Most people can easily identify their biceps, triceps, hamstrings or “quads.”  Many may also be able to locate their “traps,” “pecs” or “glutes.”  But the vast majority of people can’t pinpoint their supraspinatus.

The supraspinatus isn’t the most popular or sexy muscle in the body, but it’s a workhorse shoulder muscle we use all the time.  Any time you reach up into a cupboard, retrieve a book from a shelf above your desk or change a light bulb, you’re using your supraspinatus.  The same is true when you adjust your car visor, comb your hair, hang clothes in a closet or put on a shirt.  Tennis players use it when serving, and baseball players use it when throwing.  Swimmers use it to glide across a pool.  Yogis use it during any pose that takes the arms out to the side and overhead (whether their body is right-side-up or upside-down).

The supraspinatus is a prime candidate for impingement or tearing.

The supraspinatus is one of four rotator cuff muscles in the shoulder joint.  The rotator cuff muscles hold the humerus (upper arm bone) in the shoulder socket, a shallow indentation at the upper, outer edge of the scapula (shoulder blade).  The rotator cuff muscles help to stabilize the shoulder joint, aided by muscles in the back of the body that keep the scapula affixed to the ribcage.  The four rotator cuff muscles attach to different parts of the scapula and then to the head of the humerus. They also enable the humerus to rotate inward (internal rotation) and outward (external rotation), or reach out to the side of the body (abduction) and overhead (flexion).

The supraspinatus runs across a shallow valley at the top of each scapula, above the spinous process, narrowing as it approaches the shoulder. Its tendon then threads through a small, bony canal and attaches to the top of the humerus.  A fluid-filled sack called a bursa protects the tendon in the canal from smashing into the bone.

Interestingly (perhaps only to anatomy geeks), the supraspinatus is the only part of the rotator cuff that isn’t involved in rotating the humerus.  It helps to abduct the upper arm bone away from the body and move it overhead.

The supraspinatus also has the dubious distinction of being the most commonly torn muscle in the rotator cuff.  It can be injured through force (like landing on your shoulder in a fall), repetitive daily activity done in a misaligned way, or through repetitive actions in many sports.  This includes certain repetitive actions in a yoga practice.

As a yoga instructor I knew about the supraspinatus’s function as part of the rotator cuff.  However, I recently became intimately acquainted with my supraspinatus due to a tear in its tendon, the genesis of which occurred over fifteen years ago, jumping back to chatturanga before my body was fully ready for that movement.  My initial injury healed, and my yoga practice and self-knowledge grew more aligned and refined.  However, the irritation would occasionally return.  Over the years, wear and tear took its toll to the point where I was in chronic discomfort and my yoga practice was modified to respect that.  A sports medicine doctor recently informed me that surgery is the only solution to the problem.   An acupuncturist is working with me to reduce pain and inflammation, improve blood flow and heal the injury naturally.  I am hoping surgery can be averted.

Discover our shoulder exercises and shoulder pain solutions.

Watch our free  shoulder stretch video.

Read our post about “How to get Olympic Inspired Shoulders.”


Gwen Yeager

Gwen Yeager-Stofko (E-RYT 500, C-IAYT) is a private and group Hatha Yoga Instructor, Certified Yoga Therapist and Integrated Yoga Tune Up® Teacher based in Los Angeles. Her classes blend ancient yoga philosophy, the teachings of 20th century "modern" yoga, and the latest research and science about yoga, movement, and the brain. Known for her understanding of anatomy and biomechanics, intelligent sequencing, clear instruction, warmth and humor, Gwen teaches newer yogis who want clear guidance in a welcoming environment, students with injuries and those managing chronic conditions, and athletes and yoga practitioners who want to deepen their practice by further refining their proprioception, posture, and understanding of the fundamental movements of their bodies. Gwen is a 2007 graduate of YogaWorks' 200-hour teacher training, and a 2008 graduate of YogaWorks' 300-hour professional program, where she mentored with Iyengar teacher Carmen Fitzgibbon. In January 2012 Gwen traveled to Kripalu to take the Yoga Tune Up® teacher training with yogi and fitness expert Jill Miller, a wonderful experience that deepened, refined and expanded Gwen's views on human movement and yoga teaching. Gwen has taken all associated YTU Immersions and regularly assists Jill at workshops and trainings. Gwen leads classes, workshops and trainings in Los Angeles and surrounding vicinities. gwenyeager.com

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Jared Cohen

Its interesting how the entire upper back, shoulder blade complex is such a elusive back hole for most people including movement practitioners. Kelly Starrett on mobility wod pro recently posted a video talking about how trying to cue clients in terms of shoulder blade function beyond external rotation or internal rotation torque is ineffective. I wonder if this is just due to how immobile one’s scapulae are and that ineffective cueing or not there is still apparent value in coaching better body mapping.

