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Scapular Retraction 101: Motions, Muscles, and Useful Exercises

Drs. Jeff Langmaid and Jason Deitch

Founder DCs, The Smart Chiropractor

An Introduction to Scapular Retractions

Scapular retractions are movements that are crucial to maintaining, strengthening, and ensuring the integrity of the shoulder blades.

These can also aid in the improvement of posture making scapular retraction a necessary action for anyone to master.

It is unbelievably important for such a small movement!

But before you master this fundamental movement, it helps to first understand how the different parts of the body work together to accomplish it.

An Overview of the Anatomy of the Shoulder

Let’s start by looking at the larger shoulder joint that is involved in scapular retraction.

We know that the shoulder is one of the most complex joints in the body and is responsible for many significant movements in the upper extremity.

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The shoulder joint, more commonly referred to as the shoulder blade, and the scapula connect directly to two other bones and they articulate indirectly with the rib cage.

The Bones of the Shoulder Joint

A Close Up of the Humerus Bone Involved in Scapular Retraction

The humerus is the longest bone of the upper extremity and serves as an attachment to the muscles that faciliate motion of the upper limb.

A Close Up of the Clavicle Bone Involved in Scapular Retraction

The clavicle is the only long bone that lies sideways. It sits between the shoulder blade and the sternum and makes up the front of the shoulder.

The first bone, the humerus, fits into a socket in the scapula, forming a traditional ball and socket joint called the glenohumeral joint.

The second bone, the clavicle or collarbone, forms the smaller acromioclavicular joint.

Both bones are stabilized by the ligaments surrounding them and further supported by the rotator cuff muscles (1).

The Muscles of the Shoulder Joint

Both the shape of the aforementioned glenohumeral joint and the unique attachments of the rotator cuff muscles’ tendons allow the shoulder to move in many different directions.

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Rotator Cuff Muscles

The four primary muscles that make up the rotator cuff include the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis muscles.

A Close Up of the Supraspinatus Muscle Involved in Scapular Retraction

The supraspinatus is the smallest of the rotator cuff muscles. It helps to resist gravitational forces on the shoulder and to stabilize the shoulder joint.

A Close Up of the Infraspinatus Muscle Involved in Scapular Retraction

The infraspinatus is a thick, triangular-shaped rotator cuff muscle that provides the main muscle force for external rotator of the shoulder.

A Close Up of the Teres Minor Muscle Involved in Scapular Retraction
Teres Minor

Teres minor is a narrow muscle of the rotator cuff located below the infraspinatus. It’s instrumental in providing stability to the shoulder joint.

A Close Up of the Subscapularis Muscle Involved in Scapular Retraction

The subscapularis is the largest and strongest rotator cuff muscle. It plays an important role in shoulder stabilization as well as humerus rotation.

Specifically, the supraspinatus is responsible for the abduction of the shoulder – i.e. moving the arm away from the body.

The infraspinatus and teres minor are responsible for external rotation of the shoulder, a movement commonly required for reaching and overhead activities.

The subscapularis is responsible for internal rotation – putting a phone in your back pocket, for example.

Shoulder Supporting Muscles

Other important muscles involved in scapular retraction include the pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, deltoid, and serratus anterior muscles.

A Close Up of the Pectoralis Major Muscle Involved in Scapular Retraction
Pectoralis Major

The pectoralis major is the foremost and largest muscle of the chest. In part, it adducts and rotates the arm at the glenohumeral joint.

A Close Up of the Pectoralis Minor Muscle Involved in Scapular Retraction
Pectoralis Minor

The pectoralis minor is located under the pectoralis major. It’s triangular in shape and plays a crucial role in the stabilization of the scapula.

A Close Up of the Deltoid Muscle Involved in Scapular Retraction

The deltoid is a large triangular muscle that overlays the glenohumeral joint. It gives the shoulder its rounded shape and also provides important stabilization to the shoulder joint.

A Close Up of the Serratus Anterior Muscle Involved in Scapular Retraction
Serratus Anterior

The serratus anterior, also known as the “boxer’s muscle”, is a key scapula stabilizer that helps keep the shoulder blade against the ribcage at all times.

The pectoralis major and pectoralis minor help to support the shoulder girdle.

These muscles function to internally rotate your shoulder and bring your arms across your body.

The deltoid muscle also supports the shoulder and sits on the outside of the shoulder. It helps move either arm to the side, forward, and backward.

Lastly, the serratus anterior muscle works to stabilize the scapula by connecting to the rib cage, allowing for protraction of the scapula.

A Breakdown of the Muscles Involved in Scapular Retraction

For the purposes of this guide, we’re going to focus reverse motion scapular retraction.

Know This

When discussing reverse motion scapular retraction, the primary muscles involved are the trapezius, rhomboids, and latissimus dorsi.

A Close Up of the Trapezius Muscle Involved in Scapular Retraction

The trapezius is made up of long fibers that span the upper back. It plays an important role in the shoulder and is crucial for proper scapula positioning.

A Close Up of the Rhomboid Muscle Involved in Scapular Retraction

The rhomboids make up part of the shoulder girdle and are important for movement of the upper extremity and overall stabilization of the shoulder.

A Close Up of the Latissimus Dorsi Muscle Involved in Scapular Retraction
Latissimus Dorsi

The latissimus dorsi is a climibing muscle that assists in holding the scapula against the thorax during upper limb movements.

