Scapular Wall Slides
The term ‘shoulder’ refers to the clavicle, shoulder blade, and arm. The gleno-humeral joint (shoulder joint) is a ball and socket joint where the head of the humerus (arm bone) articulates with the glenoid fossa of the scapula.
Image modified from John Hull Grundy book, “Human Structure and Shape”
Healthy shoulder function requires a balance of scapular stability, arm flexibility, and good motor control during arm movement. Wall slides train the muscles surrounding the scapula for both dynamic and static stability – controlling the position of the scapula during arm movement.
Two important positions for athletes that lift weight overhead are upward rotation and retraction/depression.
The forearm wall slide trains dynamic scapular stability – upward rotation. The W/Y wall slide trains static scapular stability for retraction and depression.
Upward rotation is needed for movements like the shoulder press, push-press, push-jerk, and pull-up – where the arms are overhead inline with the shoulders. Retraction and depression is needed for movements like the overhead squat and snatch – where the arms are abducted (out to the sides) in a wide grip. All overhead positions require upward rotation to support shoulder flexion.
Upward rotation refers to coordinated movement of the scapula and arm during shoulder flexion. This 3-to-1 ratio of arm to scapular movement is called scapulo-humeral rhythm – the scapula upwardly rotates 60-degrees during the 120-degrees of shoulder flexion. If the scapula is fixated or unable to move in coordination with the arm – shoulder flexion will be limited.
Poor upward rotation is the most common shoulder dysfunction – physical therapist Shirley Sahrmann refers to this pattern as, “Downward Rotation Syndrome.”
“Downward Rotation Syndrome” is an imbalance where the downward rotators (levator scapula, pec-minor, rhomboid) are tight/overactive & the upward rotators are weak/inhibited (serratus anterior, lower/upper trapezius).
Restoring upward rotation requires a combination of stretching the downward rotators, strengthening the upward rotators (scapular plank pushups, half-kneeling face pulls, overhead shrugs), and training proper shoulder motor control (wall slides).
Forearm Wall Slide
Begin with your forearms in contact with the wall, shoulder width apart. The elbows are bent at ninety degrees and wrists inline with the elbows. Keeping your forearms in contact with the wall – slide your arms up and out – without shrugging the shoulders. Controlling the lower part of the shoulder blade with the lower trapezius helps prevent the shoulders from elevating during the movement.
I use the term ‘pack scapula down’ – not to describe a rigid position – but a controlled retraction of the scapula during its upward rotation (see illustration). Focusing on lower trapezius engagement as the scapula rotates out to the side creates this position of dynamic stability.
Integrating Lower and Upper Trapezius
At the top of the movement – with the arms extended, pull the arms back 2-inches retracting the shoulder blades (part B). A slight shrug while pulling the arms off the wall engages the upper trapezius for full upward rotation. Note – the shoulders remain relaxed down as the arms slide up and out (part A), before a shrug is added at the top position to pull the arms back (part B).
This motion is similar to an overhead barbell shrug where a shrug at the top of the lift is used to enhance upward rotation – as the scapula is controlled by the lower trapezius. This timing of lower and upper trapezius activation takes some practice – the initial focus should be upward rotation without elevating the shoulders (part A of the exercise).
After pulling the arms back off the wall (part B) return the arms to the wall and slide them back down to the starting position – maintaining contact with the wall (part C).
Another way to get a feel for scapular upward rotation is pullups. The scapula starts in upward rotation during the hang and then returns to a neutral position (downwardly rotates) as you pull up towards the bar. The advantage of the forearm wall slide is that you start in a neutral position and move into upward rotation.
W/Y Wall Slide
While the forearm wall slide trains upward rotation, the W/Y wall slide trains retraction and depression of the shoulder blade. If you move your arms from a shoulder press position out to an overhead squat position – you can feel the slight difference in position of the shoulder blade. While a shoulder press requires active scapular movement during shoulder flexion, the overhead squat and snatch require more of a fixed shoulder blade position to support the bar overhead. The W/Y wall slide trains scapular stability during active range of motion for the arms.
“The key to the Wall Slide (W/Y) is that the shoulder blades remain retracted and depressed while the gleno-humeral joint attempts to move the arms overhead. They are the “air guitar” of overhead pressing. Many beginners will actually cramp in the lower trap/ rhomboid area as they attempt this exercise. The key is that the forearms must slide up in contact with the wall while the shoulder blades stay down and back.” – Mike Boyle
Wall Squat Arm Slide
The wall squat arm slide integrates anterior core stability and thoracic extension with shoulder flexion. Anterior core stability is needed to maintain neutral hips and prevent ribcage flair during overhead lifts. Over-extending the low-back and allowing the ribcage to rise during a shoulder press takes away the foundation – hip and core stability – for scapular stability.
Anterior Core Stability – Good Ribcage Position (Neutral Lumbar/Thoracic Extension) – Stable Scapula Position = Arm Mobility
This movement also integrates upper and lower body movement: the low-back remains in contact with the wall as the hips descend into flexion and arms rise. Note your breathing as you perform a few repetitions – try to breathe into the sides of your lower ribcage. You can revisit the Kolar Wall Bug (see here) to help improve anterior core stability, diaphragmatic breathing, and training a ribcage down position.
Eric Cressey: Forearm Wall Slides with Band (link)
Eric Cressey: Serratus Wall Slides (link)
Aaron Swanson: The New Overhead Shoulder Position (link)
Tony Gentilcore: Exercises You Should Be Doing: Forearm Wall Slides (link)
Craig Liebenson: A Key Link in the Locomotor System: The Upper-Thoracic Spine (link)
Mike Robertson: Is Scapular Stability a Myth (link)
Bret Contreras: When Coaching Cues Attack: Packing the Shoulder (link)
FlexibilityRx™: Shoulder Traction Series (link)
- Kevin Kula, “The Flexibility Coach” – Creator of FlexibilityRx™