The Shoulder Blades-Retracting and Spreading for Stability and Mobility of the Upper Arm

Basic Body Elements are parts of the body that we can practice moving and feeling so that we can use them as part of larger movements or positions. Moving one part of the body relative to another part we change the relationship between those parts and so when moving or positioning our body we can also think in terms of relationships.

By learning to control the relationships within our body individually, we can more easily call them up as required and as part of a larger program.

In this article we focus on the shoulder blades and how they relate to the ribcage.


The Shoulder Blades

The shoulder blades connect to the upper arm to form the shoulder joint. In turn, the shoulder blades connect to the ribcage via the collarbones. While the shoulder blades don’t directly connect to the ribcage via a single joint, the two are connected via muscle tissue which can be used to both position the shoulder blades and stabilize them relative to the ribcage.

Depending on what we are doing with the arms we can position the shoulder blades in such a way that we balance the need for mobility and stability so that we can do what we are trying to do with minimum effort and maximum effectiveness.


Stabilizing the Shoulders

Generally, if we stabilize the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage so that the two are unified, then we give our upper arms a stable platform from which to act.

If we don’t stabilize the shoulder blades then in any action where we are using the arms our shoulder muscles may tighten both to provide stability while at the same time moving the arm. As a result our shoulders can tire more quickly when our shoulder blades aren’t stable.

If we stabilize the shoulder blades using the muscles that connect them to the ribcage then the shoulder muscles, those muscles that connect the shoulder blade to the upper arm, can be used solely to move the arm. As a result they may last longer.


Spreading and Retracting the Shoulder Blades

Scapula Wide

Scapula Retracted

Serratus Anterior, Trapezius, Rhomboids

Serratus Anterior, Trapezius, Rhomboids

Two very basic actions of the shoulder blades are “Spreading” and “Retracting.”

Spreading the shoulder blades means moving them away from the spine. In this movement they slide around the sides of the ribcage towards the front of the body.

This action uses the serratus anterior muscles which attach the inner edges of the shoulder blades to the sides of the ribcage. This is the muscle that looks like a set of fingers reaching around the sides of the chest just below the large chest muscle (pectoralis major.)

Retracting the shoulder blades means moving them towards the spine. I use the spine as a reference so that even if we are only moving one shoulder blade, this reference is still valid.

If the shoulder blades are moving downwards and inwards towards the spine then we are more than likely using the lower fibers of the trapezius, a downwards pointing triangular muscles that attaches between the inner edges of the shoulder blades and the spine.

If the shoulder blades are moving inwards and upwards then the rhomboids are probably being active. These muscles angle upwards from the inner edges of the shoulder blades to the spine.

If we want to stabilize the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage then usually we need to activate one of these muscles to create this stability.


Feeling and Controlling the Inner Edge of the Shoulder Blades

Because all three of these muscles, the serratus anterior, the trapezius, the rhomboids, all attach to the inner edges of the shoulder blade, then if we learn to feel the inner edge of the shoulder blade and practice being aware of it while moving the shoulder blades then we are more likely to activate which ever of these muscles is required.

If we don’t focus on moving the inner edge of the shoulder blades then when we move the shoulder blade we may actually be using some of the shoulder or arm muscles to move the shoulder blades. Remember, the purpose of “fixing” the shoulder blades to the ribcage is to stabilize the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage.


Positioning the Shoulder Blades with Arms In Front of the Body

Plank with Shoulder Blades Slightly Together

Plank with Shoulder Blades Apart

If the arms are in front of the body or are pushing forwards then we can use the serratus anterior to spread the shoulder blades apart.

In a push up position with the elbows straight we could allow our ribcage to sink down in which case the shoulder blades move together. If we engage the serratus anterior, they pull the shoulder blades away from the spine and the same action causes the ribcage to pull up. The feeling is like the back of the ribcage is opening.

Keeping the serratus active in this situation, the stabilize the ribcage relative to the shoulder blades. As a result the shoulder muscles have a firm foundation from which to act on the arms.

If we are standing with our arms in front of us we can use this same action to press the arms forwards and to resist them being pushed back. Here again the shoulders have a firm foundation from which to support the arms.

Generally, with the arms in front of the body, the more we spread the shoulder blades the more mobility our arms have in front of our body. As a result, as well as creating stability, spreading the shoulder blades by using the serrattus anterior also gives the arms room to move.


Arms Up Over the Head

If we are positioning the arms up over the head, the shoulder blades naturally rotate outwards meaning the outer edges move up while the inner edges stay put or move down. Prior to lifting the arms we can spread the shoulder blades so that the serratus anterior activate. We can keep this spread feeling by then reaching the arms forwards. From there we can lift the arms up. As we lift the arms the upper fibers of the trapezius may activate to rotate the shoulder blades outwards.

