“Pull the shoulders down and back” is a commonly used cue for a myriad of lifts, but when it comes to pulling exercises, these may not be the best cues, despite the well-natured intention.
You may have heard of the shoulder being a ball-and-socket joint, but many times we focus on the humerus (the ball of the joint) and do not give enough attention to the behavior of the shoulder blades movement (the socket). The shoulder blade should glide along the rib cage in many directions, which allows room for the shoulder to move. When given cues to pin the shoulder “down and back” you are restricting movement and targeting muscles that may not be intended for the exercise.
Over time, this can create stiffness and potential impingements in the shoulder joint as the natural motions are restricted, causing the humerus to find compensations for movement. Most of the key muscles involved in a rowing motion are attached to the shoulder blade, meaning full motion is required to target these muscles efficiently.
If you are looking to target the rhomboids (the muscles between the shoulder blades) then a down and back pinning will reduce the ability for them to contract well. As stated before, the shoulder blade should glide along the ribcage. In this case, as the arm lowers from a row, the shoulder blade should wrap around the body, elongating the rhomboids on their line of pull. As you row, you should not retract the shoulder blade first, even though it seems like you will get a greater muscle squeeze. The reason this is a disadvantage is that if the shoulder blade retracts fully before the arm comes back, the natural rhythm between the arm and shoulder is lost, causing the shoulder to pinch in the front as the space to go back has been blocked.
Pulling the shoulder down can certainly engage the lat more, but also at the cost of limiting full excursions. For lat engagement, you may want the elbow to come in tighter to the body as the arm pulls from a horizontal position. Vertical pulling allows the shoulder to extend more so to give the lats leverage, and in this case, there is no need to pull the elbow as tight to the body.
Below shows a video of the above movements rowing without the shoulder blades being squeezed first . You can notice a difference in how much movement actually occurs at the shoulder blades and how squeezing them together first would cause the arm to overcompensate.
For a full example on how to row, check the video below.
How you pull will ultimately be decided by which muscles you want to target, but the principles of a fully gliding shoulder blade should be present so you do not cut down the range prior to the movement.
Dr. Peter Dionisopoulos is the owner and founder of Dynamic Performance & Rehab. He has worked with many high-level athletes and military personnel, but his true passion is to help active adults maintain their lifestyle by providing information and potential solutions to their aches and pains so they can continue with the activities they love.