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How To Correctly Execute Pulling Exercises For Optimal Shoulder Strength & Function

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 07 August 2017
Hits: 10408

The old saying, "you can sometimes have too much of a good thing" is very true when it comes to rowing exercises in the gym. There is a lot of confusion surrounding this movement pattern with regards to posture, and especially shoulder and neck rehabilitation. I must admit I was one of the people who always thought you just can never have too much rowing exercises. More the better, sticking to a ratio of 3 rowing exercises to one pushing movement, and that pulling your shoulders down and back is a good thing. Only to find out years later I had developed a depressed shoulder that led to a shoulder impingement! The very thing I was trying to avoid! For gym beginners this is rarely an issue as we see them overcompensate with too much upper trap involvement but it is very common the educated gym participant, athletes and anyone who has some postural awareness. As with all exercise is is all about balance, and movement. This article I am going to help explain what that really means and to understand exactly how the shoulder moves so you can base programs, exercise choices around what your body needs to move freely and without restriction, as opposed to rigid rules based on muscles, that only serve to create dysfunction and pain.

Whatever You Do, Don't Aggressively Pull Your Shoulders Down & Back

I hear you saying, "I thought he has always said make sure you set your shoulders down and back"! Well this is where I had to learn the hard way that the old saying “pull your shoulders back” is not a good instruction to give someone, in fact it can cause many of the shoulder related problems. In the rehab world this is still evident and the belief that we need to tons of exercises like the seated row to depress and retract our shoulders is all we need to do. I am not saying go into a hunched position and do not be aware of posture, instead I am going to show you that there is a way to achieve this without aggressively pulling your shoulders down and back.

Below is three versions of the classic cable row exercise.

Picture to the left demonstrates poor postural positioning however he does not pull too far behind the body (more on this later).

The middle picture is of good form, however I would still prefer to do the exercise standing up as seen on the right. Learning how to integrate with the rest of the body is extremely important for this is how we are designed to use this movement pattern.

Retraction of the shoulder muscles is a normal part of bio-mechanics during the phase of pulling exercises and also in the easier phase of pushing exercises. However over doing these exercises or consciously squeezing your scapula together (usually the rhomboids and middle trapezius) can completely disrupt the timing and sequence of how the shoulder needs to move. Even worse is the exercise is if performed poorly it can reinforce the scapula into retraction in a downwardly rotated and anterior tilted position, creating more tightness, impingement and discomfort. This alignment and altered motor control issue cannot be improved by ‘strengthening’ the scapular retractors or by performing more scapular retraction exercises, as it will often be more of a thoracic dysfunction, and poor mobility with the scapula that is the problem.

Using exercises like the bent over row with a wider than shoulder grip are much better choices as they require thoracic extension and are easier to execute perfect rhythm. More on this later.

What Is The Perfect Timing During A Pulling Movement?

Make sure you watch the video above as these explain this movement in great detail. As the arm is externally rotated or abducted in a horizontal plane (as in a prone row), the scapular adductor musculature (middle trapezius and rhomboids) become progressively more active to aid in completion of an end-range movement. Problems arise if you are not in good posture to begin with, or use too much weight during the exercise. This causes the range of motion to be shortened because as the scapulo-humeral muscles shorten, they lose their mechanical advantage. If you have a rotator cuff weakness, or a muscle imbalance which is very common, there is a good chance you will fatigue early in the movement with the smaller weaker muscles (infraspinatus, teres minor and major, posterior deltoid) being forced to do too much work.This person often has the scapula stuck in anterior tilt.

Other compensatory problems is the exact opposite where you see overuse of the scapular adductors, followed shortly, in most cases, by pain in the your middle back due to overuse. This in turn prevents the scapula from achieving upward rotation of the scapula as the big adductor muscles hold on tight. So pulling your shoulders back all the time is not a good idea.

Make sure you read our article The 3 Key Factors To Healthy Shoulder Function to see a full explanation of what happens with the scapula and corresponding joints.

And if you have a shoulder injury right now make sure you check out our step by step Special Report On Getting Rid Of Shoulder Pain by clicking here. By far our most comprehensive report ever put together and all of the information featured in this article and much more is covered in this 95 page report.

