Take your Shoulders out of your Pockets

Take your Shoulders out of your Pockets

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.


By | 2017-01-20T04:35:35+00:00 May 2nd, 2013|Continuing Education, Pilates, Professional Development|13 Comments

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  1. Rasul May 3, 2013 at 8:26 pm - Reply

    Rebekah, this was such an awesome article. I’ve been having a real problem with my clavicle not rotating when I raise my arm overhead. Things are frozen in that area and i’m sure I brought on myself with scapular depression. Actually I’m going to my Chiropractor today and I’m taking this article with me for her.

  2. Gina Jackson May 3, 2013 at 10:23 pm - Reply

    Great point, Rebekah. The pockets are a little deep for the desired action, I agree.

    I cue my students to “slide their shoulders down to their bra strap” therefore far less depression and in keeping with you point, a softer visual.

    Excellent article.

    Best in your continued work.

  3. stephanie May 7, 2013 at 3:09 am - Reply

    While I understand your article and can appreciate moving away from cuing put your shoulder blades in your pockets, I also see that lack of scapulae stability during the 1st 90 degrees of elevation of the upper limbs also in turn can lead to impingement problems around the shoulder. It is therefore important to train the scapula to stay in situ during this initial range, and then begin rotation after this point to make more of the glenoid available for the ongoing movement of the humerus into full elevation.In clients with impingement syndrome we so often see early movement of the scapula on lifting the arms away from the body. I agree it is not active scapular depression, but activation of the lower traps and scapular stabilisers is certainly an important factor in retraining correct scapulohumeral rhythm , ie prevention of scapular movement in the initial stages of elevation.

    • Rebekah May 7, 2013 at 6:23 pm - Reply

      Thank you Stephanie. Yes indeed many clients do need the reminder to maintain a neutral (rather than depressed) position of the scapula at the initiation of arm abduction, although at 60 degrees the scapula will begin to rotate in healthy kinematics. The challenge we have as practitioners is how to cue them for that phase — whether it’s to have them specifically *do* something (which often leads to depression) or to remove the obstacle (the scapular elevation that you refer to) which has obstructed the healthy movement pattern in the first place. Thanks for your input!

  4. Lanette Gavran May 7, 2013 at 10:02 am - Reply

    Hi lovely – from the other side of the world it was great to read!
    I think this is the first part in a series you need to do that relates to working the serratus AND finding the higher thoracic and entire cervical extensors – and working them. Your work is very informative to many dancers and now fitness instructors (and Pilates Instructors) who cue the “scapula slide into their pockets – or the opposite pocket” . As a result they move into extension without the support they need through serratus, and ultimately are unable to engage the upper thoracic and cervical extensors. In addition, we’ve spent too much time ‘pulling the chin in – to lengthen the cervical spine”. we need to cue to initiate a lengthening through the crown of the head to activate the cervical extensors, and then a press of the floor away from the upper body and drawing the sternum to the spine… to activate those wonderful serratus.
    You’ve nailed the fact that we have to free up – but enable our scapula, and since I’ve moved a little left of your centre I’d love to have a chat on the above when I see you in NY shortly.


  5. Tina May 15, 2013 at 11:00 pm - Reply

    Thanks so much for this article Rebekah. I’m really glad you wrote it because I think that teaching correct shoulder stability is a grey area for many teachers. I especially love the que “pouring water from your shoulders down your spine” That is gold! Can’t wait to use it today with my clients. I will definitely share this article with my Pilates friends on Facebook. Tina (I attended your workshop in Sydney last year)

  6. Evelia May 24, 2013 at 11:00 am - Reply

    Great post, Rebekah. I can’t wait to tell my students to take their ‘shoulders out of their pockets’. I love how your article explains the inner mechanics of the shoulder. I think I’ll get my students to read this too.

  7. Aliza June 3, 2013 at 7:17 pm - Reply

    Amen Rebekah! Beautiful articulation of shoulder joint mechanics – pun intended!

  8. Abbie June 24, 2013 at 1:00 am - Reply

    Thanks for the advice on shoulder exercises! Very well-written article too! I hope you try and write more articles involving pilates and how it can optimize our body.

  9. Jon Hawkins September 24, 2013 at 10:14 pm - Reply

    Rebekah, this article sings to me. When I started my Pilates training with Polestar they taught that movement should come with the least amount of unnecessary effort. Then somewhere along the way I picked up the back pockets type cues and used them for years. Only this year on a fantastic workshop with Cara Reeser did it get the boot. Cara made us look long and hard at some of the cues we use and if they actually make sense in terms of the anatomical movements we are trying to facilitate. this article shows so well where those cues have come from in order to avoid excessive hunching and so eloquently put that the answer to excess tension is not more opposing tension.

    I look forward to reading much more!

  10. tracy b July 10, 2015 at 3:53 pm - Reply

    or can cue shoulders away from ears!

  11. Louise July 12, 2015 at 5:14 am - Reply

    You read my mind. I was teaching this today to a group of Balanced Body student Pilates teachers & they looked at me like I was crazy! As a Franklin level 1 teacher we teach bone rhythms & scapular rhythm is a big one, so often teachers over cue scapular depression & it drives me nuts. Now I will direct them to your well written article to prove I’m not the only one asking why we are so obsessed with depression when life is so much better being elevated:) haha! Thank you for sharing.

    • Rebekah July 15, 2015 at 8:36 pm - Reply

      Thanks and glad to see others saying this too!

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