Meet Mark

Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

Tell Me More
Stay Connected
May 20, 2010

The Importance of Shoulder Mobility and Scapular Stability

By Mark Sisson
57 Comments

If you’ve been following my series on joint mobility you’ll know that I’ve already covered how to improve and maintain joint mobility for the hips, thoracic spine, and ankles and wrists. Today and tomorrow I’ll be going over the shoulder. The shoulder is a tricky joint because it has to provide adequate stability while maintaining full mobility to prevent injury and maximize function and performance. If you look at yourself in the mirror and wave your arms around, you’ll see what I mean. If that doesn’t work, watch a swimmer, preferably one doing the IM, and watch the incredible range of motion in those shoulders. That’s what the human body is capable of.

Know what you’re looking for and you should be able to count ten different types of shoulder articulations. Ten! Contrast that with the hips (eight), the ankles (two), the wrists (four), or the spine (five), and the shoulder is clearly the most complicated joint with the greatest range of motion. Because “with great power comes great responsibility,” the shoulder is also perhaps the joint most vulnerable to injury. You can do a whole lot with a well-functioning shoulder joint, but you can also really mess yourself up and curtail your activity level for a long time if you get haphazard with its maintenance. Take it from a guy who messed his shoulder up more than once: shoulder health is absolutely required for an active, enriched life. And if you plan on attaining any sort of athletic competency on any level, you need good shoulders.

Shoulder Structure

A person’s shoulder joint is composed of the clavicle (collar bone), the scapula (shoulder blades), and the humerus (upper arm bone), along with two joints – the acromioclavicular, or AC joint; and the glenohumeral joint. AC joints exist between the clavicle and the scapula, whereas the glenohumeral joint is the classic ball-and-socket joint responsible for basic arm rotations and hinging. All these bones and joints are in turn supported by the surrounding musculature.

The surrounding musculature is extensive. You’ve got the big boys, like the rear, middle, and anterior deltoids or the trapezius, that get all the credit. They’re the ones that pop out and look great in tank tops. Important? Yes. But there are more important ones, I’d argue. Because for all that mobility and all that muscle mass to work correctly, you need stability. You need a base, something to work from.

This concept isn’t new, and it’s certainly not unique to the human shoulder joint. The entire body’s continuum of joints is governed by this “law.” Mobility-centric joints, like the hips, thoracic spine, and ankles, are connected to stability-centric joints, like the knees and lumbar spine. Each requires the next in line to function correctly and smoothly.

For the mobile shoulder joints to stay mobile and healthy, they rely almost entirely on the proper function of the scapula. Yes, the true key to shoulder mobility is scapular stability. You gotta have strong shoulder blades. You need a foundation.

While doing the bench press, that infamous destroyer of rotator cuffs, a trainee must tighten his scapula to create a “shelf” to lay against the bench. A trainee must also maintain that shelf throughout the set, even (especially) when pressing up. This is scapular retraction, and benching without it – with a loose, rounded back on the press up – will eventually kill your shoulders. It certainly knocked mine out for a good couple of months the most recent (and last) time I tried to max out my bench.

Any overhead work, whether it’s pressing a barbell, lifting a growing child, or moving luggage into the overhead bin on an airplane, requires scapular elevation to help the acromion clear the rotator cuff. It moves, ideally, smoothly, but if you’ve got poor scapular function (say, from kyphosis, or poor thoracic mobility), the upward rotation is halted, and impingement syndrome can result.

Back squats work best with a close grip and strong scapular retraction in order to urge the rest of the torso to stiffen and create that “shelf” for the bar to lie on. Try doing back squats with a wide grip and lax shoulder blades to see what I mean. Actually, don’t; it’ll just hurt your shoulders.

Rowing (machine, boat, or barbell) is all about scapular retraction. You’re not just going to yank on a cable or work a paddle by flailing your arms wildly. Well, you could, but you’d injure yourself. Setting your shoulder blades back and keeping them tight creates a safe, linear path for your primary rowing muscles to travel.

Pull-ups and chin-ups are all about scapular stability, very similar to the rows.

The shoulders figure into every upper body exercise. If your arms are moving, that movement is occurring along the joints that comprise the shoulder. Bench presses, dips, overhead presses, and anything else involving your arms depend on healthy shoulders and good scapular function. Tomorrow, I’ll explain more about the scapula, how to target its supporting musculature, and how it all figures into overall shoulder health and mobility.

Read on to learn how to maintain shoulder mobility ans scapular stability.

