Scapular Stability in Motion

It’s no secret how important the scapula is in the health of an overhead throwing athlete. A stable scapula gives rise to a healthy and mobile glenohumeral joint. The human body is a stabilizing / mobilizing machine to create motion. Look no further than Mike Boyle’s Mobility/Stability Continuum article for clarification that summarizes the body’s organization in movement. If you’ve read Mike’s piece you know understand the importance for stability in the scapulothroacic joint. For the shoulder to effectively move, the scapular complex must aid in stabilization.

Paine summarized the importance of the muscles involving scapular and glenohumeral control: “Most shoulder complex injuries incurred as a result of sport activities can be traced to abnormal biomechanics, which, in turn, can be related to improper functioning of the scapular muscles. In fact, scapular instability is found in as many as 68% of rotator cuff problems and 100% of glenohumeral instability problems.”

While the scapulothoracic joint is one that should be built around stability, movement is absolutely vital. Yes, you heard that right. THE SCAPULA NEEDS TO BE TRAINED TO MOVE!!!. The scapula serves as a stable platform for the shoulder to operate, however, eliminating the ability to move and control the scapula compromises the joint integrity of the shoulder itself. A non-mobile scapula requires the glenohumeral joint to pick up slack and increased stress. The body will always compensate to achieve necessary motion. An immobile scapula puts increasing stresses though the soft tissues of the GH joint. All too often athletes want to tack the scapula down and move only from the arm.

Creating motion is not NOT stability. The ability to move and control motion will actually aid the ability to stabilize and optimize shoulder function. Athletes need motor control throughout the scapular stabilizers. Motor control may be the most significant yet often missed step when performing scap work.

The mind muscle connection becomes an important aspect of scapular motion in my opinion. The mind muscle connection is nothing more than intently focusing on the feel of the muscle action, creating motion, the feel of creating motion, thinking deeply into the muscle, etc. It is linked with intrinsic cueing. Take any single day on social media and you’ll find deep seeded arguments about internal vs external cueing if you don’t know what I’m referencing here. There is a time and place for both in my opinion. For myself the argument is about speed of movement and movement complexity as for what cue is often appropriate. Something isolated, like movements about the scapula, I fully believe internal cues as well as the mind muscle connection can be appropriate. I’ve seen firsthand through our own EMG work that internal cues can produce greater electrical muscle activity during scapulothoracic movement.

Bodybuilders have preached about the mind muscle connection for decades. However in strength and conditioning it’s often an afterthought. It may not be right for every situation but I do believe the mind muscle connection is a powerful tool for increasing motor control.

4 Common Training Patterns of Scapular Movement

1. Horizontal Pulling

The scapula should retract straight back with horizontal pulls. I prefer to cue athletes to pull back and down slightly into depression with horizontal pulls. However, this can be very athlete dependent. One of the reasons for the addition of depression into the mix is to keep athletes from shrugging as they pull. Many athletes, when left to retraction alone, will substitute retraction with hard shrugging or elevation. Slight depression helps athletes to stay out of a shrug and kick in the lower traps as well.

A big issue with pulling movements are athletes don’t incorporate the scapula at all. These athletes will leave it stationary and the glenohumeral joint will take over. Essentially the arms do the work in lieu of retraction. The shoulder will dump forward into anterior tilt as the humerus drives into hyperextension. Focus points for pulls should be built around the elbows. Pull w the elbow and not the hands.

Scaps dump forward into anterior tilt arms compensate for motion

Another large mistake many athletes make is not releasing the scapula on the eccentric lowering. Athletes will try to keep the scapula packed together instead of allowing it to fully release and navigate around the ribcage. In essence they hold an isometric contraction of the rhomboids in a mid-state of retraction. We want the scapula to release and move around the ribcage into end range.

The scapular stabilizers need to develop the coordination of proper pulling patterns. Holding the scaps together is not the human body’s optimal movement. Not only that but we want to develop the muscles ability to contract and relax. We want the ability of the scapula and glenohumeral joint to work together in optimal combination.