By first activating the serratus anterior, which pull outwards and downwards, we give the upper trapezius some resistance since these fibers pull upwards and inwards.

Balancing the action of these two muscles we can more finely position the shoulder blades on the ribcage, stabilizing them relative to the ribcage.

Generally, I prefer to lift the shoulders when reaching them above my head since it gives a nice stretch, but at the same time I also keep the shoulder blades spread and the neck long.

Keeping the neck long gives the trapezius room to contract. It also opens up the front of the ribcage. All of these factors together help to provide a foundation for the shoulder blades which then in turn provide a foundation for the upper arms.

If there is weight on the arms such as in handstand or down dog, then by using both the trapezius and the serratus anterior, the upper body can be pushed away from the floor. With the shoulder blades spreading apart and moving towards the ears, the shoulder joint is in a position where it is easier for the shoulder muscles to activate and control the upper arms relative to the shoulder blades.

Bone and muscle can then work together to support the body.


Arms Out to the Sides

Side Plank Preparation, Bottom Shoulder Relaxed

Side Plan Preparation, Bottom Shoulder Engaged

Side Plank (With Bottom Forearm on Floor)

With the arms out to the sides we can again spread the shoulder blades for maximum reach. If we actively spread the shoulder blades then the serratus anterior can be used to resist the weight of the arms because they are pulling the shoulder blades outwards. This can be handy in a pose like side plank where our weight is on one arm at a time.

Prior to lifting into side plank we can “use our shoulder” to press our arm into the floor.

This action moves the ribcage away from the floor.

By pressing the shoulder blade away from the spine, we press the arm down into the floor. Since the floor is immobile, the arm doesn’t move and the same action causes the ribcage to move up, away from the floor.

We are using the serratus to move the ribcage relative to the shoulder.

As a side note, to help balance in this pose, make the outer edge of the bottom foot strong and press it into the floor.

An easier alternative is to do this pose with both knees bent and the bottom shin on the floor.


Reaching the Arms Back

Easy Table Top, Shoulders Relaxed

Easy Table Top, Shoulder Blades Together

Easy Table Top, Pelvis Lifted

Generally, when reaching the arms back, we can move the shoulder blades towards each other. If we are stretching the arms like in “Prasaritta Padotanasana C,” then we can first lengthen the neck, which can open the top of the ribcage. From there we can slide the shoulder blades towards each other. This gives us room to clasp our hands behind our back. We can then work at pulling our arms back and up behind our body.

In a posture like reverse plank (purvotanasana) with our arms behind our body supporting our body with our chest upwards, or “Easy Table top,” the same pose but with the legs crossed, then moving the shoulder blades towards each other helps to lift the ribcage, moving the shoulders back relative to the ribcage so that the chest appears to open.

This action isn’t the same as bending the ribcage backwards. However we can combine it with that action for opening both the front of the ribcage and the front of the shoulders.

Doing this in a position like reverse plank, if we focus on moving the inner edges of the shoulder blades towards each other then the lower trapezius activate to help stabilize the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage. The arms then have a firm foundation from which to support the body.

When going into the pose, we can first move the shoulder blades together. Then we can bend the spine backwards. Then we can lift the pelvis.

And while it can be a good idea to learn a pose like this in stages, once we have the feel of each stage we can then work at doing all of these actions at the same time.


Experiencing the Shoulder Blades

Spreading the Shoulder Blades and Reaching the Arms Up
A simple way to practice experiencing the position of the shoulder blades is to slowly spread them and then retract them in time with the breath.

We can slowly point the elbows backwards as we spread the shoulder blades so that both the back and the front of the shoulders feel open as we inhale. We can relax while inhaling.

Once we have the feeling of this action, we can also lift the arms forwards while inhaling, having first spread the shoulder blades. We can lower the arms while exhaling.

The point of this exercise is to keep the spreading feeling in the shoulder blades while lifting the arms. (We can lengthen the neck just prior to spreading the shoulder blades and relax it while exhaling.)

Adding on to this exercise we can reach the arms forwards and then up, again while keeping the spread feeling in the shoulder blades.

The idea of these exercises is to experience what it is like when the shoulder blades are spread so that you can find this feeling and position no matter how you move into an “Arms Forwards” or “Arms Up” position.

Reaching the Arms to the Sides
We can do a similar exercise but while moving the arms out to the sides as we do in “Warrior 2.” For this exercise, first spread the shoulder blades and then reach the arms outwards while keeping the shoulder blades spread.

Retracting the Shoulder Blades
We can also do an exercise to practice feeling the shoulder blades when they retract. For this exercise, we can move the shoulder blades inwards and upwards while inhaling. We can relax while exhaling.

Remember to focus on moving the inner edges of the shoulder blades inwards so that the rhomboids are activated!

