My shoulders are excited.  They are like little untrained puppies that sneak up, attempting to lick my face.  My sankalpa, “I am the master of my shoulder flexion,” continues to remind the naughty shoulders about obedience and how to stay down.  There’s so much activity that happens out in the front of our world.  My computer, smart phone, driving, child toting, fitness and yoga distractions continue to invite elevation and internal rotation bad habits. The shoulders anticipate the excitement and perceive their forward position will keep them involved and happy, yet the full potential for proper mobility is stifled and their longevity suffer.

In high school, I played volleyball, and I irritated my right shoulder biceps tendon from repeated improper body mechanics while reaching to hit the ball.  20 plus years later, my irritated biceps tendon is like a cranky old dog that wants so badly to join in a game of fetch.  Excited, aggressive and unstable, the pinched biceps tendon is as painful as a dog bite. That’s until I found YTU “harness training.” 

The shoulders are the most complex joint as their directions of movement (elevation, depression, protraction, retraction internal rotation, external rotation, abduction, adduction, flexion, extension and circumduction) can be cross bred and perform visually spectacular acrobatic yoga poses.  Yoga Tune Up® begs the question: should we encourage the puppy mill format of yoga as shoulder health is compromised in poses such as the over-bred chatturanga dandasana (Four Limbed Staff Pose) and mutated adho mukha svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)?  When I was a volleyball playing teenager, I had no idea that I should strengthen the harness muscles on the back side of my shoulder girdle; after all, the world was always out in front of me.  With maturity, I now am more cautious in movement patterns and choose to pay attention to what exists on the backside.

Each breed of dog has natural instincts.  Some are more docile, agile, powerful, aggressive, submissive, or excited.  We have all seen the difference of an owner walking a wild pulling leashed dog and a calmer tamed harnessed one. The dog that can’t be trusted from the restraint of a simple harness is tethered around the neck (maybe with a choke chain or pinch collar), excitedly frothing out the mouth, aggressively pulling the owner forward towards other dogs or humans. The same is true for these excited, powerful and aggressive joints. Shoulders that are trained in heavy loading should not be excited in elevation and internal rotation while flexed and pinching the large head biceps tendon. They should have more control to sit down and stay back and depressed.

Which muscles are responsible to harness the shoulders into submission?  Harness training shoulder depression starts with the serratus anterior.  This superhero of all dog trainers stands out in body builders as its external surfaces harness to the upper eight or nine ribs and anterior surface harnesses the medial border of the scapula.  With good training habits, it is able to abduct, upwardly rotate and depress the scapula’s scapulothoracic joint, preventing over-excitement even in the most overzealous Downward Facing Dog poses.  It is assisted by the lower fibers of the trapezius and pectoralis minor.  To strengthen the serratus anterior while prepping for the Downward Facing Dog “show,” first do prior trainings focused on these three Yoga Tune Up® poses, Raise the Chalice, Megaplank with Active Serratus and Dolphin Supinate.  All three poses will strengthen the shoulder blade harness muscles to actively depress and protract no matter how the glenohumeral joint behaves in shoulder flexion.  Whether my flexed shoulders jump up and hit a ball or take on my body weight, I feel stable with the strong serratus anterior calmly harnessing my shoulders.  I am the master of improving my shoulder flexion.

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Amanda Zerbini

After taking my first YTU workshop with Jill Miller at the 2009 Ojai Yoga Crib, I was blown away with an opportunity to combine so many principles of bodywork, yoga and fitness into one format. I studied massage therapy and then received my BS in Recreation Therapy at CSU, Chico. I worked with various special populations (physical rehab, mental health and youth at risk) for a decade. Once I had my first son in 2003, my passion to stay healthy and grounded was re-affirmed and I took a 200 hr Hatha YTT. Yoga Tune Up® has sharpened my assessment tools, giving me a new lens to view the purpose of yoga, fitness and deep relaxation. I teach yoga, fitness and Yoga Tune Up®, at Cal-a-Vie Health Spa in Vista, CA.

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Denise Hopkins

Thank you for this insight! In all of my yoga classes I see at last one student overly elevating the scapula while internally rotating. It makes me cringe! For years, I have experimented with different ways of getting students to wake up their serratus anterior. I recently discovered Raise the Chalice and it is really helping them to connect more accurately to this often sleepy area.

Daniel Zachrisson

I love the analogy with the dog. This is the first time I hear the term “harness training”, the concept I was familiar with, but the term is new. I like how you describe it so well and it makes a lot of sense, as a person whose shoulder flexion felt like an unhappy mistreated dog, harness training has brought a lot more stability and mobility into my upper body and my dog is starting to be more of an excited one with lots of opportunities to explore the full range of motion of my shoulders without feeling any crankiness.

Mélanie Roy

thank you for the article I liked the analogy with the dog. I can get an idea easier.


