Shoulder blades; anchored or floating?

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I was in a Pilates mat class the other day and we were about to do the Spine Twist. Looking around, I admired the Pilates bodies around me; spines tall, heads floating effortlessly above the shoulders, shoulders blades positioned beautifully, wide across the back. Then suddenly everything changed. The instructor said “…and now everyone pull your shoulder blades down away from your ears”. Mayhem ensued. Spines compressed, scalenes tightened, thoracic outlets narrowed, acromioclavicular joints groaned and breathing became restricted. What was nearly a sublime experience of efficient spine rotation with congruent upper extremity integration became a compressed mess of squashed muscles, joints and fascia. I closed my eyes and pretended I was somewhere else…

One of the most commonly misused cues in Pilates is ‘pull your shoulders down’ or some variation thereof. It may be an excellent cue if, in fact, your clients’ shoulder blades are actually up, but more often than not it is cued unnecessarily. I often hear this cue as a preparation for movement, added as if by rote learning, by reciting a script as to how the exercise should be taught. Many Pilates teachers have learned to use the cues “Pull your shoulders away from your ears” or “anchor your shoulder blades down” without even assessing the body in front of them.

What we should be looking for is proper placement of the scapulae. ‘Scapular neutral’ is defined as the top of the shoulder blade being in line with the 2nd thoracic vertebrae, and sitting against the posterior-lateral ribcage in the plane of scaption. This is a great place to start for the static setup of an exercise, the starting position. Cues like “feel the width across the collar bones”, “lengthen out through the fingertips” or “roll your shoulders gently up and back” are ways to set the scapulae for optimal function. We want to create a sense of ease that allows neck tension to melt away, breathing to become effortless and arm movements to be efficient, joyful and integrated.

Once an exercise has commenced, if spine or arm movement is indicated, the scapulae need to be free to move to allow full, uncompromised range of the upper extremity. Did you know that when you lift your arm overhead, your scapula elevates, protracts and upwardly rotates around 60 degrees? Imagine what happens if your client, following your instructions, pulls their shoulders down and then tries to lift their arms overhead. Disallowing normal biomechanics to take place we risk impinging the delicate structures of the rotator cuff, as well as neural and vascular structures that occupy the subacromial space. Try it (but be gentle!) and see how it feels.

And what about spinal movement? Yes, in order for your thoracic spine to spine to move in any direction, the scapula-thoracic joints need to be free to move as well. Locking down the shoulder blades puts the brakes on segmental spinal articulation. Try it! Pull your shoulder blades down and then try to do a Spine Twist or a RollUp.

Because of poor posture, stress, repetitive movements, injury and many other aspects of life, many people do have faulty shoulder mechanics. Understanding the anatomy, physiology and biomechanics of the shoulder girdle allows us to help restore efficient movement, strengthen the weak muscles and release the tight tissue.

Stability does not mean rigidity. Remember that the scapula is just one of many bones in the shoulder girdle, and it’s positioning and movement intention affect all the other bones and joints. For efficient, full body integration, not only do the scapulae move, but so do the vertebrae, ribs, clavicles and humerus in a delicate, well-choreographed, unconscious way.

So, the next time you’re teaching Pilates remember that the shoulder blades, instead of being anchored down, should be allowed to float.

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