Esco Wilson

Informative functional anatomy lesson. It’s interesting that the supraspinatus is the rotator cuff muscle most often torn. It would be nice to know what type of yoga sequences best best deal with decreasing the probability of supraspinatus injury.
The battle between “Western & Eastern” medical approaches is always intriguing. I’m routing for Eastern, but holistic may require a comprehensive approach. Including resistance/corrective exercise training, hot & cold treatments, & massage to the yoga & acupuncture could be an approach. Best wishes and good luck with your shoulder.

Laurie Streff Kostman

Great in depth blog post on the supraspinatus, Gwen! I especially liked how you pointed out the difference of the supraspinatus from the other rotator cuff muscles in that it is not involved in rotation of the joint. It abducts the arm and lifts it overhead – adding to why it is often injured. I have worked with many tennis players, swimmers and fitness enthusiasts (who lifted overhead for years) and they often complain of tears in their supraspinatus. I’m very grateful to have the YTU knowledge and exercises to target the rotator cuff muscles to help myself and others… Read more »

Nadjiba Medjaoui

Hi Gwen,
Thank you for the great article….I have a discomfort (I can not really say it’s a pain) in my left shoulder and I have been wondering what was causing the discomfort….maybe it is the supraspinatus since it happens when my shoulder is abducted….

Lou Shapiro

Wonderfully comprehensive presentation of what’s taught in the training, and accomplished with just words & the right picture! 🙂 Nice point about the long-term progression of an injury. Makes one stop & think about one’s own sporatic or chronic issues. What further damage could we avoid with some timely attention now? Thank you.

Kristin

Great article and now I am curious where the location of the pain is relative to the deltoids (anterior, lateral, posterior). In looking at anatomy books for where the supraspinatus attaches to the humereus, it appears to be on the lateral posterior side. Is that where the pain exists? Just curious so that as I come across this in my teaching I can properly identify it. If the pain is direct or wide spread since it seems to be a big area of injury.

Emily

Interesting to learn that the supraspinatus is one of the most commonly torn muscles in the rotator cuff. I’ve definitely heard this safety precaution in many vinyasa classes over the years, but your post helps me to visualize this. One precaution you mentioned to Taylor that I actually hadn’t considered is the precise anatomy at play when lowering from high to low goes awry. I’d previously understood this to mean the lack of integration while lowering to the floor – accounting for that “DIP” in the spine. Interesting to hear you outline the specifics of that sloppy high to low… Read more »

Rachel

I use to take the small muscles in our shoulders (rotator cuff muscles) for granted but now I understand just how crucial and important these muscles are for some of my favourite poses like Warrior 2 or handstand, especially the Supraspinatus!

Aranzasu

Love love love your post! Why? Well, I’m only now starting to learn about my muscles and it turns out this is a very important one. I used to do the rings 3 times a week on top of all the other exercising I would do through yoga and biking. Not anymore! I was told by my incredible YTU teachers, Jill, Trina, and Sarah what to do to get rid of the clicking sound on my shoulder joint. So, I’m inspired to keep learning about what I need to more of and less of. It’s so fascinating and learning about… Read more »

Jane

It’s funny how you often don’t become aware of such a muscle until you injure it. Many of the people commenting on your article have or are also dealing with injury. I am no exception! I appreciated reading your article on the supraspinatus and why we need to be especially attentive when doing yoga poses that require the use of this muscle. I am doing physio to reconfigure my biomechanics during shoulder flexion and it is indeed a challenge to break old bad habits. I have a new appreciation for my supraspinatus! Thank you for the clarity.

Yiselle Blum

Thanks so much for the article. I have recently come to believe that I have an injury in/around/on (?) my supraspinatus. I began having pain after sleeping on my shoulder with it practically lodged between the space between two seats of an Amtrak train on an overnight journey. Every since, chaturanga has been particularly painful and I have had to seriously modify my vinyasa practice as well as educate myself on proper should rotation for a corresponding direction on movement. It is interesting to see all of those uses of the supraspinatus written down. I think on some level we… Read more »

Oksana

Just learned this one in out training today, very cool muscle, and unfortunately not very known… Had to write on my body the name of it above the location to remember better!

