Scapula Pull-Ups: The Missing Pull-Up Progression

Man Is Hanging On A Pull-Up Bar

Scapula Pull-Ups are essential in building back and shoulder muscles and are a step in your full Pull-Up progression. Without Scapula Pull-Ups, there are no regular Pull-Ups and the technique itself already builds muscle mass and strengthens all the joints involved in Pull-Ups. If you can do a dead hang but can’t yet do your first Pull-Up, then the Scapula Pull-Up is most likely what you’re missing. Learn how to perform this important technique with perfect form and progress toward your full Pull-Up with confidence.

What are Scapula Pull-Ups

A Scapula Pull-Up is the onset of a regular Pull-Up where you activate just the shoulders and back muscles, depressing the scapula. Outwardly, it looks like shrugging. However, instead of raising your shoulders you are raising the rest of your body into a shrug position. After holding for a few seconds, you slowly lower yourself back into the original dead hang. 

Every regular Pull-Up starts with this same scapular raise, which tenses up all the required muscles prior to lifting yourself all the way to the top bar.

Scapular Pull Ups (Beginner to Advanced Progressions)

How To Do Scapula Pull-Ups with Proper Form 

Here is how to do a Scapula Pull-Up with proper form:

  1. Grab the top bar of your Pull-Up Bar with an overhand Pronated Grip (knuckles facing toward you) and your hands placed slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  2. Lower into a dead hang with your elbows slightly bent, not entirely locked straight.
  3. Tense your back, shoulders and neck. Press your shoulders back and activate your lats (sides), pull your shoulders down causing your body to come up into a shrug position. Keep your chin level or pointing slightly down through the whole movement.
  4. Hold the shrug position for 2 seconds and slowly lower back into the original dead hang.

What Is the Scapula?

The scapula is the scientific term for the shoulder blade. In layman’s terms the whole shoulder is often referred to as a joint, but technically the shoulder consists of 5 joints. The Scapula itself is concave and moves over the thorax (chest cavity) and is therefore on its own not a joint. It connects to your clavicle and your humerus through the Glenohumeral joint (the large ball joint connecting the arm to the torso), the three bones together forming a joint with a very large range of motion. The disadvantage of an unstable chain like this is that a problem with any of the three parts will lead to inhibitions of shoulder movement.

Another proximal attachment point is the cervical spine or Thoraric Spina, your neck spine. Mobility problems in this region will also negatively affect shoulder mobility.

The Scapula, we conclude, is a cog in a chain of bones, joints and attached muscles that together create the whole shoulder movement. The placement and range of motion of the scapula greatly increases the range of motion the Glenohumeral joint (ball joint) could give, by allowing the ball joint to pivot in its entirety.

How The Scapula Moves

The Scapula has a large range of motion, allowing the ball joint of the Glenohumeral joint to pivot and thus achieving better range of motion and reach. Without the Scapula, your shoulder would be limited to just the rotation of the ball joint in a fixed position. The ability to orientate the ball joint and point it in a different direction greatly increases the total mobility of your shoulder. To achieve this, the Scapula can:

  • Raise and lower vertically (elevation and depression)
  • Forward and withdraw perpendicularly (protraction and retraction)
  • Move up and down sideways (lateral rotation and medial rotation)

The Scapula achieves rising and lowering by going up and down. However, it can also push your shoulder forward by moving around your sides and coming forward. The reverse, coming back, is achieved by moving the Scapula towards your spine. Moving up and down your Glenohumeral joint sideways is achieved by rotating the Scapula in place clockwise or counterclockwise.

The Scapula can do all these movements simultaneously, offering your shoulder the maximum range of motion possible.

Scapula Pull-Up Benefits

The Scapula Pull-Up is an essential move in your Pull-Up progression. Every Pull-Up starts with the same scapular activation. Once the scapula is activated, the rest of the Pull-Up can occur. It is the missing link between hanging and pulling up, so it is important that you first train for this technique before progressing to the full Pull-Up. To sum-up, Scapula Pull-Ups:

  • Are an important progression step toward the full Pull-Up
  • Are an important part of every Pull-Up and needs to be mastered with perfect form
  • Strengthen the shoulder muscles
  • Strength the shoulder joints
  • Strengthen the back muscles

Scapula Pull-Up Progression

If you cannot achieve Scapula Pull-Ups, there are a couple of exercises you can do to work up to this level. The first is by first training for the Australian Pull-Up. After you’ve mastered the Australian Pull-Up you can advance to the Scapula Pull-Up, usually without problem. Should you still not be quite capable of a single perfect form repetition, you can add a Resistance Band to help you or practice a few reinforcing exercises. The progression is as follows:

Australian Pull-UpScapula Pull-Up

Mastering the Technique

Work up to the following benchmark:

  • 2 sets of 12 Scapula Pull-Ups,
  • 3x a week,
  • For 3 weeks

Feeling and understanding how your scapula moves is incredibly important. Other reinforcing techniques you can use to learn more about your own locomotion are: 

  • Australian Scapula Pull-Ups
  • Scapula Incline Push-Ups
  • Scapula Push-Ups

Once You Master It

The next two stages of Pull-Up progression are:

Proper Pull-UpWide Pull-Up

You can also perform weighted Scapula Pull-Ups; however, I advise that you instead work on your first proper full Pull-Up. Technique is much more important at this stage.

Calisthenics Equipment for Scapula Pull-Ups 

You need a strong and sturdy Pull-Up Bar for your Scapula Pull-Ups. If you’re mastering this technique, it will be a steppingstone toward the full proper Pull-Up and investing in a quality, sturdy setup makes sense. Alternatively, you can sign up for a gym (which will be more expensive in the long run) or visit a Calisthenics Park near you. In most of our tutorial videos we use the Gravity Fitness Pull-Up Bar.

Conclusions About the Scapula Pull-Up

Scapula Pull-Ups are the missing progression step toward the full Pull-Up. They are immediately also a part of every Pull-Up itself, the latter technique always starting with the same scapular raise. To achieve your first Pull-Up, it is vital to first master the Scapula Pull-Up. The technique also has its own merits. It strengthens the shoulder muscles and joints and all the muscles attached to it. This strengthens the core muscles you need for the Pull-Up. Aside from just strength, you are mobilizing your shoulders, increasing their mobility and range of motion which are important for future techniques you will learn.

The way the shoulder is articulated also means that any problem with any of its parts means your movement will be inhibited. Correcting these problems is essential if you want to achieve this core technique and trying Scapular Pull-Ups can also tell you if you have any shoulder mobility problems.

Most people will need to progress up to it before a full Scapular Pull-Up can be attempted. The best way is to start on the floor with Australian Pull-Ups or Australian Scapula Pull-Ups. You can also implement Scapula Push-Ups (on the floor or at an incline) to further understand how your scapula moves. Once these have built you the necessary strength, the jump to the Scapular Pull-Up is very doable.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Scapular Pull-Up

A couple more questions we frequently encountered.

Are Scapula Pull-Ups good?

Exercising your scapula and getting good scapular activation are immensely important if you want to learn the full Pull-Up. They are also important to start mobilizing your shoulder, increasing strength and range of motion both necessary for numerous other Calisthenics exercises.

What muscles do Scapula Pull-Ups work?
  • The shoulder muscle chain
  • The shoulder joint chain
  • The back muscles
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