I am surprised again and again on how simple stuff is made complicated and presented to the public without any kind of insight. Confusion reigns: some people say protract on a handstand, others retract on a push-up, or depress in a inverted hang. And that is just talking about scapula position.
How do we know what’s truth? We go to principles. I am a firm believer things always have a logic behind of them, and that logic – more than what it produces – is what education its about.
That’s my rant for today. Now to the question, what is the scapula position on the front lever? Some people say you should retract, others protract, and almost everybody agrees to depress.
The short answer is that you want to retract and depress.
Why? Because when strength is our aim any exercise should be done with an anti-gravity scapula position. This is why during a manna we retract, during a planche and a back lever we protract, during a support hold we depress and during a handstand we elevate, because the main focus is to fight gravity, and thus get stronger. You do the exact opposite of what your body is trying to sink into. This is the main focus, and auxiliary positions like depression/elevation in a front lever or retraction/protraction during a handstand are not as clear cut, more subjected to where the individual feels the strongest. In the Front lever this tends to be depression, as it better engages the back muscles.
Nevertheless, on the majority of cases there will be a difference between scapula position and scapula movement. The first one is how you look and the second one is where you’re trying to get. While on a Front lever you should retract in the second sense, you don’t actually want to reach retraction in the first sense.
This means that the effort in a Front lever should be towards retraction, but you don’t want to actually achieve full retraction. There are three reasons for this. The first one is that the scapula position staying the same during an exercise is just as important as it being the correct position. If you start with full retraction and move to semi-protraction during the exercise, that means increased stress on the connective tissue. In dynamics this is inevitable, but in isometric exercises it’s better to pick a middle position that you know you’ll be able to maintain during the exercise, trying to keep a really solid and stable horizontal with the floor.
Although this mid range can be described either as partial protraction or retraction, I think describing it as partial retraction is less confusing as it remind us of the active effort to isometrically retract during a front lever or, in other words, statically prevent protraction. But don’t get confused with semantics.
The second reason is that reaching full retraction would actually reduce lat activation. The lats, which is the biggest back muscle, has the function of adducting, extending and internally rotating the shoulder, but in most people it also connects to the scapula and serves to retract it. Therefore, reaching full retraction means less activation, as a muscle is the strongest at its mid range.
Finally, the lats connect the humerus to the pelvis, meaning that its contraction brings together the shoulders with the hips. This will depend on their length, but its best to just keep them in a semi contracted position so that it doesn’t interfere with posterior pelvic tilt (which you need in a front lever).
So that’s your answer- the scapula movement in the Front lever is isometrically fighting protraction and elevation, leading to a partially retracted and depressed position. Unless you are really strong, you won’t have to worry about holding back on retraction, so just try to hold close together those shoulder blades while spreading your back.
If you’d like to know more about these topics, I recommend the work of Christopher Sommer and Ido Portal
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