Stabilising the Scapula & Shoulder Mobility

August 10, 2007 at 11:23 pm 2 comments

Previous: Shoulder Impingement

Stabilising the scapula is really important for correct movement at the shoulder and is the first step towards strengthening the shoulder joint. Few people do it properly anyway, and all can benefit from this, but if you already have shoulder problems it is particularly important.

The scapulae are the kind of flat bones that make up your shoulder blades, and a bunch of muscles attach to various bits of them. One easy way to see what it should feel like to be able to stabilise the scapula is to get yourself a medium- to high-strength exercise band or tube, stand in the middle of it and hold an end in either hand so it is taut. Shrug your shoulders up to your ears then relax and let the band pull your arms (and shoulders) back down. Pay attention to how your shoulder blades feel when this happens. You should feel them moving down your back an inch or two. One advantage of this method is that it doesn’t require you to lift your arms over your head, which might be painful if you are already suffering from impingement.

Shoulder Shrug

If you can lift your arms overhead though, another good exercise for isolating the muscles that bring down the shoulder blades is to hold a light pole, such as a broom stick (do people still use brooms?), or even a taut dynaband, overhead with both hands up. Then try and lower it down in front of you. You’ll feel those muscles working when you do this. This can also be done sitting facing a lat pulldown machine at the gym. Use just enough weight to add a little resistance but not as much as you would use to workout your lats, since it’s your lower trapezius muscles you want to be thinking about. You can also try it without the pole or band, but the effect won’t be as pronounced.

Pull Down

Note that neither of these exercises are an end in themselves, merely methods for learning what it feels like to stabilise the scapula – which muscles move and so on. Once you can isolate those muscles, just get used to doing that over and over. You will find yourself in the non-stabilised position dozens, maybe hundreds of times during the day: when you’re sitting at your desk, driving, cooking, watching TV, working out, just walking along. People tend to carry a lot of tension in their shoulders (mainly because of incorrect movement patterns leading to tight trapezius muscles) and walk around with them a bit hunched up much of the time. Try and become more aware of your scapulas and think about ‘pulling’ them down your back every time you notice they have ridden up again.

Once you get quite good at that, and a bit more body aware, you’re going to learn to move the arms while stabilising the scapula. Stand or sit comfortably, and ‘float’ your arms up in front of you, palms down, until they are parallel to the ground. Don’t actively lift your arms up. Rather, imagine your hands are resting on slowly ascending clouds, and let them float up. If you feel your scapulas inching up, you know what to do – bring them down again. When you can manage that, try taking your arms higher, until you can get them right up over your head, without your shoulder blades and the tops of your shoulders riding up towards your ears. It may take a bit of practice, but if you do it slowly and mindfully to start, pausing to correct your shoulder blades if you feel them moving up, it will eventually become second nature to you.

Then try a wider range of movements at the shoulder (no weights yet), all while keeping the shoulder blades stabilised. The shoulder is a very mobile joint and the arm should be able to go up, down, and round and round, without needing to give the shoulder blades a look in. In the pictures below, note how the shoulders are not riding up the neck.

Scapular stability with ROM

Arm rotation on ballAnother exercise is to use a stability ball. Rest the ball on the wall at around shoulder height and make small controlled circles, gradually increasing the size of the circles as you get more flexible.

If you don’t have a stability ball, you can try using your outstretched arm and pointed finger to ‘write the alphabet’ in space. Lower case letters are more variable than upper case (capitals), so use those. Feel free to do jointed up script writing. You can write to the front, to the side, and, to a lesser extent, to the back. As you get more flexibility, make the letters bigger until you are making large sweeping motions. Remember, the scapula should be set at all times during this exercise.

Get in the habit of looking at other people and check out the position of their shoulders. Once you get good at adjusting your own shoulders, you often have to fight the urge to go up to complete strangers and tell them to bring their shoulders back down from the stratosphere. At least, I do. But then I’m odd that way. Occupational hazard, I guess.

It’s a good idea to master each stage before moving on to the next one, otherwise your existing poor movement patterns will interfere with your progress. But once you can do these exercises, start with the rotator cuff strengtheners in the next post.

Next: Rotator Cuff Exercises

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Entry filed under: exercise, heath and fitness, rotator cuff, shoulder impingement.

Shoulder Impingement Rotator Cuff Exercises

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