3 Common Mistakes To Pulling Movements

It is amazing how much injury makes you look at things differently and find new ways of approaching problems. When I first started experiencing pain in my shoulder, I did some simple assessments that confirmed I had a shoulder impingement. I had pain with pushing actions, but not with any pulling exercises so I stopped all my push ups, chest press and shoulder press actions. I started really loading up my deadlifts, and rowing actions and stretching my pecs all the time. All this did was cause me more trouble but at the time I thought I was doing the right thing. I was approaching my injury with methods to improve scapula posterior tilt when what I needed to do was focus more on scapula upward rotation. I needed to actually get some upper trap involvement and acutally allow my shoulders to come up a bit. Once I started on this process things began to change instantly. I still had to work at it for a long time afterwards as I had caused a lot of damage in the meantime, but the key was now I had a good plan.

In the book “Common Exercise Solutions For The Hip & Shoulder” Evan Oscar makes the note that there is 3 common mistakes made with pulling type patterns and they are as follows. Watch the video below as I explain the difference between good rowing form versus poor rowing form.

1. Scapula Instability - Okay this first one is what we have just been talking about, when people are told to really pull the scapula down and back and with rowing movements you will see elbows stuck in really close to the body. Many therapists still prescribe tons of scapula adduction exercises in the belief that these muscles are too weak and more the better. And as we just found it all this leads to is scapula downward rotation and eventually the depressed shoulder. This is very common with the person with some good training experience and really aware of posture. Unfortunately they go too far and their efforts to do the right thing just cause dysfunction. In the video earlier we showed you poor form with elbows held in too close meaning the scapula are being squeezed together too tight. When elbows are held out about an arms width from the body this shows good scapula form and muscle balance.

2. Glenohumeral Instability - This is when the elbows are pulled too far behind the body disrupting the ideal axis of rotation and driving the humeral head further in the socket. Again in the video earlier we showed you from side on what the shoulder looks like when pushed forward of neutral. In the example of good from we saw the elbow level with the body. This mistake of pulling too far behind you leads to gleno-humeral instability. I often see this with people using too light a weight and are able to really pull too far. Too much weight is not good either as this is when you see someone “chop” the movement by moving their head forward helping to create forward head posture and a new set of problems with the neck. A balance between the two is what is needed.

3. Spinal instability - This is where the person has been instructed to lift the chest excessively in an attempt to drive great thoracic extension which we know is good for posture and health of the shoulder. This is very much linked with the first mistake. Again just like scapula instability too much of a good thing leads to thoracic and lumbar spine dysfunction.

4. Ratio of 3 pulling movement to one pushing - I mentioned this earlier as I had learned this many years ago in a great postural correction course and to be honest it had worked for most people. The problem was this is looking at the shoulder joint as just a push and pull movement when in fact it has 360 degrees of rotational movement with complex interaction with the scapula, thoracic spine and countless muscles that attach to provide stability and movement. There is no ratio to stick to, only principles of shoulder movement. If you understand the movement of the scapula in combination with the thoracic spine you will have no problems. Everything in balance.

I think it is very important to grasp these concepts and just think that you need to be in neutral. As I said before I myself made all 3 of these mistakes myself and thought I was doing the right thing. All I ended up doing was creating a new imbalance that would eventually take me a long time to get out of.

What Are The Best Pulling Exercises & How Do You Do Them?

Before getting into the exercises make sure you check out the video above as I explain the role of the thoracic spine and scapula which you must know in order to do these exercises correctly. Now while there are tons of exercises you can use to build strength in the pulling pattern, and there is no real "best for everyone" I am going to share with you my preferred choices for optimal shoulder function. These are the ones I use everyday in our rehabilitation programs and are very effective with all types of shoulder injuries. There are some exercises like lat pulldowns I have not included, not because there is anything wrong with them, but I just wanted to share with you some of the more effective exercises. I have found that using more standing and single arm exercises to be much more successful at teaching good motor control with the thoracic spine and scapula working together.

Many of the dual arm exercises can force more tightness in the upper back area, that leads to neck pain and restricted scapula movement. They can be great ways to introduce scapula adduction for people with not much awareness, but I would still prefer the deadlift to these movements. As much as my rowing techniques were causing me trouble so was my love with chin ups. Chin ups are a great exercise, (see our article Why Chins Ups Are Such A Great Strength Exercise) but like anything too much can be a bad thing. Tight lats from too many chin ups can lead to faulty shoulder mechanics, and this is something we see a lot with swimmers and throwing athletes for they too develop tight lats from their sporting action. Knowing how to restore the shoulder movement is vital if you want to continue your sport pain free.

