Scapular Depression - A Critical Muscular Function
Posted October 27, 2022 by Matthew Romans
The human body is far more than just a collection of different parts. While there are 206 bones, over 600 muscles, and an estimated 37.2 trillion cells in each of us, each one plays a specific role in helping us to function optimally. Much like an automobile, if one of those parts is damaged or compromised, we don't perform like we should. However, depending on the nature of the damage, an organ, muscle, or limb can help to pick up the slack until homeostasis is restored. I see the body as a wonderfully adaptive piece of machinery, and often marvel at how smaller muscles can support larger muscles to enable movement (think of how the tiny rotator cuff muscles help the much larger deltoid to perform movement about the shoulder joint). Regular exercise helps us to become more in tune with our bodies and to better understand muscle function and how everything works together.
Scapular depression is the act of driving your shoulder blades downward. This is an important muscular function that has an impact not only on your exercise performance, but also on your general posture, and failure to properly perform this function can result in neck, shoulder, and back pain down the road. To get a better understanding, we can piggy-back on the anatomical discussion from the "Shoulder Pain" book review that I did a few weeks ago. The scapulae are your shoulder blades, and they are wing-shaped structures that you can feel if you press slightly into your upper back. They are the central figure in your shoulder joint, and they connect to your clavicle (collar bone) as well as your humerus (upper arm). The function of scapular depression is performed by several different muscle groups: latissimus dorsi (large back muscle), pectoralis minor and major (chest), serratus anterior (just below your chest), and trapezius (kite-shaped muscle that goes across your upper back and tapers down). The scapular elevation (shrugging of the shoulders) that often occurs due to stress, incorrect seat/computer height, and bad posture can lead to neck tension/pain, shoulder pain, and headaches. It is also the most common form discrepancy that we see in compound upper body exercises.
Most of the exercises that we perform in a Total Results workout are compound movements, meaning that we incorporate multiple joints and muscle groups in each exercise. This enables us to cover more ground and systemically fatigue the body in a shorter period of time, which leads to a more effective exercise stimulus. Three of the compound upper body exercises that we do at Total Results really incorporate scapular depression: Chest Press, Row, and Pulldown. On the Chest Press, scapular depression maximizes involvement of the pectoralis major and minor, which are the primary movers of the exercise. Failure to perform this function results in greater involvement of the triceps muscles, which can cause early fatigue. Every compound movement has a weak link, which is typically the smallest muscle group in the chain. If you place a greater demand on the smaller and weaker muscles (the triceps, in this case) you do so at the expense of the larger muscles (the chest muscles). Proper performance of scapular depression ensures that you effectively inroad the muscles with the greatest overall metabolic impact.
On the Pulldown and Row exercises, the primary movers are the latissimus dorsi muscles, in addition to the medial and lower trapezius as well as the rhomboids. Since both exercises involve elbow flexion, that means that the biceps muscles will play a secondary role. Scapular elevation on these two exercises leads to a similar outcome as it does on the Chest Press, only we're talking about the biceps instead of the triceps. Here, your biceps will fatigue more quickly at the expense of the larger back muscles. The larger muscles are more powerful, and efficiently inroading them leads to a better exercise stimulus.
There is a teaching point that I often use with novice clients to illustrate how to properly depress the scapulae during these exercises. I have the client face me with their elbows bent at 90 degrees. They will then shrug their shoulders toward their ears as if they're saying, "I don't know." At that point, I will place my hands under their elbows with my palms up, and instruct them to press their elbows down into my palms. Driving their shoulders downward in this fashion helps them to engage and really feel the muscles responsible for scapular depression, and they are now able to make the connection and understand the importance that this plays in the preceding exercises. I ask them to go home and practice this exercise in the mirror in order to reinforce what they have learned, and I have found that it works rather well.
Having a basic understanding of anatomy pays dividends, and allows clients to become more in tune with their bodies as they start to work with a greater degree of intensity. Knowing which muscles are primary and secondary movers, and recognizing how to achieve significant activation of these structures makes all the difference in the world as far as your workout is concerned. Learning is a continuous process, and your Total Results instructor is here to guide you every step of the way.