Shoulder stability – how to keep those shoulders down and back and prevent neck pain

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Shoulder stability is so crucial to prevent injuries and pain in our shoulders, upper back, neck and arms. This is even more so in any sporting activities that involves throwing or using your shoulders and back i.e. golf, swimming, basketball, footy etc. and for those of you who have frequent headaches, stiffness in your neck and shoulders and unable to turn your neck around and reach out for something with your arms and fingers, you need to learn about shoulder stability. First let’s look at the anatomy of the shoulders – specifically at the shoulder girdle.

The shoulder girdle

The shoulder girdle is made up of the scapulae (shoulder blades), the clavicles (collar bones) and the glenohumeral joint (shoulder joint). The shoulder blades doesn’t have any bony attachments which allows more freedom of movement – elevation, depression, abduct/protraction, adduct/retraction, upwards and downwards rotation and they can also tip forward and backwards.

 

The shoulder joint is like a ball and socket joint and can also allow a big range of motion – flexion (raising the arms forward), extension (arms moving backwards), abduction and adduction (in and out on a horizontal plane), and internal and external rotation.

Stability vs. mobility

The shoulder joint is optimised for mobility but somewhat to the expense of stability. The shoulder socket is smaller than the head of the humerus (end of arm bone) which means that this joint provides little structural integrity. Therefore, the stability has to come from ligaments and muscles – especially the rotator cuff muscles. The rotator cuff muscles include the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis. This is why it’s so easy to cause injuries in the shoulder when we don’t stabilize this area.

Scapulae a.k.a shoulder blades

Another thing to think about is the positioning of your shoulder blades. Your shoulder blades have to move accordingly to the movement of your arm in the shoulder joint – i.e. shoulder blades have to upwardly rotate to accommodate full flexion of the shoulder joint. Very often when you have shoulder pain, instability or impingement, the scapulae movement is not correct.

Ideally in neutral, the shoulder blades should sit flat and flush across the back, with no anterior tipping or winging.

Picture on the left (by Stott Pilates) shows a beautiful neutral scapular. The picture on the right shows a winged scapular – see how yucky and uncomfortable it looks?

Many people are not aware that they are winging in their shoulder blades as you can’t see your own back. When winging occurs, it means that your serratus anterior muscle is weak and needs more work. Exercises in four point kneeling or low load planks with hands out in front are great places to engage the serratus anterior.

How to keep those shoulders down and back away from your ears

Having your shoulders up is a bad habit! Many of us are not even aware that our shoulders are elevated or lifted until we are reminded to keep those shoulders down and relax them. Very often in my pilates classes, I have to cue shoulders relaxed or draw your shoulder blades down and back in almost every exercise. As the exercises get tough, we often forget about the shoulders and up they go, elevating up to your ears.

Tight upper traps, levator scapulae, stress and tension in your neck muscles are major causes for an elevated shoulder. When we have tight muscles in our neck and upper shoulders, they can cause trigger points which in turn can cause headaches and pain. To relieve yourself from trigger points, the best way is to get a massage and then learn to activate the lower traps and latissimus dorsi to counter elevation in your shoulders. Just keep reminding yourself to draw your shoulders down away from your ears!

Rounded shoulders and getting rid of the hunched over look

When your shoulders are protracted, your shoulders round forward giving you that hunched over look. This can put a lot of stress into your neck muscles and most likely you will have a forward head. This type is very common in kyphotic postures. Protracted shoulders can also be caused by super tight pecs and sitting in front of a desk/computer all day really doesn’t help with improving rounded shoulders.

To help with tightness in your chest, stretch out your pec muscles and work more into your mid trapezius and rhomboids. Exercises like Chest Expansion and Back Rowing on the reformer is great to work those back extensor muscles and to give your pecs a stretch out. If you have to work in front of a desk/computer all day, it may help to take a break and walk around, stretching out your shoulders and giving yourself a mini neck/shoulder massage.

Final tips for shoulder stability

1. Massage your neck and shoulders to get rid of trigger points. Use a tennis ball or spiky ball and roll out your shoulders against the wall.

2. Work more into your lower traps, serratus anterior, rotator cuff muscles instead of the usual bicep curls.

3. If you have rounded shoulders, stretch out your pecs and work your mid traps and rhomboids.

4. Finally, keep reminding yourself to keep those shoulders down and back, change your sitting posture and think shoulder blades down and back like a V and flat across so there’s no winging or tipping!

Stay tuned to learn more pilates exercises to work your deep stabilizer muscles in your shoulders and improve arm strength.

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