This was such a great way to describe the unruly behavior of our shoulders, loved all the canine references. I think because the shoulders are so complex, people give up trying to find out how to train them properly. Thank you for demystifying the shoulder’s anatomy with your post!

Melissa J

I can relate to this article quite a bit. I played volleyball in high school also with improper mechanics. I was a setter and an outside hitter, lots of shoulder flexion. When I got to college and played they pointed out the improper mechanics and I began to correct it but it was hard to undo the habitual pattern that I had been doing for like 5 years and by that time it was to late I had already done the damage that later followed me into my late 20’s. I wish I had YTU and therapy balls back then… Read more »

Eva Roig

Nice reminder about how the serratus anterior is also an important muscle for shoulders !


Great insight into the shoulder and prevention of pain! I find it helpful that whenever reaching forward, it helps externally rotate your shoulder and then reach forward.

Heidi Schaul-Yoder

Love this description! I am learning to become more aware of and strengthen my serrates anterior, it makes such a huge difference in poses such as downward dog, and of course in daily life.

Allison Pfeiffer

Great article and exactly what I need to do for myself! Worked on those three poses yesterday and will be keeping up with it 🙂


Yes the seeratus is a area I too need to work on and forget how important it is for DD! Thank you for sharing your Sankalpa as well !


I too have had several shoulder injuries and have capsular restrictions that often limit my shoulder positioning in several yoga poses. I come from less of the yoga world and more from an RMT perspective. I totally agree on strengthening Seraratus and Traps. Have you ever heard of the posture medics shoulder straps? It has the idea of giving you that reminder to keep your shoulders back and slightly retracted it also opens up the pecs. I use it and it has changed my posture tremendously. Its not a fix.. I find using YTU balls work great to loosen me… Read more »

Sebastien Noel

très bonne info sur le dentelé antérieur. merci


Nice image of the dog. Its true that our reflex is often to think of the muscles that do the action, like flexion but forget the oh so important muscles that should stabilize the movement! Add a shoulder that lacks a variety of movement, like most people shoulders and you are calling for trouble.


I love the combination of the anatomical awareness and your sankalpa here. Having just done the sequence, with the poses mentioned, I can easily feel how this engage,net in the back of the shoulder is helpful to the front. Thank you!

Johanne Leroux

Il n’y a rien comme le YTU pour remettre de l’ordre dans des épaules déstabilisées par des années de mauvais traitement, que ce soit par une mauvaise posture, une sous-utilisation,une sur-utilisation! Maintenant, mes épaules sont toujours stabilisées avant d’effectuer une posture comme le chien tête en bas ou même avant d’écrire sur mon ordinateur!

Martine Kerr

How not to abuse shoulders should be on the docket of every school’s physical education training not to mention every sport’s coach. Years gymnastics practice and a number of other falls have stretched out my shoulder capsules as though I’d been make space around my humeral head! As much as we think we know, it’s reading and studying that helps bring awareness that we can help ourselves, that we do not need to be victims to our past prior habits. Working towards a one arm pushup has certainly highlighted that while I’m strong in regular range of motions, it’s the… Read more »

Alexandra L

I loved the analogy in this article. It really breaks it down and makes it easy to visualize and understand. I too suffer from chronic internally rotated shoulders and have been placing A LOT of effort on releasing my pectoralis muscles. It makes total sense to strengthen the posterior shoulder muscles, especially the serratus. Thank you for this article!

Rachel Peppler

haha! your analogy is awesome, i’m not a dog owner but I got the word picture. thanks for the post!! ” I feel stable with the strong serratus anterior calmly harnessing my shoulders. ” I love that. I’m going to remember it forever.. 🙂


Chelsea Vickers

I love this! I’ll definitely be using info from this text next time I am hearing of tight shoulders.

Catherine Jervis

Great article! I love your mantra “I am the master of my shoulder flexion” and really appreciate the strengthening exercises that I can complete before entering starting any weight bearing shoulder external rotation and flexion exercises.

Julie Thomas

I want to be the master of my shoulders too. Love the analogy with the dogs it actually really helps to break it down to a different level of comprehension. I too played volley ball in high school and never dis it occur to me to stabilize my shoulder before smashing or serving. Being a mother and reaching backward of the minivan while driving as done wonders!! NOT! I have been introduce to the chalice pose yesterday and a truly enjoyed it.


Love your description! Thank you!

Wei Yao

This is very challenging for me,very interesting ,not just body ,try to control the muscle barely used before .discover our body its very interesting


One of my favorite YTU posts yet. I love your writing, it is so clear and vivid. I’m excited to try the three poses you mentioned. I am once again reminded of the importance of the serratus anterior, my new frienemy.