The trapezius muscle is a large muscle that spreads across the entire back.

Named after the shape we all love from geometry – the trapezoid – the trapezius muscle helps facilitate many different movements like shrugging the shoulders, scapular depression, and scapular retraction.

The rhomboids are another muscle group (also named after a shape) that is responsible for facilitating scapular retraction.

Finally, the latissimus dorsi functions to depress the scapula and stabilize the spine during activities.

How to Perform a Scapular Retraction

The scapula is an essential element of the upper limb kinematic chain and the rhythm of the scapulothoracic and glenohumeral joints.

When operating in tandem, these muscles help to pull the scapula together toward your spine and slightly downward.

Know This

A common cue used to activate this motion is to tuck your shoulder blades down into your back pockets.

This motion is important for exercises like rows and functionally important in daily posture.

Scapular retraction provides the shoulder with additional support during such movements, increasing the body’s power and strength.

A Woman Performs a Particular Scapular Retraction Motion Referred to as Reverse Prayer Pose in Yoga
Scapular Retraction: Motion

This kinematic chain and rhythm can be disrupted by various factors causing scapular dyskinesis. 

Scapular dyskinesis can include conditions like scapular winging, snapping scapula syndrome, or impingement.

Scapular winging occurs when the serratus anterior is weak which can effectively allow the rhomboid and trapezius muscles to “run wild.”

An Experienced Chiropractor Nods as His Male Patient Describes Symptoms of a What He Knows to Be Scapular Dyskinesis
Scapular Retraction: Scapular Dyskinesis

When these muscles retract the scapula too far, a person can experience limited overhead functionality (1).

Then there’s snapping scapula syndrome which can be caused by long-term poor movement patterns, trauma, or osteophyte formation.

This further leads to interference in the normal scapulothoracic and glenohumeral rhythms (2).

Finally, impingement can be caused by inflammation and tendonitis in one or more of the rotator cuff muscles which can result in pain when completing overhead activities (3).

Strengthening Exercises for the Scapular Retraction Muscles

So, how can you improve the strength of your scapular retraction motion?

It starts with finding out if there are any tight or weak muscles and then taking the proper steps to address them individually.

For example, if your pectoralis muscles are tight, you could work on stretching them.

The Doorway Stretch

The doorway stretch is a simple yet effective way to stretch your pectoralis muscles.

A Man Performs a Variation of the Doorway Stretch Known as the Corner Stretch to Help Improve His Scapular Retraction Movement
Scapular Retraction: Doorway Stretch (Corner Variation)

Find the edge of a doorway and place one of your forearms onto it with your upper arm parallel to the ground.

Then take a small step forward with the opposite leg (for example, if your right arm is up, take a step with your left leg).

Hold this position for 15-30 seconds on either side.

If you begin to experience any numbness or tingling in the arm, bring your elbow closer to the ground to lessen the intensity of the stretch.

Know This

The latissimus dorsi, the rhomboids, and the trapezius muscles are commonly found to be weak in those with poor scapular retraction.

To target these muscles, you can begin to incorporate exercises like rows or movements referred to as “I-Y-T” exercises.

Row Exercises

Rows are a particularly effective way to strengthen the rhomboids and middle trapezius muscles.

Pro Tip

To ensure you are doing these properly, focus on completing them with a lighter weight until you can complete the movement pattern efficiently.

When it comes to performing row exercises in general, you’ll want to initiate the movement with your shoulder blades and focus on pulling them back as much as you can.

A Man Performs Inverted Row Exercises to Help Improve His Scapular Retraction Movement Patterns
Scapular Retraction: Row Exercises (Inverted Body Weight Variation)

The emphasis should be on moving your shoulder blades together rather than moving your elbow as far back as it can go.

“I-Y-T” Exercises

Next, “I-Y-T” exercises can be used to help activate and build up endurance in the latissimus dorsi and the lower trapezius muscles.

Know This

These movements are unique, and even many seasoned athletes struggle with them.

So, as with rows, focus on completing these with no weight or with extremely light weights as you work to master the movement.

Scapular Retraction: “I-Y-T” Exercises

Starting face down on a yoga mat or a comfortable carpet, place your arms in the starting position straight over your head.

You can imagine yourself from a birdseye view looking like a capital letter “I” with your arms up and your entire body in one straight line.

Next, you can use the cue we previously mentioned, keeping your shoulders down and your shoulder blades tucked into your back pocket, keep your thumbs up to the sky and lift your arms an inch or two off the ground.

Know This

Again, you should initiate this movement in your middle and lower back, not in your shoulders.

Remembering our birdseye view, next bring your arms out slightly wider so that your body and arms resemble a capital letter “Y,” and then again fully out to the side to resemble a capital letter “T.”

Scapular Retraction: “I-Y-T” Repetitions

You can pause in each of these movements for about 5-10 seconds and once you’ve mastered them can begin to add very light weights.

When to See a Healthcare Professional

These are just a few examples of stretches or exercises you may want to focus on.

Know This

We always recommend consulting a healthcare professional or movement specialist before beginning any new activity.

These individuals can help identify your unique needs and ensure that you complete the exercises correctly.

It is also essential to consider the health of the entire shoulder joint, which a healthcare professional can help assess and treat.

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Know This

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