with contributions by Keith Wittenstein. Special thanks to Sarah Court, Dinneen Viggiano and Trina Altman for editing and feedback
This article is Part 5 in a series on shoulder biomechanics.
In our earlier posts of the series, we noted the learning paradigm for how most yoga teachers are trained to teach yoga – the apprenticeship model – as a possible explanation for why the shoulders down cue is so often repeated; new teachers hear their teachers using this cue and then repeat it. It’s also a shoulder position that many yoga teachers have been trained to adopt in their own practice. Because a teacher’s practice is the primary resource from which they will draw their movement cues, teachers will often wittingly or unwittingly help their students adopt the teacher’s own postural and movement habits, for better or for worse. In addition to this, we know there are certainly many more reasons that the shoulders down cue gets used when the arms are in the overhead position, one more of which we outline next.
Another possible explanation for this cue, and the topic of this blog post, has to do with the trapezius muscle, a huge muscle of the neck, shoulders and upper back, and the reality that, on a whole, these days people are walking around with excessive tension in these areas of their bodies. The upper trapezius and surrounding tissues can often act as a veritable dumping ground for our mental and emotional anxiety. This tension, felt from the fast-paced, task-driven, success and failure oriented lives we lead, will often manifest as tension in the upper shoulders as we attempt to carry the weight of the world on top of them.
In addition to the upper trapezius being an area that is frequently tense because of psychological stress, it is also a muscle that contains a higher-than-average level of collagen fibers in its soft tissue make up. Collagen is a super tough connective tissue fiber that is especially efficient for doing the long-term postural work of holding the body upright for extended periods of time. The upper trapezius is one of the main postural muscles that holds your head upright all day long so it’s kind of a good thing that the muscle is a little tense. However, the task of holding the head upright gets especially hard for this muscle to do when the head is held forward of the spine, a common postural misalignment we adopt while looking at screens that are below eye level.
For every degree forward of the axis of the spine that you hold your head, the load demand on the neck increases more than ten pounds! This extra demand on the upper trapezius can further contribute to its tension making it hyper-irritable and sensitive to even the lightest pressure.
Now, this next part is a wild guess about what another potential rationale for teachers to cue shoulders down might be, because obviously we have no way of knowing the thought process of anyone unless we ask. While we do have a fair amount of experience dialoguing with yoga teachers, that evidence is anecdotal at best, so we do not assume that the following is everyone’s thought process, or even most people’s. We only know that it has been the thought process of some, including our own at one point in time. And so this next part is really describing what some of our fellow teachers and our own thought process was at one time about pulling the shoulder blades down when the arms go overhead.
Since the upper trapezius can often be stiff, tense and sore, it makes sense that yoga teachers would want to help their students learn to relax it, and by doing so, perhaps also alleviate and retrain some of the mental and emotional patterning and lifestyle habits that caused it. One way you might logically go about relaxing a muscle that elevates the scapula would be to teach the student to depress their scapula thereby inhibiting contraction of the muscles that elevates it. And it also makes sense logically that the best postures to help students relax their shoulders would be the ones in which the scapulae appear to raise up a lot, like when the arms reach overhead. Since, helping students adopt healthier postural and movement patterns is a main objective for many yoga teachers, in the case of helping students ameliorate excessive tension in their upper trapezius, the thought process might go something along the lines of, “If I can train this student how to keep their shoulder blades down, the upper trapezius and other muscles that elevate the scapulae will stop having to contract and learn to be more relaxed. This will help the student tamp down on the tension they most likely feel in their lower neck and upper shoulders.”
This is a valid reason to cue shoulders down, but it is a misunderstanding of how maladaptive trigger-points and tension patterns develop and how we can alleviate them. It is a misunderstanding with two parts. One, it misunderstands the movement the shoulder blades and collarbones when the arms go overhead. In earlier blog posts of this series, we detailed how pulling the shoulder blades down when the arms reach overhead creates positional dissonance between the end of clavicle, which must elevate, and its articulation with the acromion process of the scapula at the AC joint, which in turn, must upwardly rotate. Both articulating surfaces of the bones that make up the AC joint must go up toward the head. The second misunderstanding lies in the assumption that in order to retrain a muscle that is chronically tense, we must simply stop contracting it. In reality, this will not make a muscle more habitually relaxed, it will only make it weaker, and it can be our weakest muscles that cause us the most chronic tension.
Let’s take a look at the trapezius.
The entire trapezius is shaped like a diamond and it has multiple fiber directions. Its upper fibers (the top of the diamond) elevate the scapulae and its lower fibers (the bottom of the diamond) depress the scapulae. The entire trapezius muscle – all of its muscle fibers – upwardly rotate the scapulae. In our last blog post, we detailed why upward rotation of the scapulae is an absolutely crucial movement when the arms are overhead. We also introduced ways to refine it.
