Whenever we work with clients who have problems with their shoulders, there's one motion that we ALWAYS try to improve right away - scapular retraction. If you have shoulder issues it can often be helped with simple exercises that emphasize alignment and retraining.
In this blog we are looking at a few exercises to help restore proper alignment and strength in the correct muscles to support shoulder health.
Scapular retraction involves pulling your shoulder blades (the scapulae) in towards each other/towards the spine - WITHOUT shrugging up toward your ears.
The opposite of scapular retraction is scapular protraction. In protraction your shoulder blades move away from one another and your arms droop forward. Modern life has made us all exceptionally good at scapular protraction and terrible at retraction.
Being able to retract your scapula is important because protracted scapulae make it difficult to move your shoulder joints well. Protracted scapulae make it hard to lift your arms out to the side. It can also make it very difficult to stand up straight because the weight of your arms is dragging your thoracic spine into kyphosis. Protracted scapulae can make it difficult to get blood flow and nerve transmission into and out of your hands (e.g. syndromes like thoracic outlet syndrome or carpal tunnel syndrome).
Being able to pull your scapulae into proper position makes it possible to breathe and move freely without the weight of you arms dragging you (literally) down.
You practice. Like anything, practice makes improvement. Below you'll find three exercises that can help you start learning to retract your scapulae better. As you work on these exercises, remember that progress takes time. It takes human beings time to develop the strength and coordination to learn to walk, and it takes time to learn unfamiliar motions!
This exercise helps your shoulder blades come in towards the spine and teaches the thoracic spine to extend. This can be very helpful if you find it difficult to do any kind of scapular retraction without severe tightness in the front of the shoulder. We generally recommend holding this position for about a minute.
This exercise helps you engage the muscles that retract your shoulder blades. This is the most basic exercise for restoring control over your shoulder blades. Make sure you pay close attention to how the two sides compare. For a large number of people, one side is going have less control. It may feel like one has a greater distance to travel than the other. This indicates that the muscles on that side are not used to maintaining the right amount of engagement. We generally recommend doing 2-3 sets of 10-15 every day.
Once you have mastered the reverse presses, you want to practice doing scapular retraction in a more practical position - standing!
The nice thing about this exercise is that you can do it literally anywhere. You can do it at home, at work, at the grocery story, sitting in your car, etc. We generally recommend doing 2-3 sets of 10-15 several times throughout the day.
These exercises are a good start for just about anyone looking to improve scapular retraction at a basic level. Whenever you are starting to learn a new motion, it's important to realize that you may run into roadblocks. If you run into roadblocks - like areas of tightness that restrict your range of motion - you'll need to take a deeper look at your particular situation to improve your ability to achieve this fundamental motion.
The most important thing to remember is that change takes time. Don't get discouraged when you first start retraining your body. It will take time to learn how to do new motions. Even those motions that feel impossible right now will one day become possible!
Have shoulder issues? Looking for a way to heal your body through movement and retraining? Check out our Shoulder Program: