At 5-foot-10, I have 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.
But it shouldn’t come as a surprise; busted shoulder blades are endemic among computer users. 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’s why the position of the shoulder blades can be indicative of other dysfunctions happening in the body. To discover what they are, you just have to tune in.
Why Your Shoulder Blades Matter
Your shoulder blades, or scapulae, are a duo of triangular-shaped bones in the back, bookending your upper spine. 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.
“I can tell so much by looking at someone’s shoulder blades,” says Brian Bradley, fitness director of Elev8d Fitness, the new home workout platform developed by the experts at Sonima. “The position of the shoulder blades tells me what’s happening in the thoracic spine, the lower back, and the hips.” It’s all connected. Dysfunction in the shoulder blades is an indicator of misalignment in the rest of the body, and vice versa.
The shoulder blades are intended to support other smaller muscles in the back and shoulder. When they are imbalanced and weak, the structure of the body collapses and these smaller, secondary muscles end up compensating. This leads to strain, dysfunction, and a host of physical effects. Slumping over at a computer, for example, contracts your back and collapses your abdominal muscles, which weakens the torso and deactivates the hips.
And it’s all about the hips. “If the upper back, the spine, and the thoracic are out of alignment and creating compensation, it’s because there is a hip problem below,” Bradley says. The hips are like the epicenter of the body. If your pelvis is out of alignment, then your movement is compromised and your upper back tries to take over, which can lead to backaches and overall discomfort. But if you align and activate the hips, you remove limitations from the spine and shoulders, and they can move freely and functionally. Moreover, misalignment can affect lymph drainage, breath, and digestion. All systems are interconnected. “Think about it: You have 32 feet of intestines sitting on your pelvic floor,” Bradley says. “If your hip is out of alignment, so is your digestion.”
What’s more, activating foundational muscle groups increases your metabolic rate. “When you engage the psoas (the deep core muscle connecting the lumbar to the femur), it turns on the rest of the hip flexors, which carries into the spine and up into the neck and shoulders,” Bradley says. “By doing this, you are using your body at full capacity; you are engaging 100 percent of your muscles.” This total-body activation simply asks your body to use more energy, breathe more oxygen, and in turn, burn more calories.
The Key to Balancing Your Shoulder Blades
This isn’t about sitting up straighter or willing yourself into better shoulder position. “Pulling your shoulder blades together is a waste of your time without the link to rest of the body and activating at the hips,” Bradley explains. Your focus should be on working the deep muscles in the thoracic spine, the core, and the hip flexors—strengthening from the inside out.
The move below can help restore balance and strength to your shoulder blades. Of course, one exercise is not enough to keep everyone’s scalpulae happy and healthy; that can only happen in the context of a full-body plan, such as Elev8d Fitness. This new home workout program from the experts of Sonima keeps your four key sets of load-bearing joints—the shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles—properly aligned. But an exercise like the one below can help you connect the shoulder blades to the hips, activating and strengthening the deep core muscles.
Standing Arm Circles
The foot position in this exercise is crucial: pointing your feet straight forward essentially traps your hips to react to the shoulder position. As your upper body moves, your hips work to stabilize. The movement of the arms fires the abdominal wall and the hip flexors and pinches the shoulder blades back.
Begin by standing with your feet hip-width apart, your toes pointed straight ahead. Extend your arms out to your sides at shoulder level, palms down with your fingers gripped flat onto the pads of your hands. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and down, pretending you are tucking them into some imaginary back jeans pockets. Keeping them squeezed and down, rotate both arms forward in small circles (about six inches in circumference). Complete 40 circles. Next, face your palms up and complete 40 backward 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.