In summary, it’s logical to work scapular depression in an attempt to relax the upper fibers of trapezius, specifically if they are causing the shoulder blades to crowd the neck – something that frequently happens when people take their arms overhead. But, in doing so, you also eliminate this muscle’s force output to upwardly rotate the shoulder blades, an additional action of the upper fibers of the trapezius. Cutting off a full third of the muscles force output potential limits the amount of strength you’re able to put behind the scapular position of upward rotation, and if you’re doing handstand for a long hold, you’re going to need to harness as much of the muscle’s force output possible.
One way to address both issues – to upwardly rotate the shoulder blades but not excessively elevate the shoulder blades, is by zeroing in on refining the action of upward rotation. When the shoulder blades upwardly rotate, the top, inner corner of the shoulder blade (the superior angle) moves away from the neck and head (so the back of the neck has a feeling of more length), while the outer side of the scapula (the lateral border), or outer armpit, moves up toward the head. To do this, it becomes necessary to train your whole trapezius to engage evenly across its many fiber directions, upper, middle and lower so that the upper fibers don’t overpower the lower fibers and bias a position of elevation.
This can also be facilitated by practicing self-massage with the Yoga Tune Up® therapy balls. Self-massage helps you somatically map your scapulae more clearly so you have a better sense of their direction of movement and position proprioceptively while upwardly rotating them. It will also relieve the upper trapezius of its chronically gripped state so that it doesn’t overpower the other fiber directions of the trapezius and pull the entire shoulder blade upward. Scapular elevation is a muscle action unique to the upper fibers of trapezius. Massaging your own shoulders can also help revive the more sluggish sections of the lower trapezius so that it is better capable of performing the action of upward rotation of the shoulder blade. It will also help the lower trapezius balance out the upward pull of the upper trapezius by equalizing it with an evenly matched force of downward pull. Scapular depression is a muscle action unique to the lower fibers of trapezius. When both the upper and lower trapezius engage evenly to facilitate taking the arms overhead, the shoulder blades stay anchored in a way that they will neither be pulled upward or downward, but remain buoyant between these two extremes. This balance and buoyancy will allow for greater efficiency in completing the movement of upward rotation.
For most, depressing the shoulder blades while the arms are overhead will make it so that the arm bones don’t reach 180 degrees of flexion, and instead, the rest of the body will find other ways to compensate, most likely by bending from the lumbar spinal joints as in this picture of someone doing handstand with a ‘banana back’. That, or position will be achieved at the expense of the AC joint and other neighboring tissues that unfortunately find themselves stuck in the middle of these two conflicting goals, upward rotation and depression of the scapulae. It is depressing, indeed! Instead, go with the beat of your scapuloclaviculohumeral rhythm and learn to refine the movement of upward rotation of the scapula. Glide the outer shoulder blade up toward your hands as you glide the inner shoulder blade down toward your hips. Is it more complex? It sure is! Is it worth the extra work to understand it in our bodies? I think so!
Come back on Friday for the last installment of this article with a YTU Therapy Ball soother for the upper back!
Enjoyed this article? Read Why It’s Ok to Say No to Chaturangas
Your post was enlightening, I didn’t realized the upper trap could dominate the action of an upwardly rotating shoulder. Much better to have your students focus on the action of the entire scapular rotating by bringing the superior angle down and the inferior angle up. Thanks!
It is astounding to realize how little I know about my body (and, by extension, how double-little I know about my students’ bodies). I fall into this trap all the time and have never known that’s what I was doing. Even now, 20 years into my yoga practice and halfway through the YTU Level 1 training, I’ve had to read this post multiple times and still would need to take notes to be able to explain it myself. It really makes me appreciate how simultaneously complex and knowable my body is, and this training that is helping me understand it better.
I really appreciate your in depth questioning as to why this cue of pulling the shoulders down while the arms are overhead might be so prevalent, and that that questioning includes empathy rather than judgement while at the same time clearly outlining what is being misunderstood and how to move forward.
Banana shape handstand roots in unrefined shoulder blades movement was a revelation. It’s so obvious now though, looking at the picture provided above. Can’t wait to explore this connection further. The series provided a good deal of valuable information to ponder upon, thank you Laurel for a quality read.
Fascinating to understand the relationship b/w the upper traps and lower traps. upper traps contribute towards upward rotation however we also need lower traps to balance it out by depressing the inner angle of the scapula so the entire scapula is not over elevating. Will definitely experiment with the feelings and palpation during my practice and with students. Thanks Laurel.
Hi Laurel, I found your blog very insightful and helpful in understanding the multiple actions of the trapezius muscle and how it relates to the scapulohumeral rhythm. It all came together for me in the last part of the video where the muscle pull directions were noted. I have been guilty in the past of cueing shoulders down as the arms come overhead. As I progress on my anatomical learning curve in biomechanics of the shoulder girdle I have a better understanding of the movement and how that cue may not be appropriate.