Below I have given you some simple drills to start with to learn scapula movement. Then it progresses to more integrated exercises incorporating everything we have just learned.

Lower Trapezius Wall Slides

This is a great way to learn how to retrain stability and control of the scapula and a good drill to start with. Anyone with impingement, winging scapula or shoulder dysfunction needs to begin with this drill. Again if you are not sure what the shoulder function make sure you read the article 3 Key Factors Needed For Shoulder Function.

Instructions:

  1. Start with your arms against the wall as if in a plank position standing up.
  2. Position your arms so that you are in a V angle. This encourages greater activation of the lower trapezius muscle.
  3. Position your scapula in perfect alignment and begin to slowly slide your arms up the wall
  4. The key to this exercise is to feel your scapula wrap around you as your arms lift up without losing your posture and posterior tilt of the scapula.
  5. You may feel you need to step into the wall as your arms slide up which is fine
  6. Lastly make sure you can control the movement on the way back down as this is where most people will lose form.

Bent Over Row

I prefer this to many of the other pulling exercises in the early stages as it prevents any unwanted pulling past the torso. The only problem with this is that you must also learn how maintain the optimal lumbar curve and thoracic extension needed to execute this perfectly. The person with a hunched posture will find this difficult to do but find great results by learning this movement. A great way to build strength into weak upper back muscles.

Instructions:

  1. Standing bent forward at the hips with knees bent holding a barbell in front of your legs palms facing your body.
  2. Maintain an arch in your low back.
  3. Drawing your belly button inwards bend your elbows to pull the barbell up to chest height.
  4. Lower under control and repeat.

Single Arm Cable Pull With Weight Shift

All cable exercises are excellent in achieving both posterior tilt and upward rotation. Whereas dumbbells and barbells work via gravity trying to force the weight to the ground, cables we can manipulate the angle of resistance to assist activation of various muscles and posture. And this exercise is a classic for doing everything just stated. I also prefer this exercise to be used first as it is unilateral and allows more rotation of the thoracic spine instead of potentially locking the upper back up and creating more stiffness!

Instructions:

  1. Standing in a split stance knees bent feet a comfortable distance apart leaning forward with 70 percent of your weight on your front foot feet a comfortable width apart.
  2. Draw your belly button inwards initiate the movement with your trunk simultaneously pulling the cable handle towards your shoulder and rotating your trunk in the same direction. Allow your pelvis to rotate naturally transferring the weight from your front foot to your back foot as you shift through the movement.
  3. Reverse the motion until you reach the start position.

Sled Pulls

These are very fun exercises to do and are a mix of the bent over row and the single cable pull. The huge benefit to this exercise is it's high functional carryover to real movement and the integration of the hips and legs into the movement.

Instructions:

  1. Standing bent forward 45° keeping the natural arch in your low back.
  2. Draw your belly button inwards. Reaching forward drag the sled towards you pulling arm over arm.
  3. Drag for 20-30 meters.

Chin Ups

As we discussed earlier these are some of the best exercises you can use to develop great shoulder and overall body strength. But you must keep good form and you must not overdo them. Two big mistakes with this is pulling yourself too high and secondly trying to excessively squeeze your scapula together.

Instructions:

  1. Place your hands on the chin-up bar, palms facing for-ward, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep your legs slightly bent, and your knees together.
  2. As you pull up, open up your posture by pushing your stomach forward and keeping your sternum high without forcing too much.
  3. Pull up to the slow count of three, pause, then come down to the slow count of three.
  4. Between reps, let yourself hang while looking down and relaxing, to allow the latissimus dorsi to pull away from your scapula.
  5. Make sure all your movements are slow and controlled

Now there is a stack of exercises I could have included but this gives you a great starting point. And more importantly how to do pulling exercises correctly.

Summary

I hope this article helps to give you better knowledge on how to use pulling exercises more effectively in your training to build the strength into the very important back muscles. Forcing your scapula down and back all the time sounds like a good idea and encourages good posture but in reality it creates stiffness that can take a long time to reset to optimal function and timing. Like any exercise you need to find a way to learn how to move without forcing things, but with good controlled breathing and effortless movement. This is the secret to developing incredible strength and never getting injured. Again if you have shoulder pain right now make sure you get a copy of our Shoulder Pain report by going to our online shop.

Below is a free checklist you can download about Shoulder Pain and also a free report on Injury Prevention.

 

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