Setting The Shoulders Where They Should Be…On Your Back!
The shoulder joint offers the greatest range of motion of all human joints. The disadvantage of this is the inherent instability of the shoulder joint gives us a wonderfully large range of motion with our arms, but it also makes the shoulder joint prone to dysfunction and injury. Getting the humerus nestled adequately into the shoulder joint aka glenoid fossa, optimizes shoulder function, making the back muscles pull with more power, and helps to prevent injury.
Why is The Arm to Back Connection + Setting The Shoulders So Important?
Without the arm to back connection and setting your shoulders, any movement with arms overhead becomes more challenging, disrupting the anterior and posterior thorax (chest + mid-back) which provide movement to the arm and shoulder, impeding the breath and movement in the spine. The ribs become more compressed, and spinal extension becomes more challenging.
Shoulder joint mobility is often hindered by a lack of strength and stability, therefore, it is imperative to learn correct mechanics and balanced muscular support. The better your shoulder stability, the better your shoulder, elbow, and hand mobility will be.
Anatomy Of The Shoulder Joint
The shoulder socket is very shallow (unlike the hip socket, which is very deep), and only about a third of the arm bone sits in the shoulder socket at any given time. The clavicle (collarbone), arm bone (humerus), and shoulder blade (scapula) move together to create all of the motions we make with our arms. Keeping the arm bone in the shoulder socket (which, is part of the shoulder blade) requires adequate support and timing of muscles firing in the correct sequence.
The Rotator Cuff Muscles Hold The Arm Bone In The Shoulder Socket
There are four deep muscles that hold the arm bone in the shoulder socket: the subscapularis, infraspinatus, supraspinatus, and teres minor. Collectively, these are known as the rotator cuff.
Rotator cuff muscles become more powerful—which is how we want them—when the shoulder blades (scapulae) are stabilized against the ribs by the trapezius and serratus anterior. It’s important to understand that stable shoulder blades are not fixed or held in one position. What stable means in this context is that the bones stay snug against the ribs and move freely and smoothly without poking out, and without moving too quickly or slowly so we can move our mid-back with a stable shoulder.
There is another layer to all of this. The posterior deltoid is also a powerful stabilizer of the arm bone in the shoulder socket, but there’s a caveat: this muscle can be a bit of a bully, overpowering the other muscles and subduing them into not working effectively.
Exercises that focus on the posterior deltoid are therefore best performed after exercises for the trapezius, serratus anterior, and rotator cuff. Hence the reason Pilates arm exercises come after planks and back rowing!
How To Set The Shoulders Without Gripping
Pilates retrains movement patterns, releases tension and ensures a solid core to help us move around our leavers with more ease. It teaches us awareness of our bodies and minds, kinesthetic awareness and proprioception.
The goal for finding your arm to back connection and setting your shoulders where they should be, is to GENTLY glide the shoulder blades back and down to lightly awaken the set of mid back and rotator cuff muscles though often times, we are not subtle enough. The tendency is to brace downwards gripping through the armpit and ribs, tensing the neck and low back and ignoring the balance of muscles that are involved in stabilizing.
Susannah Steers, owner of Moving Spirit Pilates provides a good visual for setting the shoulders, “The shoulder blades need to be able to float too. If you drop the shoulder blades strongly, and feel lots of muscle activity in your armpits; then you may be overloading the wrong stuff. Instead, imagine a lightness in the motion of your shoulder girdle – even when lifting heavy loads. Allow the bottom angle of the shoulder blade to stream down the back gently, just enough so that your shoulders are not lifted up around your ears. Then imagine a little helium balloon in the back of each armpit, supporting the weight of the shoulder girdle. You want to be able to feel space between the back of the armpit and the front of the shoulder blade. Allow them to tip gently backward and feel the easy rotation of those shoulder blades, and the outward rotation of the arm in the shoulder socket as you raise your arms forward and up.”
Pilates Exercises That Require Shoulders that are “set” and stable
Setting your shoulders is imperative in these exercises below:
- Any Over-head press + all extension exercises;
- Front + Back Rowing;
- Mermaid + Lateral Flexion;
- Swan extension;
- Arabesque + Downward Dog (on mat);
- Dolphin + Airplane on Cadillac;
- All Planks.
The Bottom Line – Don’t Put your Shoulder Blades In Your Back Pockets!
Though I don’t use this cue above, if you’ve struggled with rotator cuff issues, neck strain or low back gripping, pay attention to your form and let go of the anchoring feeling that might well give you greater stability but cause tension or pain and impede movement in the shoulders, chest and mid-back.
Our shoulder setting effort has to equate to the load and exercise, to avoid jamming the shoulder blades down, or over-engaging these muscles more than is required to maintain alignment and support for your neck and shoulders and freedom of movement in your back body!