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Freeing the Shoulders to Connect to the Core

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ShoulderJoint.jpgBy Lesley Powell

“Push your shoulders down.”

We hear that phrase frequently in Pilates studios, but I say it’s time to throw that cue out. Why? For most people, pressing the shoulders down freezes the shoulder girdle’s function and interrupts its natural rhythm.

The arms connect to the torso through the shoulder girdle, shoulder blades, clavicles and humerus bones. Each bone moves in different degrees of rotation and timing. The timing and the control of these motions are essential to a healthy shoulder. This “scapular-humeral rhythm” is like a symphony—each bone is an instrument playing a different variation of a melody.

A great scapular-humeral rhythm will invite the correct phrasing of the arm and core muscles. When you get a client to better use her shoulder girdle, her arm strength, posture and connection to the core will improve. Read on to learn how this rhythm works and how to help your clients improve theirs.

Imagine the shoulder blade like the new revolving circular doors at fancy hotels and airports.

The Hand-Scapula Relationship

The scapular-humeral rhythm affects the entire arm down to the hand. When the arm picks up an object, the scapula acts like a crane or lever on the back to move the arm in space.

The beauty of the shoulder and arm anatomy is the extreme range of motion it is capable of, especially when considering that the only place the shoulder girdle is attached to the ribcage is at the top of the sternum. The muscles around the scapula, clavicle and humerus bones work to coordinate the arm’s intricate movements and also provide stability.

When cuing, using the imagery of “moving from the bones” can help clients find the right amount of physicality in their movements. When we move our arms without weight bearing they should feel tremendously light and free. When bearing weight, that freedom shouldn’t be lost.  

To have mobility in these movements, one has to have the right amount of stability. Stability is dynamic—it has to change in relationship to the moving parts. The position of the scapula on the ribcage changes in relationship to the arm bones moving in space. The wrong type of stability, such as locked shoulder blades, can add rigidity, which is why poor movement habits in the hand-scapulae relationship can lead to diminished movement, discomfort and injury. If the shoulder blades are locked, for example, the neck and shoulder muscles will overcompensate.

The scapula needs to be able to abduct, adduct, elevate, depress and rotate up and down. These are the isolated movements of the shoulder blade, but most actions and exercises—such as Chest Rowing Front or ballet’s port de bra—require a complex action of the shoulder blade. A seemingly simple arm raise from first position (forward middle) to fifth position (forward high), for example, combines abduction, depression and upper rotation of the shoulder blade.

Understanding Upward and Downward Rotation
The upward and downward rotations of the scapula can be confusing movements to visualize. They refer to the placement of shoulder blade on the ribs in movement.

Upward Rotation
Upward rotation
refers to the healthy movement of the scapula following the lift of the arm. When done correctly, the scapula glides down the back, widens and shapes around the ribcage. The tip of the scapula should follow the direction of the hand as it moves up in space. The inferior border of the scapula (the lower tip of the shoulder blade) moves forward toward the armpit and the scapula revolves slightly around the ribs to help move the arm forward. This gliding action brings an easeful depression of the shoulder blade.

Downward Rotation
Downward rotation
of the shoulder blade follows the movement of the arm as it reaches backwards. The superior border of the scapula moves up over the shoulder as the arm extends backwards. You may notice some clients whose scapulae are stuck in downward rotation. Posture, tension around the shoulder girdles and weakness are all possible reasons for this.

Muscular Connection of the Hand-Scapula Relationship
There are several important muscles involved in moving the scapula. The moves the scapula in abduction and upper rotation. It attaches to the medial border of the shoulder blade and wraps around to the front ribs—like fingers wrapping around a glass—attaching to nine of the 12 ribs. Think of fingers extending out of the lateral border of the scapula. The anterior serratus is also referred as the “push-up” muscle. When you see someone whose scapula wings out when doing Push-Up, Chest Rowing Front and the Long Stretch Series their anterior serratus is probably weak.    

The muscles help center the humeral head in the shoulder socket during the range of motion of the arm. When the rotator cuff muscles are tight and/or weak, the humeral head is pulled unequally in the socket, which also affects the scapula-humeral rhythm.

Connecting the Dots to Your Practice and Your Teaching
To analyze your clients’ hand-scapula relationship, observe how they perform the following exercises. In general, the shoulder girdle should have width in the front and back. As they develop the proper scapular-humeral rhythm, you’ll notice that their arms and shoulders will move with more freedom.

1. The Hundred
Look at the placement of the clavicle and the humeral head. A lot of clients look like they are flexing their spines with downward rotation of the shoulder blade. This is a rounded shoulder, which is a sign of a poor hand-scapula relationship. Ask the client to become aware of the width of the clavicle and the back of the shoulder sockets lightly touching the carriage. Can they move their arms and flex their spine maintaining that width and groundedness of the shoulder socket?   

