How and Why to Improve Scapular Function

November 26, 2018 - 4 minutes read

Set your shoulders? What? Why?

You often hear that term in a gym environment but what does shoulder setting mean and why is it important? It does not actually mean to move your shoulder joints (aka. your gleno-humeral joints) but rather to bring your shoulder blades, also called scapulae, into a strong and stable position.

Anatomy

You have two shoulder blades, or “scapulae” floating on your upper back. They are only attached to the skeleton through one bony structure (acromion) and over your shoulder joint. Even though it’s not a traditional ball-socket joint, the “scapulae thoracic” joints – connected via a muscle, called the serratus anterior – is still considered as a joint.

A healthy functional shoulder blade should be able to move into 6 different directions and combinations of it:

Elevation: Scapula moves up towards ear
Depression: Scapula moves down towards pelvis
Protraction: Scapula moves away from your spin
Retraction: Scapula moves towards spine
Upward rotation: when arm lifts over head
Downward rotation: when arm returns from overhead lifted position back alongside torso

Ideally, your scapulae are flat against the back ribs with a slight upward rotation and allow for motion in all directions (elevation, depression, retraction, protraction, upward and downward rotation). 

Why it is important

We do not see our back and therefor do often not pay much attention to what’s happening “back there”. But “back there” happens a lot and can often cause pain. Learning how to move your shoulder blades and knowing how and when to set them prior to movement can help and bring relief. Also, our shoulder blades are too often stuck in an elevated position. Do you find yourself sometimes with your shoulders up the ears? I bet you are really good at the elevation part, maybe too good? How smooth are you with the other movement directions?

Learning how to set your shoulders is important to stabilize shoulder joints, scapula, shoulder and upper back in a good and strong position to produce adequate force when needed (workout out, lifting up your kid, moving boxes) whilst not overloading other structures (shoulder joint, neck, spine) and not injuring yourself during those activities.

This does not mean that you should spend your whole life with set shoulders. Practice all the different shoulder blade movements in isolation to practice the control and coordination and know how to set them, when needed.

How to stabilize your scapulo-thoracic joint

Start in a seated position with your back tall. Without changing your spinal position, slightly retract and depress both shoulder blades equally. Imagine you want to pull your shoulder blades diagonally into your opposite jeans back pockets.

The goal is to feel it at the medial corner of your shoulder blades, not too much directly in-between the scapulae and not in your neck at all. 

It is also important to make sure you’re not compensating with the rest of your body so keep your abdominals contracted and your back in a neutral position as you move your scapula.