The Scapula: The Mast and Sails of the Body

This is the final installment of my series on Posture. A few weeks ago, I described posture as the absolute need for stability.

“It is from stability that all healthy movement is derived.”

I keyed in on the feet as the foundation and the hips as the ballast of the body. Today I will discuss the body’s most mobile joint: the shoulder, and more specifically: the scapula – otherwise called the shoulder blade. The scapula is the mast and sails of the body. Where the scapula goes, the head and torso will follow.

 

As I said a few weeks ago, “stability is king.”  When it comes to the shoulder the scapula is the King of stability. The scapula is the anchoring point for the postural muscles of the shoulder; it provides the stability necessary for a huge combination of movements. This large range of motion is something that distinguishes us from all other species on the planet. The shoulder is designed to provide for the movements of climbing, crawling, lifting, throwing, pushing, and pulling; and aids in the movements of running and jumping. None of these movements would be possible without the scapula’s amazing ability to stabilize.

 

At home and in the workplace we do not regularly engage our shoulders to meet their designed movement patterns, and what you don’t use, you lose. Instead we sit for 8-12 hours each day in front of a computer, TV or in our cars – and most of us sit with our head and shoulders forward. This posture pulls the scapula out of a position of leverage, where it is capable of providing the greatest amount of stabilization to the body. Over time, the postural muscles that are responsible for scapular stability are shut off (just like the postural muscles of the lower core and hips that I addressed in What is Posture and The Hips). Once the postural muscles are shut off, the body must recruit stability from mobility muscles such as the biceps, pecs, and trapezius. As these muscles take over, they lock the scapula in an upward rotation, and prevent the body from packing them down where they function most effectively.  When the scapula are stuck in upward rotation, they lose their functional range of motion and true stabilization of the shoulder becomes difficult.  And remember, where your scapula goes, your head will follow. Once the stability of the scapula is lost, the shoulder, neck, and lower back are put in a position of stress with a greater risk of pain and injury.

Keys to Regaining Shoulder Function

Scapular stability is vital to reducing pain, preventing injury, and improving your overall postural health. Here are the keys to regaining scapular stability and function:

The first and most important step to increasing the functional range of motion of the shoulder joint is through myofascial massage therapy. And deep tissue massage therapy (such as myofascial release and self-myofascial release), when paired with foam roller therapy, will help break down restrictions in the fascial tissue. These often overlooked steps will improve tissue health, reduce chronic pain, increase functional joint range of motion, and prevent injury.

Immediately following a series of deep tissue massage treatments with a full body flexibility or stretching program will help to permanently establish the newly regained range of motion. Yoga, Pilates, Egoscue and Active Release Technique are just a few examples of effective flexibility programs you can try. I highly recommend hiring an experienced and qualified coach or therapist to ensure proper form and the best approach to a flexibility program that will meet your individual needs.

As range of motion improves, the next step is corrective exercise. The goal of corrective exercise for the shoulder is to train the shoulder’s postural muscles to maintain proper position and stability and, as demonstrated in the video above, the ability to pack the scapula down.

Once the three pieces of the postural puzzle (the feet, hips and shoulders) are trained to, once again, provide stability, your body is ready to integrate functional movement training. These are exciting, challenging and often butt whipping workouts (which I love), and they will be the topics of discussion over the next few weeks.
Self Myofascial Release Shoulder Exercises
Here are a few self-massage exercises for opening up the shoulders. Find a painful spot, stop and visualize the soft tissue as melting butter and the foam roller as a hot knife. Allow pressure into the tissue and within 30-60 seconds you will notice a significant reduction in pain. Once the pain reduces significantly (20-30%), move on to the next painful spot and repeat.

Spend between 3-5 minutes on each side. It is very important that you spend an equal amount of time on both sides and that you work through each of the areas listed to gain the most out of self-myofascial release.

Lie on your side, your arm overhead and foam roller beneath your lats. Massage from the top of the arm to below the shoulder blade. Do not massage in the arm pit area.
Lie on your side, your arm overhead and foam roller beneath the chest. Do not massage in the arm pit area.
Lie on your side, your arm overhead and foam roller beneath the bicep. Do not massage in the arm pit area.

Corrective Exercises for the Shoulder

The following exercises will help regain functional range of motion of the scapula and shoulder.

Scapular Squeeze on Foam Roller

Press and squeeze the scapula around the foam roller then reach and extend toward the ceiling.  Repeat 20 times.

Reverse Fly on Foam Roller

Squeeze the scapula around the foam roller as you slowly drop your arms down. Continue to squeeze scapula into the foam roller as you return your arms to the starting position. Repeat 20 times.

Scapular Pushups

Get in push-up or plank position (on feet or knees depending on ability level) with your hands directly beneath your chest. Make sure your body is in alignment with your hips level to your shoulders. Without bending your elbows and maintaining plank position, squeeze your shoulder blades together and press back out. Focus on squeezing together at the base of your scapula and not shrugging at your ears.

