Truly Mobile Shoulders

by Lisa Thorngren

The shoulder girdle is an incredibly complex structure. Not in terms of numbers – there are only 6 bones and 4 joints total – but in the coordination of movement of these bones and joints.


Ideally, the scapulae should be able to move independently of the arms, with the ability to elevate (lift), depress (lower), retract (pull together), and protract (move apart). However, they should also move without our conscious control when our arms move, particularly in large ranges of motion. As the arms lift and lower, we should have corresponding upward and downward rotation of the scapulae. In fact, one-third of our range of motion when lifting the arm front or side is due to scapular rotation. However, the coordination between the scapulae and the shoulders often becomes disrupted, for one main reason.

The disrupting of this coordination frequently occurs in response to excess tension in the muscles and soft tissue surrounding the shoulder joint. When the shoulder joint proper (the arm in the glenoid fossa, or shoulder socket) cannot move through its full range of motion, our body finds a way of adapting, as it does so well! Unfortunately, this adaptation is one of excess mobility in the scapula to make up for the lack of mobility in the shoulder joint. We see this when the scapula elevates to lift the arm overhead, or when it retracts as the arm opens way out to the side. We also see it when the scapulae excessively retract and protract during a push-up.

This lack of coordination obviously affects the shoulder girdle itself, but the effects migrate to other areas of the body as well. Tight shoulders can lead not just to excess scapular movement, but also excess thoracic movement (below left). Anyone a rib thruster? Try aligning your ribs correctly and then see how far you can lift your arm overhead (below right) – and if you still can, good for you! If you can’t lift as far, that might be a sign that your thoracic spine is doing some compensation for your shoulders.

Looking above the shoulders, excessive scapular elevation can lead to frequent compression of the cervical spine, causing more pressure and eventual degeneration of the cervical discs and vertebrae.

Clearly, the health of our shoulder girdle is vitally important to the health of our entire upper body – which also houses the brain, lungs and heart, so really, this is vitally important to our overall health! Finding ways to work on shoulder mobilization and scapular stabilization will help restore balance and coordination to this area of the body. This sidelying sequence is a quick way of working on refining and clarifying that coordination.

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