I have been working with a large number of people over the past few months. This group of people ranges from young adults to the elderly at various different fitness levels. One thing that I have noticed with about 90% of these people is their lack of strength in the upper back, specifically their ability to retract the shoulder blades. Many of the people I have worked with have pronounced slouching posture and internally rotated shoulders but there are many people who do not look as bad yet still have trouble with retraction.
I recently started messing around with scapular retraction exercises and many of my clients have a lot of trouble squeezing the shoulder blades. From a point of muscle weakness to a lack of muscular control this problem is being seen in so many people. Since I have been noticing this a lot in the majority of my clients I have started to add in a lot of work on retraction from isolated exercises to positioning on other exercises such as rows. Before I get into some exercises let's look at the reason for retraction.
The scapulae help form the shoulder joint and give the humerus a fossa to rest in. On and around the scapulae there are muscles that help stabilize it and keep it in position. These muscles include the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis, teres minor and major, and the levator scapulae. The rhomboids are also included in this group of muscles as they are responsible for retraction. If these muscles are weak and underdeveloped then the scapulae will protract and the shoulder joint will move causing a pulling on certain tendons and muscles. A displaced shoulder joint can be a cause of some serious dysfunction and pain. Keeping the scapulae in the right place can save a lot of trouble in the shoulder joint as well as improve posture.
When looking to strengthen the muscles of the back and improve posture and retraction there are some very helpful exercises. These include such things as wall slides, scapular rows, and cable retraction to low row. Other things include keeping the scapulae retracted while doing seated rows or focusing a lot on squeezing the shoulder blades together when doing rows, pull downs, and even things such as push-ups or bench press. A simple way to work on this is to add in one or two of these exercises into a warm-up every workout. This way the muscles in the upper back can see some development each and every workout. As I read in Dan John's book, if it's important, do it every day.
Strengthening these muscles of the upper back and bringing the shoulder blades into the right position will not only keep the shoulders healthier but will also help with strength gains in just about every upper body exercise. Remember, we are only as strong as our weakest link.