2. Back Rowing
Look at the width of the clavicles and the scapulae. The wide scapulae should be gently adhering to the back of the ribs near the armpits. Are the shoulder blades stabilized as the arms move, or are the shoulders rounding forward (downward rotation of the shoulder blades) as the arms moves and the spine flexes? 

3. Front Rowing
Think scapula-elbow-hand as the sequence to straighten the arms. Does Chest Rowing Front initiate from the shoulder blades?

4. Knee Stretches
The beauty of having a great hand-scapula relationship is how it allows you to connect to your core, especially in weight bearing. This exercise connects the hand-scapula relationship to weight bearing. Does your client have the same width across the clavicles and shoulder blades as she did in Front Rowing with arms extended front?

5. The Elephant
The scapula should be in upward rotation. Again the clavicles and shoulder blades should be wide. If the hand-scapula relationship is lost, notice how the ribs will hyperextend and the scapulae will wing out or elevate. Is the upper body stable while the legs move?

6. Up Stretch
Are the shoulder blades winging out to the sides? The phrasing of the scapula in this exercise should be similar to Chest Rowing Front. Where is the connection lost? A lot of students try to get closer to their legs by pushing their ribs closer to the legs. This loses the scapular connection.  Use the core like a crane lifting the pelvis to the ceiling with the scapula wide on the back.

Editor’s Note: For more information on the anatomy of the shoulder, check out these videos:


About the Author
Lesley Powell is the director of Movements Afoot, a studio in New York which she founded with the philosophy of teaching people the basic concepts of movement theory: proper movement initiation, integrating breath with movement and spinal integrity, by equipping people with the necessary tools for a lifetime of fitness and wellness. Lesley has been a private fitness trainer since 1986 and received her CMA/Certification as a Movement Analyst from the Laban/Bartenieff institute. She holds a BFA-Dance from Temple University and a certificate in the Franklin Method.


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Posted on Tuesday, April 15, 2008 at 06:39PM by Registered CommenterAmy Leibrock in , | Comments6 Comments

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Reader Comments (6)

Great article Lesley. It's incredibly refreshing to see this point of view being taken despite its possible incongruence with classical pilates.

Good to know that there are folks out there using anatomy and biomechanics to inform their teaching, rather than the 'he said/she said' mentality that often prevails.

Kind Regards

April 22, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJust Wondering

I like articles like this. It's very informative. Thank you very much and more power to you, Lesley. And to Amy, thank you too.

May 1, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermaia

excellent cueing suggestions!

BTW - I trained w/Romana K -- she had nothing against anatomical cues, just asked us to not use medical terms, so as to not mis-lead clients on our background ;) I tend to agree, so I'd say 'collarbone' rather than 'clavicle.'

December 24, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterchristine binnendyk

Thank you for this article. It was good refresher to my Intermediate Pilates course, which feels like many many moons ago now :)

Just Wondering, we are certainly presented with this information, but as Christine mentioned we are some what discouraged from using terms with our clients that are too technical, so they get the "feel" for where there bodies need to be. One can know all the anatomy in the world but if they cannot communicate it to their clients in a "see" "feel" or "do" manner, it doesn't do much good. As we understand the exercises better (the movement, the mechanics, the anatomy, the "look", AND the "feel") we are better able to present proper technique to clients in a way they can understand and perform. I haven't seen the "he said/she said" bit of Classical Pilates as yet.

I remember your post about Pilates instructors walking with stiff legs, like sticks. In my training we are encouraged to "not brace" as other forms of Pilates seem to teach. Allow movement, just movement that is supported, not "flingy" for lack of better term off the top of my head.

No ruffled feathers here, just the view point from someone who is fond of the Classical approach, but trying to understand it from an informed perspective. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive; it's unfortunate if you've come into contact with instructors who think they are. Please don't think it's across the board for everyone considering their approach "Classical".

Hope I presented my thoughts in an intelligible manner :)

January 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterpilates07

Great information. Many of my clients prefer to hear the anatomical terms, some are already familiar with them and some get a sense of accomplishment learning them. It also is professional to speak the language, clients appreciate your knowledge.

September 16, 2009 | Unregistered Commentershare

I have found that my use of language is dependant on my client. At the end of the day, I believe that whatever language works best to enhance their experience is what matters most. I feel that we can meet our clients needs much better when we respect their learning style....whichever way works!

Oh..and I just discovered Lesley's website and love it!!

Happy Pilateing!!

November 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

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