At 5’10”, I’ve always consciously strove to not succumb to slouchy Tall Girl Stance. So when a physical therapist diagnosed me with an unscientific-sounding condition called “winged scapulae,” which makes me sound a bit like a mystical unicorn but actually meant that my shoulder blades were weak, unanchored and drifting off my spine, my pride was a bit injured. Apparently, years spent earning a living as a journalist had beaten my back and ‘blades up.
That’s when my friend gave me the following magical tip: “You need to pretend you’re tucking your shoulder blades into your back jean pockets.”
From that point on, I constantly reminded myself to pull my shoulder blades back and down, using the back pockets imagery as a cue, and it worked like a charm.
Why your shoulder blades matter
Your shoulder blades, or scapulae, are a duo of triangular-shaped bones in the back, bookending your upper spine. They play a larger role in your daily life than you might realize; each scapula forms the socket of the ball-and-socket joints that are your shoulders. (The head of the humerus, or upper arm bone, is the ball.) Connected to the body by multiple muscles and ligaments, the blades slide along the upper back as you move throughout your day.
Misalignment is endemic among computer users, and misbehaving shoulder blades are often the culprit. When we sit at a desk all day, staring into a computer, we’re basically doing the opposite of everything our strong, erect-spined, solid-hipped ancestors did – our shoulders round forward, our back hunches, our head juts out and our pelvis tilts under. This modern day position inhibits the shoulder blades’ ability to pull back and down…which is where nature intended them to be, so they can create space for the shoulder joint to move as our arms pull, pull, reach and stretch.
That, in turn, sets everything else out of whack, says trainer Colby Hazelip. “The shoulder blades are substantial,” he explains, “built to be strong and support other smaller muscles in the back and shoulder. When they’re not in the proper position, they can’t do their job,” and the smaller muscles end up pulling more weight than they should.
Hazelip offered the following example to help illustrate: “I play beach volleyball, and misalignment is common. When you go up to spike a ball and your hand makes contact with it, it sends a jarring motion down through the arm. If your shoulder blades are tucked down and back, where they should be, they and the surrounding muscles can absorb the impact. But if the shoulder blades are out of position, your deltoids, which isn’t nearly as large or strong, end up doing the work, and takes the impact. This creates a cascade of dysfunction.”
Your focus should be on working these bigger muscles, like the shoulder blades. Strength in the deeper, core muscles improves improves functionality and increases athletic performance (and burn more calories). In other words, use the right muscles for the job.
Hazelip says that computer slump also causes the shoulder blades to jut out, which has the somewhat unexpected effect of weakening the torso. “It causes you to hunch over, and when your back is contracted like that, your abdominal muscles can’t function.”
Pulling your shoulder blades back, he adds is not enough; they need to be back and down in order to be in proper position. A former fitness model, Hazelip recalls taking runway modeling classes in which the coach would instruct them to “pinch your shoulder blades together,” but no back and down cue. “Models often ended up looking awkward, with their shoulders near their ears, and it created tightness up top.”
Balance your blades
The move below can help restore balance and strength to your blades. Of course, two exercises is not enough to keep everyone’s scalpulae happy and healthy; that can only happen in the context of a full-body plan that keeps your four key sets of load-bearing joints – the shoulders, hips, knees and ankles – properly aligned. But an exercise like this can help you learn how to bring awareness to, isolate and strengthen your shoulder blades. And don’t forget to keep ‘em back and down as much as possible!
Standing arm circles
Begin by standing with your feet hip-width apart. Extend your arms out to your sides at shoulder level, palms up. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and down, pretending you are tucking them into your some imaginary back jeans pockets. Keeping them squeezed and down, rotate both arms backward in small circles (about six inches in circumference). Complete 40 circles. Next, face your palms down, and complete 40 forward rotations. If your shoulders begin to shrug or roll forward at any time, take a break, then recommit your shoulder blades to the down-and-back position.