizer muscles as well. By nature, you will have to control your movement more during eccentric motions, and in general, you won’t be able to do jerky motion, which means your stabilizers are engaged at all times during an exercise. While the exercises we showed you above your great for scapular stabilization, even doing banded presses will be good for your stabilizer muscles do to the strict form and emphasis on eccentric contraction.

So, if you have scapular instability issues, bands are a great tool for working out. You can replicate any barbell/dumbbell movement with bands (banded shoulder presses), so you can build your major muscle groups and improve your scapular stability at the same time. From there, you can jump to weights when you are ready.

Buy resistance bands from SET FOR SET

isometric scapular stabilization exercises



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