Too often we waste exercises by not actually working the muscles intended.

And then we wonder why we aren’t seeing the results we want.

But we have to remember that if we don’t feel the correct muscles working, those muscles aren’t reaping the benefits.

For example, if you feel your lower back during ab work, your lower back is what is being worked, not your abs. So all of that ab work isn’t going to pay off the way you’d like.

And it may even result in injury as your lower back becomes overworked and overloaded. This can even lead to your lower back engaging when it shouldn’t in other compound moves and lifts.

So not only is the muscle group we want benefiting NOT benefiting, but we may be creating recruitment patterns that can lead to other issues and injury.

The same thing goes for those back exercises you’re including in your workouts.

Tend to feel your neck or shoulders or even your biceps working instead of your upper back during rows or pull ups?

Struggling to feel like all of that back strengthening work is leading to the results you want, like improving your pull ups so you can do that first full one?

Then you need to make sure your back is actually what is powering your pulling moves.

And if it isn’t, you need to potentially modify so your arms can’t compensate.

You need to start by addressing your scapular mobility and stability to actually get your back powering the pull!

That’s why I love this amazing move – The Back Shrug.

While we need to include mobility work and that full prehab process of foam rolling, stretching and activation in our warm up routine, we can’t out mobility work improper movement and recruitment patterns when we lift.

It’s why we need to be intentional with moves and see every exercise as a a chance to assess.

And it’s why, when the correct muscles aren’t working, we sometimes need to modify moves and even try other variations to improve that mind-body connection.

It’s why if you struggle with with using your back during rowing, you may want to switch to the Back Shrug to start focusing on that scapular retraction to engage your back and power the pull.

How Do You Do The Back Shrug:

This move boils the row down to just that initial scapular movement to learn to control that back engagement.

When you row, the movement should start because you’re you’re drawing your shoulder blade toward your spine to use your back to pull.

This movement isolates just this component of the row, removing any elbow flexion that may lead to us compensating and using our bicep instead.

Too often with rows, we end up performing a bicep curl, curling our wrist in toward our chest over driving the elbow down and back as our shoulder blade moves toward our spine.

That’s why focusing on just that scapular movement to start can be key.

To do the Back Shrug, hold a dumbbell in each hand and hinge over standing with your feet about hip-width apart.

Let your arms hang down and unshrug your shoulders while keeping a neutral spine. Make sure you’ve hinged over to load your glutes while keeping your knees soft.

From this bent over position, you are going to try to pinch your shoulder blades together while letting your arms hang down.

Draw your shoulder blades toward your spine. Don’t just shrug your shoulders. Focus on that scapular movement.

Do not bend your elbows or start to row.

Just pinch the shoulder blades together, pausing, then relaxing the weights back toward the ground. Do not shrug your shoulders up toward your ears as you retract!

You will be able to add weight as you can fully control and feel the movement on both sides.

This is a small movement. Don’t try to make it bigger by standing up or bending your arms. Make sure to keep your neck long. Your only focus is on drawing the shoulder blades toward your spine then relaxing them away. Even pause as you do the pinch over rushing.


There are so many ways you can then vary this move based on the types of rows you general include in your training and even the other muscles you want to target and tools you have available.

You could do this with a band instead of dumbbells. Or even off a suspension trainer. All of these are great to include to prep your body to row using these different tools and postures.

Because we can struggle with that scapular retraction in different positions, it can be key to include a diversity to make sure we’re initiating those rows with our back.

And if you find you struggle even with proper mobility and strength on one side, you can even make this movement a unilateral exercise, working only one side at a time or even doing rounds or reps on only one side.

If you don’t have any equipment, you can even do a unilateral variation called the Single Arm Scapular Push Up. This is great as an activation move in your warm up before any strength work even.

But as you really work to translate that activation to the full row with weight, consider the these variations to prep the body to initial that pull with that proper scapular movement.


Moves are only as good as their implementation. And if we want to get the full benefit of an exercise, we need to make sure we’re actually engaging the correct muscles to power the movement.

If you’ve struggled with feeling your back during rowing exercises, try this scapular retraction focused back exercise to really isolate and work on that initial back engagement.

It can easily be included as part of your accessory work for a few rounds of 10-15 reps! Focus on that scapular movement over just going heavy, but don’t be afraid to progress the movement by adding loads as you can truly control that retraction!

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