Gymnasts are known for having broad, muscular shoulders that are capable of swinging their bodies around the horizontal bar, standing inverted on their hands, and holding themselves horizontal on the rings. Many elite gymnasts have muscular definition akin to a bodybuilder, despite only using weights as a secondary means of training. One of the primary reasons for this is that gymnasts train their shoulders through a full range of motion. Rather than just pushing and pulling in the same direction every workout, they are going overhead, hanging with one arm, and propelling themselves into the air with their shoulders all the time.
The key behind these complicated movements is the position of their scapula, or shoulder blades, as they move. Your shoulders are one of the most mobile joints in your body (or at least they should be), and as such your scapula can move through a wide variety of angles and orientations. We will briefly cover four of these movements in this post, along with explaining how they fit into GST™ on the whole.
Protraction and Retraction
When unrestricted by muscular tightnesses or weaknesses, the scapulae should be able to move through a full range of motion such as demonstrated here in a plank position by a GST™ class at GB Affiliate Forma GST in Stroud, UK. Notice how clearly the shoulder blades pull back and “pinch” together at the bottom of each movement; this is what is called retraction. At the top of each rep, the scapulae push and “spread” apart into a fully protracted position. This protraction is key for all sorts of planche and handstand work throughout all of GST™.
Anatomically, the serratus anterior is one of the muscles largely responsible for protracting the shoulder blades and keeping them stable overhead. In most untrained adults the serratus is largely non-existent, and coupled with their pathetic lack of shoulder mobility, movements like scapular shrugs demonstrated above are virtually impossible to perform. Fortunately, this problem can be solved with time, sweat, and effort. Take a look through the GB Foundation Series for plenty of focused exercises on developing protraction and retraction strength, along with the Thoracic Bridge Stretch Course for all your mobility needs.
Depression and Elevation
Another key component of proper scapular movement is depression and elevation. For these two positions, we are thinking about “shrugging” the shoulders up into the ears (elevation) or “packing” them down away from the ears (depression). In the video above you can see these two scapular orientations demonstrated in a handstand position. From top support, lock your elbows, and sink your shoulders all the way down, feeling a stretch on your traps at the bottom. Then firmly press or “shrug” them back up to the top position, focusing on elevating your scapulae using your traps. Scapular elevation has tremendous carry-over to handstand and press handstand work.
In the opposite range of motion, you can do shrugs in a pull-up hang rather than a handstand. This will focus on strengthening the lower traps to be able to depress your scapulae down on your back, and this position will be particularly useful for front lever and rope climb work. Starting from a hang, relax your shoulders so that they elevate up into your ears. From here, keeping your elbows locked, “pull” them down across your back, thus reaching a depressed and “packed” scapular position. Note that this movement should be smooth and painless, and any restrictions, grinding, or sensations of pain need to be addressed immediately.
Your shoulder blades, or scapulae, are capable of moving in a wide variety of positions, and this is a central component of long-term success in GST™.
Work on your protraction and retraction with plank position shrugs, and this will carry over to your planches and handstands.
Use handstand and pull-up shrugs to strengthen your scapular elevation and depression, the latter of which helps with front levers and rope climbs.