Beware Putting Those Shoulder Blades in your Back Pocket!

Beware Putting Those Shoulder Blades in your Back Pocket!

  • By Susannah Steers
  • January 14, 2014

If you’ve ever taken a Pilates class, or a dance class, or a yoga class, or any movement class that involves a postural component to the activity, you’ve probably heard this cue, or something like it, for movement & support in the arms & shoulders:

Let your shoulder blades slide down your back, as if you could slip them into your back pockets.” 

As a young movement teacher, I learned this cue and heard it around me so often that I took it quite to heart. I used this image a lot. And for people who had rounded, elevated shoulders, it seemed, to my young and inexperienced eye, to be one of the best cues around! When people dropped their shoulder blades down their backs, they seemed to gain more stability and control in their arm movements, they seemed to be able to handle heavier loads with less effort, it seemed to promote a generally more upright spine. I adopted this cue for my own movement as well. I felt like it made me STRONG. But then I noticed that it wasn’t all good for me or for anyone else.

After a while, I realized that this cue can create some seriously undesirable conditions in the body too. Many people, although feeling stronger, were actually experiencing negative changes in the mobility of their arms and upper bodies. And it happened to me too. Activities with my arms overhead became more challenging, disrupting my thorax and my spine as I moved. My ribs became more and more compressed, and spinal extension became more challenging. Hmmm… what was I missing?

With a little more research, education and observation, I realized that for many, this cue created conditions where the shoulder blades themselves became locked onto the thorax in a way that made free and full range of motion nearly impossible!

The shoulder girdle is a wonder of function and mobility. Did you know that the only bony attachment of the shoulder girdle to the main body of your skeleton is at the breastbone, via your collarbone? The rest of the shoulder girdle connects to the thorax via soft tissue – muscles and ligaments. This incredible feature allows the shoulders and arms to have the amazing range of motion that they have – but it also means that they are especially susceptible to dysfunction through imbalance of the muscles. When one muscle or motion is over-emphasized, there could be serious implications for mobility, and it could make you more susceptible to injury too.

In simple terms, the shoulder blades have the ability to slide in toward the spine (retraction), to slide away from the spine (protraction), slide straight up (elevation), or straight down (depression), to tilt forward or tilt backward and to rotate around a somewhat central axis. All of these motions are necessary for good shoulder function.

When we “slide our shoulders into our back pockets,” we can potentially create too much depression in the shoulder girdle. If the latissimus dorsi muscle gets too eagerly engaged in this process, the shoulder blades tilt forward, hugging the top of the back, and the arms roll further forward, making it hard to maintain a good connection to the back of the rotator cuff and often to the muscles which help the top of the spine stay appropriately upright. The shoulder blades can get literally “locked,”  via overactive muscles, to the thorax, effectively rendering them unable to tilt backward and rotate  as they need to when the arms are lifted overhead.

The result? More bulk in the muscles at the front of the chest, front of the arms and on top of the shoulder, more compression and potential dysfunction in the rib cage, weakness in the upper spine, weakness in the rotator cuff and difficulty with motion requiring extension of the upper spine and motion of the arms overhead. Heck, it can also create breath pattern dysfunction by creating challenges for free movement in the rib cage.

So what now? It’s time for a different picture. The shoulder blades need to be able to connect to the spine; so yes – a little drop may be necessary. But the shoulder blades need to be able to float too. If, when you hear a cue to drop the shoulder blades, you drop them strongly, and feel muscle activity in your armpits, then you’re likely 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 (or press back into that downward dog).

Pay attention to how your shoulder girdle is moving relative to your spine and thorax. With a little conscious care and patterning, you’ll find that your shoulders not only move better, they allow more freedom in the thorax and spine as well, and fewer “issues” in your neck! 

And movement teachers – remember that a cue that works in your body may not work for others. Always watch carefully for the EFFECTS of your cueing, on the whole body. Because in this, as in many things, one size does NOT fit all.

What are some of your favourite cues for the shoulders, arms and upper body? Are there ones that have worked especially well for you? Or especially bad ones? I’d love to hear some of your experiences – leave a comment below!