Jona Joyce

I, too, became more familiar with this workhorse through tweaking my left shoulder through boxing. Even as much as I have read up on this muscle, your blog was very informative and I appreciate your attention to functional detail provided. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t know as much as we do now to help prevent our injuries in the first place. Such is life!

Matthew

Such a small muscle that can be ridiculously painful when allowed to fall into imbalance or suffer overuse abuse! One way I’ve discovered to keep the supraspinatus happy is with regular love from a Yoga Tune Up Therapy ball. The malleable nature of the ball permits it to get directly into the supraspinatus’ home turf and provide some major release and re-conditioning of the fascia and muscle tissue. Use grounding rythmic breathing, this experience may not be for the faint of heart, but on the backside you’ll know your life has improved as these little guys love you for the… Read more »

Cheryl

Thanks for sharing this — I wonder how you’re doing now? The supraspinatus is probably what’s been the bain of my existence for about a year. I slept on my left arm, pinning it under me while dreaming, and really strained it — i even woke up because i felt a rush of…something there. I just knew I’d done something. It’s so embarassing to say that’s how it occurred — not quite as exciting as saying i was jumping back into chataranga! Such a frustrating injury, because it comes with chronic discomfort when inflamed, then it would improve, and the… Read more »

Murray Arnott

Yes, and as I can emphasize, the supraspinatus is often overworked because of insufficient strength in the serratus anterior. That is why I am such a huge fan of YTU megaplank and Dolphin Plank. Strength here can help take the stress off the shoulder joint and supraspinatus in many poses.

Rita

This was so informative and really appreciate everyones comments. My right shoulder has been aggravated for what seems like too long and will take this new insight to the core of my shoulder issues. Thanks so much.

Melissa Tilley

Thank you for sharing your story Gwen. I hope you’re able to heal and eliminate the need for surgery. The superspinatous is such an important muscle. When I started reading your blog I quickly reached for my YTU balls and started giving this muscle some love! Often the muscles of the rotator cuff are grouped together and discussed as one. It’s nice to hear the importance of one muscle in the group that has been recruited for another direction of movement from the other muscles. Shoulder injuries, stiffness or pain can be common in some sports. Building the awareness of… Read more »

Emily Sonnenberg

I wish our supraspinatus was sexier. Doing Matador Arm Circles today with a heavy woolen blanket was an awesome way to strengthen it. I tore mine a few years ago working repeatedly on overhead volleyball serves. I suppose I’m fortunate in my body’s ability to heal itself because it does not limit my range or ability at all now. Good luck with the healing.

annelie alexander

the ytu balls are fantastic for releasing some of the tension in the suprasinatus. it’s kind of ironic that it’s the tiny muscles that most people haven’t even heard about that can be the most debilitating. yet another reason why it’s so imortant that yoga teachers know their anatomy & biomechanics.

Rachelle Gura

Wow, that is a lot of information. Thank you! Knowing more about the rotator cuff give me the feeling the humerus is hanging on by a thread. Although it isn’t the case I feel a lot more respect for the rotator cuff and it function.

Elissa Strutton

Thank you for the functional anatomy description of the rotator cuff and stressing the importance of this underappreciated supraspinatus muscle that is involved in so much of what we do in our daily lives. Your injury gives us pause to consider how an old injury and wear and tear over the years can have such a great impact. Best wishes to you in your healing journey!

Ada-Reva Spae

Thank you for that great information on the supraspinatus and your in depth description on the function of this rotator cuff muscles. I remember the first time I tried to roll out the supraspinatus with yoga tune up balls, the discomfort was astounding and informative, this muscle was tight .The I was reminded from your article that the supraspinatus is the only as rotator cuff muscle that doesn’t rotate the scapula but rotates the humerus exlernally and is incredibly overused in yoga in poses such as chattaranga and activities of daily living such as reaching overhead. It is subject to… Read more »

Jamie Leigh

Lots of fun facts here and tons of info to share with my students and clients. Thanks!

