Our shoulder blades can move in multiple directions. They can slide up and down, toward each other or apart from each other, and they can rotate clockwise and counterclockwise. When you’re doing an exercise that involves your upper back, instructors will sometimes boil down all this complexity to “squeezing” or “retracting” your shoulder blades. And that’s not always what you should do.
When you’re deadlifting
Engaging your upper back muscles is important for getting a strong setup before you begin to deadlift. Unfortunately, too many people think that squeezing the shoulder blades together is the way to do that.
During a deadlift, you just have to stand up with the bar, while keeping the bar close to your body. You don’t need your shoulder blades retracted together; that doesn’t help you. One of my favorite ways to remember this is a demonstration that powerlifting coach Dave Tate has done in several of his videos: He’ll mark with chalk where a person’s hands reach when they pull their shoulder blades back, versus when they only pull their shoulder blades down and not back.
It makes a real difference, as I’ve noticed in my own deadlifts. I now think about pulling my shoulders down to my hips, without moving them back toward each other at all. By the time I get to the top of the lift, my arms are holding the bar right where it needs to be.
When you’re doing pullups
A scapular pullup is a great exercise to work on as an accessory for pullups. You keep your arms straight, but engage your upper back muscles. But to get the most out of this exercise (or to properly execute the beginning of a pullup), you’ll need to move your shoulder blades appropriately.
Once again, this isn’t squeezing them together. The best cue I know for scap pullups is to hang onto the bar and pretend you are trying to push it down in front of you with straight arms. As this video demonstrates, the shoulder blades start in a position where their bottoms are pointed away from each other, almost toward your sides, and the movement you want is rotating them back toward each other while pulling them down. Much of this action comes from your lats, the muscles that run from your armpits down the sides of your back.
When you’re holding a bar overhead
If you’re pressing a barbell overhead, or if you’re trying to stabilize a bar in this position (for example, in an overhead squat, a snatch, or a jerk), use this approach as described by Catalyst Athletics. It’s not as simple as shrugging or squeezing, but you’ll get the idea pretty quickly if you give it a try. You want to squeeze the tops of your shoulder blades together, and then rotate them so the outer edge (by the side of your body) turns upward. This allows you to get your arms comfortably overhead while using your back muscles to stabilize your shoulders.
When you’re squatting
Here’s one case where you do want to retract your shoulder blades: when you’re setting up for a squat. As this squat setup video from Juggernaut shows, pulling your shoulder blades in toward each other is part of how you create tightness in your upper back and create a secure shelf for the bar. There’s more to the setup, including bringing your elbows in toward the center of the body, but a squeeze is one of the first and most important steps.