You may often hear us referring to “shoulder setting”, but what does that actually mean and why is it important?
When you hear someone referring to the act of setting your shoulders, 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. Before we get too far into the details, it’s important that you gain a strong understanding of the anatomy of your shoulder joint.
If you were to reach one arm down and behind your back, you may notice a bony structure that looks like a wing coming up off of your upper back. This is your shoulder blade or “scapula” and you have one on either side of your upper back. Each scapula is only attached to your skeleton through one bony structure called the “acromion”, allowing the structure to literally float over your ribs. Even though the connection between your scapula and your ribs does not seem like a traditional joint, the “scapulae thoracic” joint is connected via a muscle called the serratus anterior and is still considered a major joint of your body.
A healthy, functional shoulder blade should be able to move into 6 different directions and combinations:
Elevation: Scapula moves up towards ear
Depression: Scapula moves down towards pelvis
Protraction: Scapula moves away from the spine
Retraction: Scapula moves towards the spine
Upward rotation: Scapula rotates out and up as the arm lifts overhead
Downward rotation: Scapula rotates down and in as the arm returns from overhead lifted position back toward the torso
Ideally, your scapulae lay 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).
The Importance of a Healthy Scapulo-thoracic Joint
We do not see our back and therefore do not often pay much attention to what’s happening “back there”; but “back there” happens a lot and can often cause pain when it’s not functioning properly. Learning how to move your shoulder blades properly and knowing how and when to set them prior to movement can help stabilize your joints and can sometimes bring relief to people who are experiencing pain in the neck and upper back.
Oftentimes our shoulder blades are stuck in an elevated position. Do you ever find yourself with your shoulders at your ears? Maybe when working on the computer? I bet you are really good at the elevation part, but how smooth are you with the other movement directions?
Learning how to set your shoulders is essential in order to stabilize not only your scapula, but also your shoulder joints and upper back. Placing each of these structures in a strong position before you move will create a solid foundation to allow you to produce more force when working out, lifting up your kids, moving boxes, etc. This helps you avoid using compensating structures such as your neck and spine, reducing the chance of injury and pain during activity.
This does not mean that you should spend your whole life with set shoulders though; practice all the different scapular movements in isolation to practice the control and coordination and know how to set them, when needed.
Stabilizing Your Scapulo-thoracic Joint
To practice this stabilizing concept, start in a seated position with your back tall. Without changing your spinal position, slightly draw your shoulder blades in towards your spine (retraction) then down towards your hips (depression). Imagine you are pulling your shoulder blades diagonally into your opposite pants pockets.
The goal is to feel it evenly left and right at the medial corner of your shoulder blades, not too much directly in-between the scapulae and not in your neck at all.
Once you feel that movement correctly, take a moment to assess the rest of your body. Did you arch your back or flare your ribs? Is your chin jutting forward? It is 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.