Get Free Health Tips, Recipes and Workouts Delivered to Your Inbox

TAGS:  mobility

Subscribe to the Newsletter

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

Leave a Reply

57 Comments on "The Importance of Shoulder Mobility and Scapular Stability"

avatar

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
anzy
anzy
6 years 4 months ago

This is the one I’ve been waiting for. Been dealing with shoulder problems off and on for years. I’m really looking forward to tomorrow’s post, so I can learn how to help it. Thanks Mark!

Melissa
Melissa
6 years 4 months ago

Me too! I just started my physical therapy on Monday for my shoulder. Turns out I had more issues that I thought when it first started hurting back in February. I thought I had just slept funny – well 2 1/2 months later, I’m finally getting it back to where it needs to be so in a few weeks, I can start lifting again!
Can’t wait for tomorrow’s post!

John Solter
6 years 4 months ago

Really want to hear what you have to say about how to maintain scapular stability. While I love pushups and pullups, just looking at our bodies makes clear that they were not the primary goal of the arms. I’ve been worried about pushing too hard on these exercises, so I’m really enthused that you’re going to explain all about protecting the shoulder.

Primal Toad
6 years 4 months ago

Same here. I do push-ups and pull-ups everytime I lift heavy things… that includes today!

I never want to overdo while I want to be as strong as possible – ya need healthy shoulders to be doing it effectively!

Johnny
6 years 4 months ago
You brought up a good point. Many parts of the body aren’t “designed” to do what many of us do in modern times or in gyms. But we do them anyway and for the most part they adapt pretty well. But you hit it on the head when you implied a concern with pushing too hard. Pushing too hard with either maximum load, velocity, or volume increases the probability of technical degradation, which is when the shoulder girdle is most at risk. I believe this is drawback to the general use of the CrossFit method where an inexperienced, quasi-experienced, or… Read more »
Geoff
Geoff
6 years 4 months ago
Great one again, Mark. I really like this recent series of articles. Very informative and the stuff you don’t often hear about. This one’s off topic (and if it’s out of bounds, please don’t take it personally), but would you share your thoughts on Floyd Landis’ recent admission that he was guilty of doping? No need to comment on the specifics of the allegations (unless you want to) particularly as they relate to Lance and other third parties. I’m mostly interested to hear your perspective on it as a former elite athlete and one who’s taken a leading role against… Read more »
hcantrall
hcantrall
6 years 4 months ago
My husband has been dealing with Adhesive capsulitis (frozen shoulder) in both of his shoulders for almost a year now. He’s going in today for the ortho to do a manual manipulation under anesthesia. He is young to have this problem, only 38, the Doc says this is usually seen in men and women in their 50’s. But, my husband is also diabetic which seems to play some roll in it but we’re not sure what. I really hope this is the answer, he’s not been able to do any upper body workouts because of the loss of mobility and… Read more »
Guy
Guy
6 years 4 months ago

Very timely post for me. I am seeing a physio on Monday to look at a nagging shoulder injury I have had for about a year. At least I will now have a better understanding of what I am letting myself in for!

Dave, RN
Dave, RN
6 years 4 months ago
I just have to share how I accidentally cured my shoulder problem. I had tried everything: chiropractor, PT, OT, acupuncture, NSAIDS… the works. I’d had the pain for over a year. Then one day, I had to spray for some weeds. I have a 2 gallon sprayer that when full weighs about 16 lbs. I carried that with the “bad” shoulder, with it’s slowly decreasing weight for 45 minutes of spraying. My shoulder was really burning when I finished. The next day I woke up with all my shoulder pain gone. 100% gone. I guess the traction and holding the… Read more »
Josephine
6 years 4 months ago

and it hasn’t returned at all? so happy for you, wow.

norcalgal
norcalgal
6 years 4 months ago

how about everytime u do a pull up or sit up and one of your shoulders makes a popping sound over and over like something in my socket is moving? it doesnt hurt at all, but it feels weird and puts me off doing more reps than i want to.

t.rock
t.rock
6 years 4 months ago

i get a popping sound in my right hip on the down movement of a sit-up! same thing. it doesn’t hurt but i really don’t think that it could possibly be good for me.

norcalgal
norcalgal
6 years 4 months ago

i get popping in my right hip too!
ahh. our poor achy popping joints. and im only 28 =/

t.rock
t.rock
6 years 4 months ago

and i, a mere 29!

dedra
6 years 4 months ago

I have trouble with my arm going numb when my arm is forward. I have front shoulder pain and know that I have a pinched nerve between my 5th & 6th verebrae. I personal train 3 times a week & other strenuous exercises the rest of the week. This shoulder pain is inhibiting me from my full potential as an athlete. looking forward to your articles

trackback

[…] post by Mark Sisson […]

Josephine
6 years 4 months ago

Mark, thank you! I have messed up my right shoulder twice now and have sort of become gun shy with weights. I stopped wide angle pull ups and military press because my rhomboid section closest to my spine locks up and twitches. I have been doing a bunch more power yoga to try to losen it, but even that hurts sometimes. I can’t figure out if it’s my AC joint or rotator cuff that clicks. Do you have any suggestions as to what exercises I could do to help losen it up?