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17 Replies to “The Scapula: The Mast and Sails of the Body”

  1. Jesse, you are such a genius! I have been practicing everything you showed me, plus seeing a good PT and chiropractor (who truly “gets” it) and now this last series on the scapula….tremendous. I just tried the ones with the foam roller and wow! I will add those to the ones you shared concerning pelvis stabilization (bridge pose) and the roller exercises. My chiropractor concurred with you about the paramount importance of stretching ..and I showed him the things YOU told me to do…and he was in total agreement.

    Thanks again for the service to do for others. If I lived anywhere NEAR Austin, I’d be at your front door.

    Tris

    1. You won’t find one any cheaper than on their site. Unless you buy an older model or a knockoff. They do occasionally have sales around major holidays. Since I am an affiliate, I can let you know about the next sale. Otherwise, you will just have to bite the bullet. They are pricey, but they are well made and will last a lifetime.

      Jesse James Retherford
      http://www.tao-fit.com

  2. I am sooo happy to see you promote the foam roller. I have been using one for many years and it has been an important part of my self care as a therapist . I also recommend them highly to my clients. Thankyou somuch for posting such great exercises both on and off the roller!!!

  3. Question: Since I have NO curve in my neck, that is probably why I have such “weakness” in my scapula and upper back in general? I always feel like my SCM’S are ropey….most of the time, they are. Very little flexibility laterally with my neck. DO you believe that indirectly affects this constant tightness in my pecs….I always thought is was related to the multiple pushups I do….but I have laid off of that….and my pecs, even doing yoga and opening UP the chest…is still always tight.

    1. Hi Trissa,

      Scapular weakness, short and tight SCM’s and pecs and a straight cervical line are all related to each other. The primary culprit is more than likely postural habits over your lifetime.

      As your head comes forward, the SCM’s and pecs (as well as a few other muscles) get shorter. As they get shorter they pull on your head and scapula, head forward, shoulders forward posture. With the head forward, in order to look forward, you place your head in extension. This position straightens out the cervical vertibrae, leading to a straight neck. Do this for years and your body forms to this position, creating the necessary fascial structures to support it.

      Pushups with poor scapular stability does not help. In fact, it will make it worse. Push ups are great only if they are done with proper form. You cannot do proper form push ups without scapular stability. Same thing with pull ups, rows, and and other pull or press through your shoulder. It will take time to open up your chest and neck fully. It takes 8 weeks to train muscle, but it takes between 6 months – 2 years to re-train fascia, something that should be taken into consideration with barefoot running too.

      I suggest taking at least eight to twenty weeks off your current strength training program. Let me repeat that. I SUGGEST TAKING AT LEAST EIGHT TO TWENTY WEEKS OFF YOUR CURRENT STRENGTH TRAINING PROGRAM!!! You will not get weaker in that time frame. Once you develop scapular stability, you will become stronger than you ever imagined.

      An exercise to add for your tight SCM’s. Lying on your back, hang your head off the end of the bed. Start between 1-5 minutes for the first week. Add an extra minute each day until you get to 20 minutes. I also suggest finding a really good chiropractor if you have insurance that will cover it.

      FYI, I have a reverse curve in my neck.

      Jesse James Retherford
      http://www.tao-fit.com

  4. Jesse: I am in total agreement with your observations. I work with seniors providing aerobic, strength, balance, and flexibility training. The greatest problem most of them have, aside from knee, hip and rotator cuff issues, is scapular muscle degeneration, which is why, as you so clearly point out, their head and shoulders fold forward. This creates a domino effect from the head to the lower back. I spend a fair amount of time getting them to first be aware of their shoulder blades and then to work on getting them stronger to improve their posture. Also, we are constantly working on posture relative to the scapular muscles. This is a very good article.

  5. Hi Jesse,

    You mentioned a video above but I don’t see it. Is it embedded somewhere? Would love to take a look.

    Thanks.

  6. Hi Jesse,

    Great article and website! You remind me of how much more I could be doing for my clients and people in general through web outreach.

    I have one challenge for this article. The last paragraph before your excellent demo pics states that every person should spend equal amounts of time on each section of the listed areas. I would consider a client rare if their scapulohumeral rhythm was identical from side to side… and I would suggest clients not worry so much about equal time but, to invest the necessary time to rebalance their fascial tension from side to side.

    Do you agree to this or would you still focus on equal time for both sides?

    Thanks!

    1. Hi Donovan,

      Thanks for the great question. I have actually grappled with this same question often. My goal as a therapist is for equal tissue quality and balance throughout the body. This is easy for me to work on directly because I can feel it. It is more difficult to teach a client to do it for themselves. Most clients don’t have the massage experience to know what healthy tissue should feel like. What I find is that without this direction for equal time on both sides, most people will work on the side they “think” needs the attention. But oftentimes they are working the wrong side, or are just not giving enough attention to the opposing side. I feel it is safer to keep it simple and have them work both sides equally. One way to work balance is to suggest to the client to always begin with the “weaker” side. And do as many reps with good form as possible. Then do the exact same number of reps on the opposite side, even if they can do more.

      Thanks again.
      Jesse James Retherford
      http://www.tao-fit.com

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