Scapular retraction taking place

2. Horizontal Pushing

Pushing movements should be the opposite of pulling movements. The most common issues on pushing movements again are the scaps inability to move through a full range of motion.

Take the push-up, one of the big 5 patterns in our foundation program. With push-ups many athletes don’t fully protract the scaps at the top of the movement. We may see a chicken winged appearance with a valley at the top of the movement between the medial borders of the scaps. Cue athletes to keep pushing and reach the upper back as high as possible. Here an external cue is great…..I hold a hand an inch above their body and tell them to try and touch their upper back to my hand. This is one of the most important aspects to pushing movements…..scapular protraction. And one of the big reasons why variations of the bench press aren’t in my foundation program nor a large part in my pitcher training. Laying on top of the scaps while pressing doesn’t allow for scapular movement around the ribcage. Teach and train the scaps to navigate around the thorax in all movements.

No protraction occurring

Scaps moving into protraction around the ribcage in a push-up

Another large issue with horizontal pushing that is incredibly overlooked, are athletes that don’t allow the scaps to retract posteriorly while on the eccentric or lowering phase. Allowing the scaps to move back frees up space for the GH joint and eliminates the shoulder driving forward or the scapula dumping into anterior tilt. An athlete that does not posteriorly retract the scaps will again compensate with humeral motion putting unnecessary stress on the soft tissue structures surround the GH joint.

Pushing and pulling movements should be the same regardless of which side is doing the work. The blades should retract back fully and protract out fully.

3. Reaching Overhead – Vertical Pushing

Reaching in front of the body above parallel or overhead requires high degrees of freedom. Full flexion overhead means upward rotation for the scapula. About 1/3 of the total motion the humerus goes through comes from scapular assistance. Missing pieces of that 1/3 means compensations will occur first and foremost, and secondly it often equates to a general lack of needed motion. Both are recipes for problems. The body will find a way to do what needs to be done. If flexion overhead is what you need you will find a way to achieve it, whether that occurs from a flared rib cage and additional forces on the spine, or the shoulder taking added stress.

The mind muscle connection for us has shown successful here. Trying to have athletes tap upward rotation movements about the scapula has been key. The all-important serratus anterior is a key piece of the puzzle and often a muscle athletes have no clue how to connect with.

Instead of simply pushing the weight we prefer athletes visualize wrapping the scapula around the ribcage into the armpit. We want them trying to create the mind muscle convention into the serratus to feel that movement occur. External cues such as reaching as far as possible, or reaching for an object can assist here as well. However I still want them internally focusing on what they feel and connecting dots to the motion itself.

On the eccentric side again we want the scapula coming back down fully into position instead of the GH joint taking the brunt of the reversal.

4. Vertical Pulling

Vertical pulling just like the rest of the movements thus far requires full ranges of motion. At the top of a pull, we want to see the scapula move into upward rotation.

The biggest issue on the vertical pulls is on the pull itself. Often athletes do NOT use the scapula at all. Many will pull with the arms only and dump into anterior tilt. The lats and pecs are connected to the humerus thus still receive tension but at the expense of the scapular motion, which we should see. Again, athletes take over with the arms. Cueing athletes to pull through the elbows has shown positive results for increasing efficacy of scapular movements.

Scaps dumping forward into anterior tilt

Scaps moving effectively in a vertical pull

Another common error is arching to achieve motion, the same as with vertical pushing. A large rib flare is a compensation pattern for a lack of overhead motion. The top of a vertical pull and push, if frozen in a still frame shot, should look the same on the scapula. The exact same can be said for the bottom positions as well.

No matter the task the scapula needs to be trained go through full ranges of motion. Don’t get so caught up in the stability of the joint that you paralyze it from moving. Only through full motion do you create intermuscular coordination and end range stability throughout. Teaching the scaps to move means optimal function for a healthy shoulder. Through motion you create stability.