It’s a question I see asked so often, “How Do I Keep My Scapula Retracted When Benching?”
You know as well as me that one of the important aspects to benching is the set up.
There are a number of cues that you need to hit before you even think about pressing that bar.
And one of these cues happens to be retracting the shoulder blades.
This isn’t specifically a problem when you’re setting yourself to bench, but it seems impossible to maintain once you start pressing.
Allow me to explain the potential issues that you’re facing and how to fix them.
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How Do I Keep My Scapula Retracted When Benching?
In order to keep your scapula retracted when benching you must initially ensure that you get yourself into position correctly. Many lifters make the error of shrugging the shoulder blades, as opposed to actually pulling them back and down. You can practice the perfect position by performing band pull aparts prior to benching. Once you have your shoulder blades in the correct position practice benching with an empty bar to ensure you can maintain scapula retraction throughout the movement.
1. Retract the Scapula (Don’t Shrug)
The main reason many lifters have such a problem with keeping the scapula retracted when benching is that they haven’t retracted it correctly in the first place.
I’m sure you’ve heard of many ways to retract your shoulder blades over the years.
Plus, you’ve probably done this so many times, whether benching or performing a pull-based exercise.
However, you’re never quite sure if you’ve got it absolutely correct.
Okay, it seems fairly simple to pull your shoulder blades back and then down.
But, unfortunately so many people fail at this very first stage.
In fact, one of the major errors I often see is that you’re actually shrugging the shoulders, as opposed to retracting them.
For me, this can be easily solved by performing band pull aparts before you bench.
There is no better exercise to get your shoulder blades into the perfect position.
So, grab a band while standing up.
You’ll want to maintain a slight bend in your elbows throughout.
Hold the band in front of you in exactly the same position as you’d hold the bar when benching.
And then pull the band apart, while keeping that slight bend in your elbows, and stop before your hands are level with your body.
This is the perfect position for scapular retraction.
In effect, you have pulled your shoulder blades back and down, and they are now in the ideal place for benching.
I would also suggest that you keep the band to hand while benching.
This way, if ever you feel your shoulders have come out of the correct position you can practice a few reps of band pull aparts.
Band Pull Aparts For Scapula Retraction
2. Practice With an Empty Bar
Okay, now that you know the optimum position for your shoulder blades when benching it’s time to practice with the real equipment.
However, rather than loading the barbell up with your one-rep max you’re going to practice the movement with an empty bar.
By having the scapular retracted you’re providing a more stable and compact base from which to bench.
This is actually extremely important for bench press and any other big lift.
Basically, the more compact you can be, the greater power output you can generate.
This is why it’s so important to get a technique like scapular retraction correct.
Once you’ve nailed it, you’ll be benching more weight, with better technique, while protecting your overall shoulder health.
So, my recommendation would be to practice the movement initially with just the bar, and then add light weights as you ensure you maintain the perfect scapula position.
You know as well as me that you’ll typically make better strides in muscular and strength development by keeping your technique on-point.
In fact, performing the exercise correctly is far more important than adding as much weight to the bar as possible, while executing a lift with poor form.
So, if it comes down to you practicing the movement with an empty bar, or extremely light weights, for a few sessions, then so be it.
3. Rack the Barbell Lower
Okay, so far I’ve spoken about learning proper scapula retraction.
This involves teaching yourself how and when your shoulder blades are pulled back and down.
Plus, it also includes benching with either an empty bar or very light weight while holding this position in the shoulders.
Now, this is all well and good, but I’ve seen plenty of people over the years set themselves up perfectly and then make a glaring error straight afterwards.
By this I mean, there are those who perfectly retract their scapula, and then in the time it takes to grab hold of the barbell they have completely come out of the position.
And the reason this occurs is simply because the barbell is racked too high.
In effect, as the barbell is further than arms length away from you, you’re having to roll the shoulder blades forward to reach it.
This is such an obvious cue, and yet so many people seem to miss it.
The length of your arms not only impacts where you hold the bar and potentially how well you bench.
But, it can also place you in an unstable and less compact starting position.
So, prior to actually retracting your shoulder blades, check that you can adequately reach the bar without having to stretch or roll your shoulders forward.
Once you have the bar at the ideal height you can fix your scapula into place.
4. Scapula Mobility Could Be An Issue
Something else to consider is the mobility you have in your shoulder blades.
It could be that you’re more mobile on one side than the other, which in turn can lead to an uneven bench press.
Then again, it could be that you lack mobility in the entire shoulder region on both sides.
In fact, this is a fairly common occurrence.
In other words, you’re never setting yourself up correctly to bench press in the first place.
If you find that this is the case then you’ll need to work on your bench press mobility.
This may involve regular foam rolling of the area, as well as performing scapular retraction mobility drills.
The shoulders are synonymous with being tight, or lacking flexibility, which can unfortunately hold you back from performing many exercises correctly.
3 Exercises to Strengthen Your Scapula
So, I hope you have a better understanding of how to keep your scapula retracted when benching.
The initial cue is to ensure that you’re retracting the shoulder blades rather than shrugging them.
You can practice the ideal positioning by performing band pull aparts.
Once you’ve achieved this you can move on to benching with scapula retraction with an empty bar.
Keep practicing the movement, but with lighter weights until it becomes a habit.
You should ensure that the barbell is racked low enough so that you’re not stretching to reach it.
And you can also work on your shoulder mobility if this is an issue.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.