The Most Effective Pull Apart For Strong & Stable Shoulders

By Dr. John Rusin

pull down and apart

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Introducing Functional Strength Training: 
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Feeling Band Pull Aparts In Your Traps? You’re Doing Them Wrong

If you want to build strong and healthy shoulders, the band pull apart needs to be a staple movement in your dynamic warm up preparation, period. Though this pain-free shoulder movement (along with it’s sibling the banded face pull) is responsible for bulletproofing and self-sufficiently rehabbing more shoulders than any other movement in my exercise library, it still has it’s limitations to be an effective posterior shoulder activation for ALL types of athletes with individualized presentations.

Through the years, I’ve programmed a large number of pull apart variations to fix my athletes individualized body types and goals. From re-educating posterior chain activation and stability in beat up powerlifters, to improving the overhead positioning in overhand field and court sport athletes, there is truly a band pull apart variation for every type of person. You can check out some of these variations in THIS article which showcases four of my favorite variations.

After implementing the band pull apart and it’s many variations for hundreds, if not thousands, of athletes over the last decade, you learn a few things. One commonality that I have seen in those who struggle to yield a positive training response from this staple movement is the athlete “feeling it in the traps” instead of achieving upper back activation. For those athletes who truly struggle to tap into the posterior shoulder girdle with a strong feel based mind-muscle connection, a simple yet highly effective band pull apart variation was originated. It’s called the Band Pull Down and Apart, and it’s a game changer for upper back activation and stability.

Check out this setup in the video tutorial below:

The Band Pull Down and Apart

The Band Pull Down and Apart was born out of pure necessity with some of our elite level powerlifting athletes who chronically shrug all upper back exercises which negates the targeted upper back training effect we are looking to achieve. We essentially combined the power of the Banded Straight Arm Pulldown with the Band Pull Apart to achieve maximal multi-planar activation through the entire shoulder complex consisting of the gleno-humeral joint, scapula and thoracic spine/cage to integrate these pieces together in synergistic function.

Here’s how to execute this novel pull apart variation perfectly:

  • Attach an extra-light circular band to a pull up bar or power rack
  • Position your feet facing the band approximately 1-2 steps back from the pull up bar
  • With an overhand grip, place both hands on top of the band shoulder width apart
  • Keep a lose grip on the band with hands relaxed
  • Ensure maximal tension through glutes, core and shoulders
  • Initiate a slight pulldown into the band with a straight elbow position to the bottom of the sternum
  • While maintaining pulldown tension, drive the hands away from each other
  • Peak the contraction for a split second and smoothly bring hands back in
  • Repeat with maximal stability and tension for ‘X’ number of reps per set

Why This Works So Well For Targeted Upper Back Activation

Due to chronic poorly postured sedentary positions in daily life, the musculature of the neck and upper back have a tendency to become tonic and neurologically rigid over time. This is an area that is commonly used in a compensatory respiratory pattern that utilizes secondary respiratory muscles like the SCM, scalenes, pectorals minor and levator scap to force inspiration instead of the more passive use of the diaphragm in proper belly breathing.

The upper back muscles, most notably the upper trapezius become “tight” over time due to chronic compensations, and can result in biomechanics and neurological changes to properly initiated and stabilized activation patterns at the upper back. Simply put, the upper traps take over any movement that they can from learned habituation of compensation. This is clearly not a good thing for target upper back stability and synergistic function of the key players of the region.

Where the Band Pull Down and Apart comes into play is the simple addition of primary activation through one of the most powerful torso stabilizers in the lats that course the entire backside of the body. It inserts broadly onto the thoracic-lumbar fascia, thoracic spine, rib cage and into the humerus more proximally. These big and powerful lats also help depress the shoulder complex into a more centrated position, which is exactly why we are pre-tensioning it to reciprocally inhibit the upper trap.

By using large primary movers like the lats to pre-stabilize the shoulder girdle away in from compensation (also known as Reactive Neuromuscular Training) we can not only achieve a better feel based mind muscle connection in the upper back, but re-educate proper movement and stabilization patterns in the process. The posterior deltoid and acute scapular stabilizers can once again execute their actions properly without being taken over by compensation patterns.

The Finer Points of The Band Pull Down and Apart

Though this variation is one of the quickest fixes I’ve used to improve the feel of the pull aparts for those who struggle with upper trap dominance, it’s pivotal to coach and execute this movement pristinely to build function and longevity in the shoulders and upper back. If you do this correctly, this variation will be a key activation drill in your 6-Phase Dynamic Warm Up (which you can download HERE absolutely free) for a long time to come.

First, start with relaxed hand position not he band. One of the reasons I coach a relaxed hand position for shoulder isolation movements like the pull apart is to avoid the triceps and forearms to take over the movement. Anatomically speaking, the arm musculature can become dominant due to its size and strength, taking away from the emphasis placed on the shoulder.

Second, make sure you dial in the proper tempo of this movement variation. Ensure that you are pre-tensioning the entire body (especially the pecs and lats together before dynamic movement of the hands pulling apart from one another initiates). Move slowly under control trying to maximize internal tension and flex every single rep as hard as you can tapping into the mind muscle connection on the back side of every rep. Focus on driving the hands apart, and not back behind you.

Lastly, program this variation as a true activation drill, meaning that the focus needs to be placed on the quality of each rep, NOT the quantity of reps or sets executed. Since this drill has notoriously blown up my athlete’s upper backs quickly, we stay within 4-10 reps per set with pure quality on each and every rep. As soon as you lose a quality contraction and stabilization of the shoulder complex working as a functional unit, the rep is done. We are activating, not annihilating.

About The Author

Dr. John Rusin

Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and sports performance expert. Dr. John has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, including multiple Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.

Dr. Rusin is the leading pioneer in the fitness and sports performance industries in smart pain-free performance programming that achieves world class results while preventing injuries in the process. Dr. John’s methods are showcased in his 12-Week Functional Hypertrophy Training Program that combines the very best from athletic performance training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and preventative physical therapy to produce world-class results without pain and injuries.

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One Comment

  1. Cara Bryant August 18, 2019 at 5:06 am - Reply

    My shoulder blades feel great since doing this recommendation for the last 12 months and my sub scap syndrome completely vanished.

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