Looking forward to your post maniana! Thanks Jo

trackback

[…] Original post by Mark Sisson […]

randalland
randalland
6 years 4 months ago

I have a calcification in a ligament that can’t be corrected via surgical means. Stopping dumbbell flys has kept it somewhat under control, but when it flares up it is 6 weeks of heavy ibuprofen and therapy and no lifting.

Iván Pérez
6 years 4 months ago

Some really new stuff (at least for me) here. I wouldn’t imagine scapulas where that important (just like one year ago I wouldn’t imagine carbs where so bad), so I’ll trust you on this one too.

Looking forward to part too.
Cheers,
Iván.

Anita Gandolfo
Anita Gandolfo
6 years 4 months ago

I swim laps for exercise and couldn’t swim for almost a year when I developed a shoulder impingement. PT finally cured it, but it was a long, slow process, and I had to keep up the exercises until the shoulder was finally pain free and strong. I now do the PT program periodically to keep my shoulders strong.

Mark
6 years 4 months ago

Hi,

I have a shoulder impingement caused by an ice-skating fall. Could you post a link to the PT program that finally cured it. I keep telling my doctor that my shoulder is killing me and he just says, “Oh, oh. Well, exercise.” My five-year old can now throw a ball farther than I can.

Russ
6 years 4 months ago
Actually, push-ups are a great exercise to stabilize the scapulae by strengthening the serratus anterior. After 10 years in the industry, I’ve come to the realization that unless you desire to be a competitive powerlifter, the bench press is a utterly useless exercise that only serves to feed some adolescent fantasy. Push-ups are superior in just about every aspect, and can be loaded in a variety of ways. For those wanting to get a head start on shoulder health check out the following article – http://www.tmuscle.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance_repair/pushups_face_pulls_and_shrugs;jsessionid=FED2712851D03231EA5D8FFB76DE51CF-hh.hydra And for more on push-ups and how to do them CORRECTLY – not with… Read more »
Franek
Franek
6 years 4 months ago

Thanks for those two links =)

Darrin
6 years 4 months ago

Great post Mark. A couple years ago I jumped feet first into a swimming pool and dislocated my shoulder. (Still have no idea how that’s even possible!)

I’m going to be more cognizant of retracting my scapula during squats, bench presses, and pull ups in the future after reading this.

trackback
6 years 4 months ago

[…] love this series of posts that Mark from MDA is doing. This week he is writing about shoulder mobility. Today is part one and tomorrow is part […]

Willow
Willow
6 years 4 months ago

Thanks for a great post Mark. I have been enjoyed this whole series of posts on our different body parts. Very helpful!

Chris Melton
6 years 4 months ago

Thanks for a fantastic explanation of the shoulder joint and it’s inherent blessings / curses.

I wonder how much of our shoulder problems can be traced to improper exercise form and or too much testosterone?

Keep em coming.

Matt
6 years 4 months ago

How would too much testosterone affect shoulder health?

trackback

[…] The importance of Shoulder Mobility and Scapular Stability – MDA – MUST READ! […]

Jenny
Jenny
6 years 4 months ago

After injuring my shoulder in yoga many years ago, I found Pilates exercises regarding scapular stabilization to be simple but effective. More than anything the movement work on the mat as well as on the Reformer and other typical Pilates equipment heightens awareness regarding what each individual’s range is, and how to articulate it with ease. But again, that’s been my experience with investigating what works best for me.

Matt
6 years 4 months ago

Hmm.. I really should do perform more shoulder dislocations.

Yuri Elkaim
6 years 4 months ago

Great post Mark especially considering so that many of us are spending more and more in seated flexed-forward positions. We need to loosen up the pecs, strengthen the upper back, and keep our shoulder girdle in good health each day!