Once comfortable with this action we can then reach the arms back as we slide the shoulder blades towards each other.

We can try this with either an inwards rotation of the arms on an outward rotation. I would suggest practicing both to maximize your experience of your arms and shoulder blades.

The purpose of these exercises isn’t to say that you must move or position your shoulder blades in this way but so that you can learn to feel them and control them and experience them. When you can do that you can then choose how to position your shoulder blades yourself based on what you are trying to do and how your body feels. You can then find the most effective position yourself.

Body Basics-Feeling your Spine and Breath

The following set of exercises are designed to help you feel you pelvis, low back, ribcage, neck, head and shoulder blades. These exercises are designed to help you experience your body by moving specific parts slowly, smoothly and repeatedly with rhythm. You can then focus on feeling the parts that you are moving.

Once you’ve learned to feel these parts individually, you could then practice feeling them in the context of some action, whether a yoga pose or a tai ji movement or rowing or weight lifting or any activity that you do. The more you experience your body, the better you can feel it and control it in any situation. The intent is not to program you and say that this is the right way or the wrong way, but to allow you to feel and control your body so that you can use it in a way that is appropriate to what you are doing at the time. Better yet, it is to give you the ability to feel the possibilities for each of these parts so that you can choose from among them.

As an example, in the twisting section there are four different exercises. One involves twisting with the ribs expanded, another while the ribs are pulled inwards. Another involves twisting with  one side expanded while the other is contracted and the other variation is the opposite.

Now even if you can only do the first two options (expanded or contracted) you can try these options and notice which one makes twisting easier, or helps you to twist further or which simply feels the most comfortable given what you are doing at the time.

These exercises are all designed so that they can be done while sitting. You can sit on a chair (while looking at your computer) or you can sit on the floor. If on the floor you may find it to sit on a block or a book so that your can move your pelvis freely relative to your legs. Ideally, you can move roll your pelvis far enough forwards that you lumbar spine can straighten or even assume a “normally curved” position.

In the context of basic principles and foundation, you can consider these exercises foundational building blocks for feeling your body and using it in different contexts.

Ribs and Spine Together-Lengthening and Relaxing

Learn to feel your ribs and spine  by bending your spine forwards and allow your ribs to sink. Hold and concentrate on feeling the “weight” of your ribs and allowing weight to sink down. Notice (and allow) spine to bend forwards. Think “Couch Potato” or simply slouch. Also allow the head to go forwards and down relative to the ribcage.

Next slowly pull ribs and head upwards. Pull up on the back of the head so that the back of the neck feels long.

Work at making the ribcage feel expansive and spacious. You can also focus on creating space between the ribs.

Relax ribs and head down and then and then Lengthen entire spine, ribs and head upwards. Gradually shorten the time in each position and move slowly and smoothly from one to the other. Notice the difference in sensations. You may notice that you naturally inhale while lengthening and that you exhale while relaxing. That is because lengthening the spine and opening the ribcage expands the lungs while doing the opposite compresses the space that they are in.

Ribs Only

For the next exercise, which can continue from the previous, keep the spine upright and long and only move the ribs.

Because you are only moving your ribs, you may notice that each breath is a lot smaller.

To maximize your breath, focus on each part of your ribcage individually. While inhaling and exhaling, focus on moving your front ribs forwards and up, and then back and down. Bottom side ribs move outwards and up and then inwards and down. The back ribs simply lift up and down.

Focus on feeling or sensing each of these actions separately first and then all together. To feel your ribs move put your awareness on them or in them.

Diaphragm

For the next exercise, keep the spine long and the ribs lifted and allow your front belly (the front of your belly) to move as you breathe. It’ll move forwards as you inhale and back as you exhale. Once you have the hang of this,  focus on the bottom half of your lower belly (the bottom quarter of your belly)-halfway down from the belly button. Hold this part of your belly inwards while inhaling. There should be a slight feeling of tension running from side to side. You can imagine pulling the front edges of your pelvis inwards slightly.

Allow your upper belly to expand while holding your lower belly in. Slowly and smoothly relax your entire belly completely while exhaling.

Now try the same action while lifting and lowering the ribs. While inhaling gently pull your lower belly back while allowing your upper belly to expand. Allow your ribs to lift and expand at the same time. You may get the sensation that you are using your upper belly to push your ribs upwards.

Smoothly relax everything while exhaling.

The diaphragm pushes downwards on the abdominal organs while inhaling in this exercise. The abdominal organs then push outwards on the abdominal wall. It also can cause the “Pushing Up” sensation on the ribcage.

Roll the Pelvis and Straighten the Lumbar Spine

Changing gears slightly, sit on a chair or on a book or block so that you can roll your pelvis freely back and forwards. Start with it rolled forwards so that you lumbar spine is bent backwards (normal curve.)

