When we think of the shoulders, most people think of the glenohumeral joint – the ball and socket joint where the upper arm bone attaches to the trunk . But did you know that is just one of four joints that make up the shoulder girdle? Let’s take a look at the scapulothoracic joint – where the shoulder blade articulates with the back of the ribs.
The scapulothoracic, or ST, joint is not actually a true joint. This means it is not synovial (like in the glenohumeral joint), fibrous, or cartilage. We want the shoulder blade, or scapula, to be able to move and glide across the ribs, otherwise our movement would be limited. The shoulder has the greatest range of motion of any joint in the body, and the mobility of the scapula is key. However, with greater freedom comes the potential for the shoulder to also be an unstable joint, so we want the muscles that support the shoulder blade strong.
A combination of gravity and our modern lifestyle of sitting at desks and looking down at our phones can result in muscle imbalances, which might lead to a displaced shoulder blade. Ideally, we want the scapula to be able to move freely, evenly, in all of its directions. But with our hunched over life, there are 2 actions we tend to get stuck in. In order to find balance, we first need to understand all of the movements of the ST joint.
Elevation & Depression
Elevation moves the shoulder blades up the rib cage, and depression draws the shoulder blades down the rib cage. To practice, shrug your shoulders to your ears – that’s elevation. Then soften your shoulders down your back – that’s depression. Once you are comfortable there, repeat with your arms overhead. Reach up towards the ceiling to elevate, then pull the shoulder blades down to depress. The next step is to take that into Downward Facing Dog. Repeat the same actions, now with added weight. Keep your arms straight as you push your hands into the floor and elevate your scapula. Then depress your scapula. I learned this from my teacher, Gina, who calls it shoulder flossing and it is gold. It might feel a little sticky at first, but with repetition, it will start to get easier.
Protraction & Retraction
To feel protraction, take your arms straight out in front of you. Reach forward to round your upper back. Here the shoulder blades separate away from each other, away from the spine. To retract your shoulder blades, keep your arms straight in front of you. Plug your armbones back in, pulling your shoulder blades towards each other, to your midline. Next, take that to Cat/Cow. Cat pose is protraction, and Cow pose is retraction. After a few rounds, see if you can isolate those actions only to the shoulder blades, instead of your entire spine.
Upward Rotation & Downward Rotation
The scapula move when we lift our arms overhead. This one is the best to watch on someone else, even palpating the bottom tip of their shoulder blade. When they reach their arms out and wide, feel how the bottom of tip of the scapula move out and up – upward rotation. As they bring their arms back down by their sides, the bottom tips pull back towards each other – downward rotation.
Get comfortable practicing all of these actions. Observe which ones feel easy and which ones give your muscles a little burn after multiple sets.
Where We Get Stuck
Not everyone, but typically the shoulder blades tend to favor protraction and elevation. The upper traps tend to tighten, which elevate and lift the scapula. You might also have a tight pectoralis muscle that causes a shortening to the front body, resulting in the protraction, or widening, of the shoulder blades.
There are a lot of muscles at work (and I won’t confuse you anymore), but to counterbalance gravity and technology, we need to practice the opposite actions – retraction and depression. Not only will these actions benefit your posture and help you find and stay in a neutral position, they will also carry over into your backbends. You might hate Cobra Pose now, but start to strengthen these movements and observe as things shift. It might feel like a whole new pose when we can get the shoulder blades where we want them.
Easy Way to Strengthen
One of the easiest ways to build strength is grab a strap. Hold it out in front of you with hands wider than your shoulders. Pull on the strap to create tension. This will start to pull your scapula towards the spine, retraction. Keep the tension and draw your shoulder blades down your back, depression. Once you are comfortable holding that, start to take your arms overhead, continuing to work your scapula down as the arms lift up. Lift and lower your arms with the tension on the strap for a minute, going nice and slow.
Continue to practice this and the other exercises above to keep your shoulder blades mobile, but strong. Anatomy takes time to learn, so say the action aloud as you do it. Over time, they will begin to stick and you’ll notice what poses need what movements. The more we know about the human body, the more we can connect deeper with ourselves.