When you think about your shoulder, you probably think of the upper part of your arm, and delts. What about the back of the shoulder? What about those muscles and scapula? How does it affect your movement, workout and is it important?
First let’s talk about the shoulder itself. It is a lot bigger than you think. The shoulder joint complex is made out of few smaller joints. The one you are most familiar with is glenohumeral joint, a ball and socket articulation between the scapula (glenoid cavity) and the head of the humerus. It enables a wide range of movement: flexion, extension, abduction (protraction), adduction (retraction), rotation and circumduction. Simply put, it allows you to move your arm in almost any direction: up, down, from the body, to the body, rotate, and a full circle motion. Acromioclavicular joint is a small connection between the scapula (acromion) and the clavicle (collarbone), which allows for a limited range of motion in vertical plane. The connection between our arms and central skeleton is in costoclavicular joint, between the clavicle and the sternum. On the back the scapula is connected to the thoracic spine by scapulothoracic joint.
All of this joints work together, so your arm could move, and not fall off while doing it. The center of this complex is the scapula a.k.a shoulder blade.
The scapula is a large, flat triangle shaped bone with: three angles, three borders, two surfaces and three extensions (acromion, spine and coracoid).
There are many muscles that are connected to the scapula. On the front surface we have subscapularis muscle. On the back surface there are: supraspinatus, infraspinatus, trapezius and deltoid muscle. Omohyoid muscle is attached to the upper edge. Teres minor, major and triceps are connected to the outer edge. On the inner edge serratus anterior attaches. Upper angle has levator scapulae attached to it. Lower angle has latissimus dorsi attached, while the long head of the biceps is connected to the outer angle. Coracoid extension has three muscles attached to it: coracobrachialis, pectoralis major, and the short head of the biceps.
All of these muscles are important for the movement and the stability of the scapula. The scapula can move in different directions:
- Elevation can be done by gliding the shoulders upwards. The muscles in charge of this movement are upper trapezius and levator scapulae.
- Depression is done by gliding the shoulders downward, and the muscle in charge is lower trapezius.
- Adduction, or retraction happens when you pinch the shoulder blades toward each other. It is achieved by rhomboids and middle trapezius.
- Abduction or protraction is a movement where you round the shoulders forward. Serratus anterior is the main muscle here.
- Upward rotation happens when you lift the arms overhead. It is done by upper and middle trapezius.
- Downward rotation is when you return the arms from the overhead position downwards. The muscle in charge is rhomboids.
Now let’s talk a bit about the rotator cuff, and why is it so important. The rotator cuff is a complex of muscles and tendons that keep the glenohumeral joint together. It helps raise and rotate your arm.
Few muscles are a par of the rotator cuff, and have an important role regarding movement and stability. Supraspinatus holds upper arm a.k.a. humerus in place. It helps lift your arm and keep it stable. Infraspinatus rotates and extends the shoulder. Teres minor helps with rotation away from the body. Subscapularis holds humerus connected to the scapula and helps rotate, lower, and hold the arm.
Sometimes, an injury of the rotator cuff can occur. Impingements and tears are considered to be the most common ones. Impingement happens with the rotator cuff muscle swelling. It cramps the space between the shoulder blade and the arm, and causes pinching. Muscle injuries that lead to impingement are: overuse injuries, strain and bone spurs. A rotator cuff tear is a less common injury. It happens with a tear in a rotator cuff muscle or tendon. Most of these do not require surgery.
As the scapula can move in every direction and is a key element for your shoulder and body stability, it is very important to do a proper workout for the muscles connected to it. The following exercises will help stabilize you scapula.
Lying dumbbell press
Lie on the bench and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Dumbbells don’t need to be heavy, as you are working on stability and not strength here.
Extend your arms upwards. Keep in mind here that your arms need to be parallel to each other.
Go back to the initial position. You can perform between 10 and 20 repetitions.
Get in a push-up position, with your knees on the ground, arms extended and shoulders wide apart.
Arch your back, while extending your shoulders up. Perform 10 – 20 repetitions.
Place your right arm under the left shoulder, and then place your left arm over it and the left shoulder.
Stretch the right arm.
Hold position for 10 seconds.
Repeat 10 times with each arms.
Hold an exercise band in your hands, and raise your arms to the same level as the shoulders.
Bent your elbows slightly and stretch the band.
Repeat several times, and try using stronger bands.
Stand in front of an adjustable pulley and place it a bit above your head level.
Bend your arms towards the head. It is important to keep your body straight and still during this exercise.
Extend the arms back to the starting position.
Repeat several times.
Lean on a table with one hand, while keeping the other one hanging.
Swing the hanging hand in the backward – forward direction, to the side, in clockwise and anti-clockwise direction.
Repeat with the other arm as well.
Shoulder blade squeeze
Stand with your back and neck straight.
Move the shoulders back and squeeze your shoulder blades.
Hold the position for 5 seconds.
Repeat 10 times.
Always think about the scapula while working out, especially if you are doing back, chest or shoulder exercises. Keeping your body straight, and the scapula relaxed will lower the chances of injury.