Slowly rock your pelvis back just far enough so that your lumbar spine is straight. Then rock forwards. Practice slowly smoothly rocking backwards and forwards while feeling the change in position of your pelvis and lower back.

You may find it helpful to use a mirror. Notice when your lumbar spine looks straight and notice the feeling that accompanies this straightness. You might try fine tuning this position if there is a position near straightness that feels really comfortable or nice-as if the lower back is open or full.

You can add the previous exercise to this one and allow your upper belly to expand while rolling your pelvis backwards. You can pull your lower belly in at the same time. You then straighten you lumbar spine and expand your ribcage each time you inhale. You relax them both while exhaling.

Pulling head Up, Straighten Cervical Spine and Spreading Shoulder Blades

We’ve already practiced pulling the head back and up while straightening the spine, but here we’ll isolate the movement.

Relax the ribs and allow the head to sink forwards. Now focus on pulling the back of the head back and up. The chin can pull inwards at the same time. You may notice that this action naturally causes the front of the ribs to lift. Now slowly relax your head forwards and down. Repeat and make the movements smooth and slow.

Adding the shoulder blades, focus on feeling the inner edges of your shoulder blades, the part closest to the spinal column. This is the attachment point for most of the muscles that stabilize the scapula with respect to your ribcage.

As you pull your head back and up move the inner edges of your shoulder blades away from your spine. You may notice that your back feels wider, broader, more open. Relax while exhaling. While doing this action, try to keep the muscles that sit on your shoulder blades relaxed. Keep your large chest muscle (Pectoralis Major) relaxed also. You may have to focus on slowly moving your shoulder blades in order to feel this action, and in order to feel the position where the inner edges of your shoulder blades are flat on your back.

Twisting and Turning the Ribcage

With hands in prayer in front of your sternum, keep your hands there and turn your ribs to the right. Turn your ribcage relative to your pelvis and lumbar spine. Twist your ribs relative to each other.

Keep your ribs and head lifted and move your upper belly while breathing.

Hold for a few breaths and then pull the ribs in while continuing to twist. Hold for a few breaths noticing whether pulling ribs in makes twisting easier or harder. Did you twist further?

Next contract the left side of your ribcage and open the right side. How does this help (once you get the hang of it.)

Try the opposite.

Rest and then try the same options while twisting to the left.

In any exercise where we are twisting and turning the ribs, we can expand the ribs, contract them or expand one side while contracting the other. As mentioned, one option may be more appropriate given what you are doing at the time.

Bending the Spine Backwards and Forwards

Again while sitting, bend the spine backwards. Tilt the pelvis forwards at the same time. You can tuck the chin in and focus only on bending the lumbar spine and thoracic spine (back of the ribcage) backwards. Notice as you do so how your belly lengthens and the front of your ribcage opens. To assist this action, Focus on the side of your ribcage and push the sides of your ribs forwards.

Just for the experience also try pulling the sides of your ribs back.

Notice how each movement assists or doesn’t assist the backbend. For myself (currently,) pushing side ribs forwards makes bending spine backwards feel better.

Next bend the spine forwards. Pull the side ribs back and then try pushing them forwards. Notice the results. Again, my personal observations (yours may be different) are that pulling the side ribs back make this action easier while sitting.

When holding each position, experiment with different types of breath to see which one is easiest.

I find that when bending backwards, holding my lower belly in and breathing into my upper belly and front ribs feels comfortable. While bending backwards, I can breathe just a little into my upper belly but I then I put most of my effort into breathing into the back of my ribcage.

Stretch and Relax

To stretch and relax the muscles you’ve been using you may find it useful to do an assisted or relaxed twist.

Use a knee or the side of your chair and the back of your chair or the floor for leverage, use your arms to twist your ribs while relaxing your waist and ribcage.

Make both your inhales and your exhales feel relaxed and smooth.

Wrap Up

Most of these exercises involved using the muscles of the abdomen or intercostal spaces (the spaces between the ribs) in one way or another. They also, ideally, will help you to develop your ability to both feel and control your spine, the elements that make it up (the head, cervical spine, ribs, thoracic spine, lumbar spine and pelvis,) and the relationships between these elements.

In Basic Principle terminology we can use the word “idea” instead of the word “element.”

Note on Ideas and Relationships

The ideas we can learn to feel using these exercises are: The head, neck (cervical spine), ribcage, thoracic spine, lumbar spine, pelvis, shoulder blades.

Because the neck, thoracic spine and lumbar spine are actually made up of smaller elements, we can actually learn to feel and control the relationships between these smaller elements. Thus these elements could be considered as ideas or as a system of relationships.

Other relationships that we can learn to feel and control include those between the following pairs of ideas: head and ribcage, ribs and thoracic spine, ribs and pelvis, shoulder blades relative to each other, shoulder blades relative to the spine.