A decade ago I had my first private session as a new Pilates student at the Kane School, and in the very first exercise (rolldown with the rolldown bar on the Cadillac), I was stopped in my tracks. I was informed that I was depressing my shoulders and shouldn’t. I thought, but how else then will I stabilize them? I was at a loss after years of physicians, physical therapists, injections and Pilates instructors attempting to help me with my wonky shoulders that liked to do somersaults in their sockets and wing better than any chicken could. That began my journey of true dynamic shoulder stabilization.

Fast forward ten years and I still hear the comments to “put your shoulders in your pockets.” My intention is not to criticize those who advocate this – but to analyze what it yields.  I get it – the cue originated in response to clients elevating their shoulders a la Frankenstein. But maybe the response to excess tension is not equal tension in the opposite direction.

Let’s think about it for a moment.  Shoulders in the pockets literally encourages scapular depression. Which activates the lats, teres major, lower traps and pecs. Which also restricts thoracic flexion. Which generates unnecessary tension in this instance, locks the region and squelches the thoracic outlet. (Not to mention the fascial, arterial and lymphatic implications from extended holding of this position.)

Do this again (put your shoulders in your pockets), and now attempt to roll down –  i.e. flex your spine – and see how far you get. Or at least how long before your back begs you to stop. 🙂

Take two. This time merely relax your shoulders (we can offer a platter of images if you like) and roll down through your spine and notice how much more articulation – flexion – you’re capable of. If your shoulders rose up to your ears, just remind yourself to “soften” them.

Moral of the story? Take your shoulders out of your pockets!

Many of us in the movement education realm have been spreading this gospel for years, but I feel the need to state it again since I continue to see shoulder depression as the encouragement for “stability” with resulting limitations and unnecessary pain.

Stability is relative to mobility. And we never fully remain still so we have to maintain stability with motion, i.e. dynamic stability. That dynamic component lies in the relationships of the three bones of the shoulder and the neighboring ribcage. Remember, the scapula is just one of a trio of musicians starring the humerus and clavicle as well.  But the depressed scapula limits the motion (or music, if you will) of the other two bones that must also be allowed their full musical range.

Let’s continue. How stable is a shoulder girdle that can’t freely move? Pull your shoulders down and then lift your arms up overhead. You’ll notice tension at the top of your shoulders, i.e. where the humerus pushes into the acromion process above it (technically an extension of the scapula), an important area known as the subacromial space.  With biomechanics like this, you’re setting yourself up for impingement, bursitis, tendonitis/tendonosis and rotator cuff injuries over time, perhaps even a lovely labral tear.  Congratulations! That area can easily get jammed like rush hour on a New York freeway, and the potential damage is profound.

Now consider the established biomechanics of the shoulder when lifting the arm up overhead. Known as scapulohumeral rhythm, the scapula should upwardly rotate (not depress) while the humerus actually does depress (drop) and externally rotate in its socket, the glenoid fossa. Remember you cannot verbally cue the humerus to depress in this position because doing so will activate the scapular depressors instead. Try it! And also notice how your pecs activate. Which will limit that external rotation of the humerus and create a sound of cacophony in our musical metaphor. See how that trio works? One musician playing off key will throw off the other players!

So let go of cue to depress anything here. You can only cue relaxation, and perhaps spiraling, of the arm in the socket. You’ve now provided for motion in the joint spaces and saved your bony and soft tissue structures around the shoulder which need to last you the rest of your life.

The easy image that I like is to imagine pouring water from your shoulders down your spine as you lift your arms overhead.  Since your spine is along your midline, the shoulders tip inward naturally toward that center and pour downward. This is the upward rotation of your scapulae, named after the motion occurring at the upper outer corners where the sockets lie. No pulling or excessive effort is required. Ease is a beautiful thing.

Okay so if the stability is not generated by the lats in this example as many have learned, then where does the shoulder stability originate? I like to consider the forces pushing and resonating outward rather than pulling inward. Prop yourself up on your forearms and then sink down. Now push into your arms to lift your heart behind you. Simple. You may have experienced some sensation around the sides of the ribs. That pushing action and the holding or slow controlled sinking down again stems from the serratus anterior muscle, a critical player in scapular stability.

Forearm propping for serratus anterior muscle

But let’s take this a step further. After all, how often do you live your life statically propped up on your elbows?  This muscle, originating under the medial scapular border and extending outward with nine fingerlike attachments into the rib cage, has a variety of potential movements and capacity for leverage. We can experience this very simply when we go into a downward dog position and then transition into a plank. The serratus anterior muscle is working the entire time but its direction of pull changes along with the changing relationship between the arms and the rib cage/trunk. (I’m not ignoring you, Middle and Lower Traps- just focusing more today in your force coupling friend and musical partner Serratus Anterior.)

The serratus anterior stabilizing scapulae in downward dog. Notice relationship of arm to trunk.


And the serratus anterior also stabilizing the scapulae in plank. Notice the different relationship of arm to trunk.

Now let’s apply this to an open-chain position where the hands are not fixed (the scapulohumeral rhythm example from earlier.) Stand up and lift your arms to the side i.e. abduction.  Elevate your shoulders i.e. lift them, and then relax them, but don’t “pull them down.”  Imagine your head floating up off your rib cage. Now imagine your arms reaching out from your trunk like a bat wings so that you feel that wing-like connection. Alert: be sure you are breathing into your low back ribs. Rib flaring will alter the shoulder mechanics! But that’s another blog post….  Continue that sensation of the bat wings – and soften your shoulders – as you slowly float your hands up overhead and experience the widening sensation of your scapulae as they swing outward.  It’s also that serratus anterior muscle which has enabled the final movement of the arms lifting overhead. (This is one reason to admire the precision of surgeons in breast surgery who must be so careful not to damage the long thoracic nerve which innervates this serratus anterior muscle, which could then prevent the woman from completely lifting her arm overhead.)

Scapulohumeral rhthym

Batwings cue widening the scapulae.

Try applying these ideas to motions with the push thru bar and the roll down bar and observe the potential for stability with ease in your shoulders – and neck and back and hips… it’s all connected after all.
So you can see – and better yet *embody* – why pulling your shoulders down would be counterproductive. Please take your shoulders out of your pockets. Keep your pockets open for other things like your hands. Shoulders don’t belong there.