Kristen
Kristen
6 years 4 months ago
Great article. However, regarding the shoulder joint having 10 articulations, I think you mean movements of the shoulder. In anatomy, articulation refers to the actual joint which joins two bones together. There are only 3 articulations in the shoulder: The acromion of the scapula articluates with the clavical to form the acromioclavicular joint, the clavicle articulates with the manubriam of the sternum to form the sternoclavicular join, and the glenoid fossa of the scapula acticulates with the humerus to form the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint. There are 11 movements of the shoulder: arm flexion, arm extention, arm adduction, arm abduction, medial… Read more »
Brian
Brian
6 years 4 months ago

Don’t forget about the scapulothoracic articulation, making a total of four.

trackback

[…] supporting muscles and joints of which most people are simply unaware. I mean, did you realize just how integral the scapular are? And because the shoulders’ function seems relatively straightforward and because we can work out […]

Alissa
Alissa
6 years 4 months ago
This post couldn’t come in a more timely fashion…. I have been dealing with shoulder problems for going on 8-9 months. I tore my supraspinatus tendon I am not sure how I did it, but one day I went Crossfit and I couldn’t even bench. I have basically been forced to get cortizone injections to see if it will heal before they opt for surgery. I have been reading up on these injections and I heard they destroy connective tissue. Anyone have any thoughts on these Injections? Also, I found out yesterday my left and right scapula are uneven. This… Read more »
epistemocrat
6 years 4 months ago

I am a big row machine fan. I do 3-5 sets of sprints with good posture to warm up lots of times at the gym. Quite enjoyable.

trackback

[…] THIS FRIDAY, YOU CAN MAKE IT UP ON THURSDAY OR SATURDAY. Mark Sisson recently posted a few articles about the importance of shoulder mobility and scapular stability.   Of all your joints, the […]

Matt
Matt
6 years 4 months ago
Great article. I listened to my coaches in High School and completely tore apart my right shoulder. I tore all but one of the rotator muscles and had a posterior dislocation of the shoulder which onyl accounts for about 5% of all dislocations. these are the ones that the only way you know it’s out is if your arm goes numb. Not great when you play third base or are the QB. I had to have the entire thing rebuilt and it took 4 years of rehab to get it back. Needless to say I take very good care of… Read more »
trackback

[…] The Importance of Shoulder Mobility and Scapular Stability […]

trackback

[…] 5/29/10 Strength Rest WOD Coach’s Choice CF Endurance Here The Importance of Shoulder Mobility and Scapular Stability How to Maintain Shoulder Mobility and Scapular Stability Paleo Sloppy Joes Another Reason CrossFit […]

trackback

[…] “The Importance of Shoulder Mobility and Scapular Stability” […]

trackback

[…] Wod 08-27-2010 The Importance of Shoulder Mobility and Scapular Stability The Importance of Shoulder Mobility and Scapular Stability Tweet Check out this Article! […]

trackback

[…] there are three excellent write-ups about improving thoracic spine mobility, hip mobility, and shoulder mobility and scapular stability. There are plenty of exercises with great video examples included in these three posts and I would […]

trackback

[…] hand move first and most, with your left hand lagging behind – if it moved at all? Did your shoulders go up? Did your traps rise like you were shrugging a couple dumbbells? Congratulations, you are a […]

Mo
Mo
4 years 11 months ago

It always flies over my head how it is recommended to contract your shoulder blades together when doing bench presses or rows. I can understand do that when your arms are retracted. But how is that even possible when your arms are extended??

trackback

[…] Source: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/shoulder-mobility-and-scapular-stability/#axzz1qDuJVgF8 […]

trackback

[…] Shoulders – shoulderblades back and down (yes, I’m a broken record but there’s a reason!) […]

trackback
3 years 10 months ago

[…] the rest of this fantastic post on the shoulder HERE so there’s no need to recreate that wheel! And a follow up “what do to about it” […]

John
John
3 years 9 months ago

I have ligament laxity and ive been doing PT programmes for years and years now. They refuse to opperate on me. My shoulder pops out everytime i raise my arm. NOTHING works, tried it all, press ups, rotator cuff training. I have a chronic subluxation. I AM FED UP

trackback

[…] is well suited for hamstrings, that area right above the knee cap, the hips, the glutes, and the scapular region. The RAD Roller is also […]

trackback

[…] supporting muscles and joints of which most people are simply unaware. I mean, did you realize just how integral the scapular are? And because the shoulders’ function seems relatively straightforward and because we can work out […]

trackback

[…] Read more: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/shoulder-mobility-and-scapular-stability/#ixzz2j5b6eEHD […]

trackback

[…] vary the application of force in movement, they let us improve grip strength, they let us improve shoulder stability. The physiological benefits of this tool are amazing. I like to say this tool makes us as coaches […]

trackback

[…] I would like to take time to give credit where credit is due, so most of this information came from a guy named Mark Sisson. The link is here so you can go ahead and read the article if you’d like to: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/shoulder-mobility-and-scapular-stability/#axzz4Dq56HcE3 […]

wpDiscuz