Jared Cohen

In this post, this sentence resonated most with me: “Yoga Tune Up® begs the question: should we encourage the puppy mill format of yoga as shoulder health is compromised in poses such as the over-bred chatturanga dandasana (Four Limbed Staff Pose) and mutated adho mukha svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)?” I am currently taking the Level 1 cert, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to best articulate what this cert that I am taking is all about, especially when speaking to those that know that yoga is not my main practice. I have gravitated toward Jill’s… Read more »

Jill D

Thank you for a nice review of the serratus anterior and its importance in shoulder function and stabilization. I love the analogy – and its so true how easily we can ignore what’s behind us or what we can’t see. I agree that cautious movement and better training habits are how you eventually move better in your body – and of course patience.


Thanks Amanda for this informative blog. My daughter plays competitive volleyball and has complained about similar discomfort to what you described from your volleyball playing past. There are so many muscles involved in the DOMs of the shoulder, yet I hadn’t given enough consideration to the importance of the serratus anterior for stabilty in shoulder flexion performance. I will certainly do so now and share it with my daughter to help her become master of her shoulder flexion too!

Aubrey Heinemann

I absolutely loved your metaphorical language. I think I will remember this comparison forever. Taming a little puppy is no easy feet. Just like breaking habits and changing our view of what these postures are suppose to look like and what their purpose is for each one of us. I have definitely seen and felt the changes in my own body since learning more YTU techniques to further tame and stabilize my entire shoulder joint. Thank you again for an inspiring and descriptive blog.

Deepa Dravid

Thank you!!!

miriam rigney

Great post Amanda. Having just attended a YogaTuneUp integrated embodied anatomy course with Sarah Court, the importance of an awaken Serratus Anterior when weight bearing on upper body was highlighted again for me.

Melanie Butz

As a yoga student that feels I have strong shoulders, I also carry a lot of stress in the same area. This article was enlightening on how I can focus attention to doing some prep work in order to stabilize the area.

Amanda Zerbini

Thank you for the many replies. Jackie L, yes, our DOMs get so confusing especially upon inversion. It is my understanding that you would want to depress the shoulders to stabilize them. Jill’s video on my follow up blog entry, explains it there. Pete S., completely agree…the assignment of highlighting a specific muscle is challenging as so many are tethered together via connective tissue, etc.. What comes first, the overworked muscle or the underdeveloped muscle? What a journey we face as instructors and evaluators to teach our clients to delve into their own tissues and explore those many layers.… Read more »

jackie leduc

Hi Amanda, I was just in a yoga tune up training session today and love that you are blogging on exactly what we learn’t through the intensive day. I am just a bit confused or perhaps I misunderstood… you can correct me if I am wrong: I thought we were taught to elevate and externally rotate the shoulders under load rather than depress them. Can you help me on this one?

Chantal Gray

Interesting comparison to dog training and puppy mills – It makes perfect sense!! Just like certain breeds of dogs – some shoulder movements have been over- bred and even in-bred and overtime this has resulted in all kinds of health issues. It will take some time, patience and commitment to re-train the shoulders to behave the way we want them to be, Looking forward to becoming the mast of my own shoulder flexion.

Nikola Michaud

Amanda, I loved this!
I also have excited pitbull puppy shoulders and I’ve been working really hard on strengthening my serratus anterior (especially the left one).
It is still, absolutely, a work in progress but I am happy to say that I am much more stable in all of my arm balances and have more fun doing them.
Thanks for sharing what seems to be a similar day-in-day-out serratus strengthening life.

Cailyn Edwards

Great post! I am a volleyball player and a paddler and boy oh boy do I know what you mean about excited shoulders. For years I thought that I had done the necessary work on my shoulders but I was pulling them harder and harder in the same direction. Now I lengthen where I’m tight and strengthen where I am weak – continually striving for balance.

Victoria Ryder-Burbidge

Thanks for the article, Amanda. I found it informative and useful. Too often in class I find my students shoulder’s out of position. Since I’ve torn my supraspinitus, I know first hand how important the placement of the shoulders are. The prep work you list will be a great addition to my own practice as well as my student’s!

Gabrielle Acher

I am a new yoga teacher who has just stumbled upon the notion that down dog and other shoulder loading poses like plank, need such shoulder awareness. Your article confirmed what I have been doing but spoken from a place of professionalism that I am seeking. I want to tell my students more than external rotation and firm up the shoulder girdle. Now I will focus my studies on the serratus anterior and how to keep it stable and strong.

Pete Shaw

First off, I’d like to say how great an article this is. You are absolutely right about the importance of the Serratus, Trapezius, and Pectoralis minor during shoulder flexion. However, anytime somebody focuses on a specific muscle group to fix their shoulder I am weary of how it will turn out. Here’s why: The shoulder is a complicated beast. As you stated earlier in the article, there are MANY directions of movement of the shoulder and consequently there are MANY muscles involved. The shoulder should be looked at more like a whole system of movement rather than a body part… Read more »