Kathleen Watson - January 14, 2014

Susannah, I guess it’s another case of “too much of anything is toxic.”

One of my biggest challenges is checking in with my body to see if it likes what I’m giving it in terms of movement, food, and sleep. Thanks for the reminder to include my shoulder girdle in my check-ins!

    Susannah Steers - January 15, 2014

    Right you are Kathleen. We so often strive to say present with our minds and our emotions… it’s good to remember to find that presence in our physical activities too.

Lilia Lee - January 15, 2014

My biggest problem is sitting hunched over my keyboard for too long a period of time. I can sense when it has been too much but usually not in time to avoid some pain.
Thanks for your post. I shall try to be more mindful of that part of my body.

    Susannah Steers - January 15, 2014

    Lilia – what you share is not an uncommon problem. Our increasingly computerized lives create havoc for our movement and our structures! Can you build short little movement breaks into your day? 5 minutes of getting up, stretching, arching, reaching, opening your hips and just moving and breathing a little differently will help stave off pain… and will help you think better too! Hope this helps. 🙂

Cena Block from SaneSpaces.com - January 15, 2014

I love it when I read things and the compell me to move my body – Like this post! thank you for this insightful look.. I love what you do and am fascinated to learn more!

    Susannah Steers - January 15, 2014

    Thanks Cena! I’m so glad you felt inspired to move! If you’re interested in learning more, check out my “Fitness Reboot” video. In 8 simple steps, you can learn some new ways to really move well – whether you want to uplevel your fitness to play bigger or whether you want to increase ease and get rid of pain in daily life. All you have to do to get the video is sign up on the home page, and you’ll get immediate access. Giving my clients new tools to improve their physicality and live their lives to the fullest is my passion!

Martha - January 16, 2014

Any suggestions for cues when in downward dog? Because I’m a pianist and guitarist, I’m hunched a lot and rotate inwards. I use yoga to help out, but feel like my upper spine is hurting these days. Your article is linking some things for me. Any ideas?

    Susannah Steers - January 16, 2014

    Martha – I understand very well the challenges you are talking about. I work with lots of musicians, and for most, having the ability to support the body well relative to the position/action of the instrument is critical.

    Healthy positioning in the shoulder girdle relies a great deal on good support in the spine, so that’s where I would advise you to go first. Think about finding length in your spine while you’re playing, instead of hunching forward over either the piano or the guitar. Have a look at this earlier post to help with ways to connect to the spine: https://movingspirit.ca/2013/07/want-that-spring-in-your-step-again-forget-dialing-back-the-clock-find-your-spine. You might also want to read about creating space through the ribs: https://movingspirit.ca/2013/10/un-cage-your-ribs-for-better-mobility/

    Then, when you get to downward dog in your yoga class – think first about lengthening the spine, and freeing the thorax. Picture the shoulder blades floating on the back of the ribs, with the upper arm gently rotating outward in the shoulder socket. Press into the hands, continuing to outwardly rotate the upper arm (and JUST the upper arm – you don’t want your shoulder blades squeezing together), feeling the length in your spine and lifting sitz bones high and back, hanging the legs. If you’re having trouble opening shoulders and spine, don’t force your heels to the floor. Let your knees bend a little for a while until you can more easily handle spine & shoulders. You may find some of my other previous posts helpful too. When you can find better support for your structure in the things you do a lot of – then all your activities feel work better & feel easier! Good luck – I hope you find this helpful!

Dorothy Pang, The Natural Fertility Expert - January 17, 2014

The complexity of anatomy never ceases to amaze me. While I do often encourage my computer job patients to relax and drop their shoulders, I have never heard this back pocket terminology. (I don’t do pilates, as you can tell.) Thanks for this post, which raises some good points!

    Susannah Steers - January 19, 2014

    The complexity and adaptability of the human body consistently astounds me too, Dorothy. Glad you enjoyed the article. 🙂

LaTalullah - August 6, 2014

I find connecting to the posterior superior aspect of the transvere abdominis and keeping space between the ear and shoulder, are good ways to keep my shoulders relaxed, core engaged, yet shoulder girdle still free. I’m not sure what the cue-ing would be for this.

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