How to improve scapular retraction - Upright Health

How to improve scapular retraction

Whenever we work with clients who have problems with their shoulders, there's one motion that we ALWAYS try to improve right away. That movement is scapular retraction.

What is scapular retraction?

It's pulling your shoulder blades (the scapulae) in towards each other/towards the spine - WITHOUT shrugging up toward your ears.

The opposite of scapular retraction is scapular protraction.That's basically what you do when you want to look like a sad sack. Your shoulder blades move away from one another and your arms droop forward and everyone thinks you instantly look 20 IQ points dumber.

Modern life has made us all exceptionally good at scapular protraction and terrible at retraction.

Why is scapular retraction important?

Being able to retract your scapula is important because protracted scapulae make it difficult to move your shoulder joints well. Protracted scapulae make it hard to lift your arms out to the side. Protracted scapulae can make it very difficult to stand up straight because the weight of your arms is dragging your thoracic spine into kyphosis. Protracted scapulae can make it difficult to get blood flow and nerve transmission into and out of your hands (have you heard of thoracic outlet syndrome or carpal tunnel syndrome?).

Being able to pull your scapulae into proper position makes it possible to breathe and move freely without the weight of you arms dragging you (literally) down.

How do you improve scapular retraction?

You practice. Like anything, practice makes perfect! Below you'll find three exercises that can help you start learning to retract your scapulae better.

As you work on these exercises, remember that progress takes time. It takes human beings time to develop the strength and coordination to learn to walk. It takes human beings time to learn unfamiliar motions!


This exercise helps your shoulder blades come in towards the spine and teaches the thoracic spine to extend. This can be very helpful if you find it difficult to do any kind of scapular retraction without severe tightness in the front of the shoulder.

We generally recommend holding this position for about a minute.


This exercise helps you engage the muscles that retract your shoulder blades. This is the most basic exercise for restoring control over your shoulder blades. Make sure you pay close attention to how the two sides compare. For a large number of people, one side is going to feel like it's less under control. It may feel like one has a greater distance to travel than the other. This tells you that the muscles on that side are not used to maintain the right amount of tension.

We generally recommend doing 2-3 sets of 10-15 every day.


Once you have mastered the reverse presses, you want to practice doing scapular retraction in a more practical position - standing! 

The nice thing about this exercise is that you can do it literally anywhere. You can do it at home, at work, at the grocery story, sitting in your car, etc. etc. 

We generally recommend doing 2-3 sets of 10-15 several times throughout the day. It's pretty hard to overdo this.

Final thoughts on scapular retraction

These exercises are a good start for just about anyone looking to improve scapular retraction at a basic level. 

Whenever you are starting to learn a new motion, it's important to realize that you may run into roadblocks. If you run into roadblocks - like areas of tightness that restrict your range of motion - you'll need to take a deeper look at your particular situation to improve your ability to achieve this fundamental motion. 

The most important thing to remember is that change takes time. Don't get discouraged when you first start retraining your body. It will take time to learn how to do new motions. Even those motions that feel impossible right now will one day become possible! 

Want shoulders that feel good and move well?


About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.

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