The importance of a SHOULDER ‘SHRUG’ and why “down and back” may not be the answer

Anyone who has experienced shoulder injury or pain will be aware of the importance of shoulder posture. Scapula (shoulder blade) positioning has a significant impact in reducing the risk of cervical (neck), thoracic and shoulder pain and in improving upper body posture in general.

The oh-so-common instruction to “stand up straight” may still be ringing in your ears from conscientious parental direction, but what does the instruction actually mean and how to know you’re doing it correctly?

In this short post we will cover how to position your shoulder blades correctly and how to strengthen the surrounding muscles, as the first step to achieving efficient upper body posture.

During your Pilates sessions you no doubt will have been cued to slide your shoulder blades “down and back” along the rib cage. The thing to be mindful of, however, is that forcin* your shoulder blades down (depression) can do more harm than good! Here’s why:

Anatomically, forcing downward rotation reduces the sub-acrominal space that the rotator cuff tendons pass through. This causes traction of the neuro-vascular bundle as these structures pass through the thoracic outlet.
The following picture shows the scapula in a ‘downward rotation’ position. Note the gap between the acromion process and the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) is reduced.

As a more sustainable alternative, follow these two shoulder blade movements for more freedom and ease in your shoulder movements

1. Upward rotation, and
2. Posterior tilt.

Ideally, these two movements happen naturally when you elevate your arm, but if they don’t, it can often lead to shoulder pain.

The picture below shows a larger gap between the acromion and the humeral head allowing more room for the rotator cuff tendons to pass through – more towards the ideal alignment that will reduce the chances of injury.

Upward Rotation instructions:

One of the most effective exercises is the simple shrug.
Starting position: Stand up tall with your arms by your side, thumbs pointing forwards or out to the sides.
Action: Lift the shoulder blade gently up and back on a diagonal. You should feel the muscle at the top of the shoulder, your upper trapezius activate.
• Add a small weight, start with 500g, this can be progressed up to 3 kg.
• Progress to holding the arm at 30 degrees out to the side and your palm facing forwards. This helps to isolate the upper trapezius due to the orientation of the muscle-fibres.
• Your upper trapezius muscle is an endurance muscle, so we want to use endurance reps, 3 x 12-15 reps is sufficient once- twice a day.
HOT TIP: As you perform a shrug, make sure your shoulder blade is moving diagonally back and not coming forwards. You can put your opposite hand fingertips directly onto the muscle, feeling the upper trapezius turn on between the base of the neck and the shoulder.

Posterior Tilt Instructions:
Starting position: In standing with the arm by your side.
Action: Think of an opening of the collar bone or a separation of the collar bone at the front. You should feel the shoulder blades sliding back against the rib cage, without drawing down.

These exercises are perfect for anyone who has rounded shoulders and shoulders that point downward, anyone who has one shoulder that sits lower than the other, or to generally improve shoulder function.

If you would like more information or to book a Physiotherapy consultation with Physiotherapist and Rehab Pilates Instructor at Balance & Control Pilates Studio Sam Ziman, call the Carlton Studio on 9347 9052.

Sam writes a regular blog – check it out for more information and ideas

Happy Shrugging


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