This article was so helpful for both me and my students. Banana back is so common and I was always taught that it was an engagement of the core that was missing. And while that might be part of the problem it makes more sense that it could also or more dominantly be the positioning of the shoulder depressing or not being in proper external rotation. As for myself I have an old neck injury from soccer and to help stabilize my neck my upper trapezius likes to stay lifted. I know that my neck feels better keeping my head in line with my spine, I had no idea just how much weight I was putting on that muscle through flexion of the neck. At this point it feels quite difficult to hold my neck in proper alignment. Any suggestions/exercises that will help make that more comfortable? I also think a big part of my injury is an imbalance in the upper and lower trapezius. I’m looking forward to checking out your rolling article!
Wow. I so wish I had read this blog ten years ago, before I got in the habit of locking my shoulders down all the time thanks a cue from a well-meaning Pilates instructor. I am working to rediscover proper scapulo-humeral rhythm and finding the tune-up balls very helpful – especially releasing the subclavius and pec-minor which had become chronically shortened by my attempts to constantly depress the shoulders. Thanks for educating folks about this mis-leading cue!
Ah yes, to simply relax the upper traps will give us less power and over time make them weaker. I needed this statement to further my understanding. Thank you Laurel… a great and very helpful series of posts.
Great installment in this series! Ack… Thank you for pointing out the improper cue ‘shoulders down’ or the one that I use (because it was handed down from one of my teachers) ‘plug armbone into socket’ that I use in my yoga classes! However, you’re right about wanting to ‘help relieve tight traps for students’ in my case, anyway. Now that I have read this article, I intend to offer this new awareness of inner/outer scapula. So, stay tuned for more feedback!
After trying Laurel’s new cues, I did arms overhead using shoulders down cue and was shocked at how much tension I felt in shoulders and upper back. It was a reminder to me of how difficult it is in our society to let go of control paradigms and how deeply the old paradigms are embedded in our consciousness even as we try to replace them with newer, more functionally and visually correct methods. This was a real eye opener!
Glad to have a clearer understanding of the upper traps. This refined understanding of the movement of the scapula will help me to hold these muscles with a little more compassion and a little less contempt for being such a pain in the neck.
Now I need to go try these suggestions–thanks!
Great series. So glad I read through until the end! I have a much clearer understanding of the workings of the shoulders with the arms in the overhead plane.
As you point out there are a lot of muscles like the levators and the upper traps that can work against a smooth upward rotation of the shoulder blades. I’m thinking that teaching the correct action in the shoulders might be better done progressively by using warrior II with arms parallel (shoulders abducted) to the floor or slightly higher, shoulders externally rotated by turning palms up, and then teaching students to soften the inner (medial) border of the scapula down (release the upper traps, essentially relaxing the shoulders down without pressing the shoulder blades down) while also allowing the lateral border of the shoulder blades to upwardly rotate as needed. Then progressing this somatic awareness to full shoulder flection in tadasana (or handstand, warrior III, etc.). I’d love to hear your thoughts on that strategy.
I get what you are saying. I’ll see how I do when practicing upside down in handstand!
Thanks for providing me with more information on how to calm down my trapezius.
I was (am still) a little bit of a banana back handstander! The depth of anatomical understanding and refined embodied concepts on shoulder mobility and strength have really transformed my movement patterns and my observation skills. Understanding upward and downward scapular movement has also made me more aware of my own habits, and how to give increasingly more precise cues.
Thanks again. Can’t wait to read the last part of this blog – my shoulders are already feeling more at ease
Amazing post about the shoulders. Especially with carrying large backpacks or purses on one side, I can see the benefits and the functions of the shoulder much better.
The collagen information was new to me, very interesting, thanks! Neck and shoulder pain is one of my own personal topic areas that I am trying to address, so I really appreciate this series of articles.
A very good anatomy, biomechanics and kinesiology lesson on the trapezius. I am glad you showed the shoulder kinematic video, as it demonstrates the scapulo-humeral rhythm. This is important so the head of the humerus can find adequate articulation with the gleaned fossa of the scapula. I hope more people read this blog to gather good information on the relationship of the trapezius to the scapula.
My friend has a stiff neck right now from sleeping funny. This article is helping me to understand the area, and potentially help her in alleviate some of the stress in the surrounding area so that the muscle might release.
“For every degree forward of the axis of the spine that you hold your head, the load demand on the neck increases more than ten pounds! This extra demand on the upper trapezius can further contribute to its tension making it hyper-irritable and sensitive to even the lightest pressure.” Wow, that’s heavy. This alone is a reminder to keep the traps depressed and head back.
I didn’t realize that the trapezius contained more collagen than most other muscles. That amplifies the tension and pain that so many of us experience in that part of our bodies. Now that I know, I’m researching more about what the extra collagen means for restoring this muscle to the right balance of strength and softness. Thank you!
would love a video great topic
Great article on the shoulders, I will use this in my class when I teach, definitely also would be beneficial for my husband as he sits at the desk internally rotating and elevating his shoulders most of the day. He creates a lot of tension with his trapezius muscles. Self massage with the YTU therapy balls will definitely help to warm up these tense muscles before sitting at the desk, typing away.
Fascinating, Laurel. Your breakdown and reasoning make the movement more clear. And I admit that I cue to depress the shoulder blades. Looks like I have something new to play with.