Christy

This is an intense review of the supraspinatus. I often am highly sensitive and irritated in that area after practicing yoga and I find it challenging to isolate other muscles to avoid overusing it. As a yoga teacher< i never really thought about repetitive arm movements with resistance to gravity as a culprit. This is a good thought to change some of these habitual movements in the practice. Your example and experience and great insight on what I hope all my students, and myself can avoid. Yoga is serious business and very intense on the body. Thank you for your… Read more »

Karl

This article perhaps sheds some light into my condition. As a practitioner of capoeira, I perform a lot of movements that put a lot of stress on a small area of the body at certain moments. One movement in particular, aptly named “monkey,” is done from the tabletop position- not cat/cow, the other tabletop- and kicking up with the legs and with one hand one the ground behind you, you are propelled up and back into a one-handed handstand, before following through until both feet touch the ground again. My problem lies with my left shoulder, being my weaker side.… Read more »

Tracy

Hello Gwen, Thank you for this super supraspinatus story. Your description is clear and compelling. Of course I, like so many, have had shoulder problems as well. I first learned about the supraspinatus when a sports doctor informed me that I had just torn mine off of the head of my humerus! Whoops. The doctor couldn’t believe that I had done that all by myself during yoga. He said there was usually some sort of a collision involved, as in football, etc… When I showed him pictures of the poses I had done regularly in my 13 years of Ashtanga… Read more »

Celine

I see more and more people coming to my classes with shoulder injuries. I do not teach yoga, but a wide range of classes, and I can see using some to the yoga tune-up exercises in my group exercise classes to help prevent injury. I attend many yoga classes and understand why there are more and more injuries in these classes. Many yoga participants do not have a sound, balanced exercise routine that has prepared them for the demands of yoga, and take their bodies beyond where they really need to be. I think more cross-training should be encouraged.

susan

Like so many, i have shoulder issues (the teres group) and have really worked to make peace with chattarunga by bringing my knees down. I tried for too long to muscle through it took a toll on my shoulder. I’m excited to integrate the pranic bath shoulder mobility exercises into my personal practice too.

orlena lackenbauer

Ah yes – I too had a minor tear in the supraspinatus and couldn’t even pick up a coffe cup or turn over in bed without using my other hand to lift and transfer the injured arm across. And I am seeing more and more people with shoulder injuries / pain. I attribute my injury to my ego and not having strict instruction as to how to safely engage the stabalizing muscles before diving down from plank, superior point of the shoulders leading until the shoulders were well below my elbows and then shoot through and extend to updog. ouch.… Read more »

donna

This post struck a chord with me! I’ve been having some issues with my right shoulder for some time now. The first symptom presented as severe inflammation of the biceps tendon that was so bad I would wince with any flexion with internal rotation of the shoulder. (Try getting your sports bra off without flexion and internal rotation!) An MRI revealed fraying of the Supraspinatus and Biceps tendons as well as some fraying and wear of the Labrum. Thanks for the reminder about the proper care and feeding of the Supraspinatus. I, too, hope to avoid surgical intervention.

Patricia Antoni

This is my first comment on the blog. I just finished my first day of Level 1 TT with Jill. We ended the day with Simon says so your blog caught my eye. I can relate to I lost most of my shoulder arm strength in the past few years and am still trying to gain it back through yoga. Aside from my practices I try faithfully to practice chaturrangas when I get up in the mornings along with other upper body/shoulder work. I still cannot do them perfect. After reading your blog I will be even more mindful with… Read more »

Heather C

ahh the supraspinatus I am intrigued by all these rotator cuff muscles as many people suffer from chronic shoulder and neck ailments, myself included. Often times other muscles like pec major and traps try to compensate and we are left with more imbalances. This is what I love about yoga tune up and the kinisthetic awareness that we develop overtime. We are often unaware of the less popular and loud muscles so to speak and often power through injuries and pain which sets the body up for compensating and takes us out of appropriate alignment which snowballs into many other… Read more »

Jocelyn Larson

Hopefully surgery is easy to avoid in your case! Shoulder injuries are tough to solve because a lot of them are from overuse that cannot be avoided very easily. One of th most common shoulder injuries is an impingment. The suprasprinatus muscles flows through a really tight space surrounded by bones. If there is any inflammation to this muscle (impingment) you are likely to experience pain. Working on your joint range of motion will enable the supraspinatus to fit more securely in its own place without getting inflammed and rubbing on the neighboring boney provinces to case pain. Try stretching… Read more »

Cameron

Thanks for the amazing article Gwen! I have had problems with my shoulders for some time and learning more about the supraspinatus and its functions is very useful for application to my practice! Learning how intricately the muscles of the rotator cuff has been eye opening and i hope to use this information with future students.

Victoria

Hey Gwen! I must say I’m a new addition to the yoga world. My new found love for my practice makes my world go round. Like you said, most people are only aware of the most common muscles, and I must say although I’ve heard of the supraspinatus, I had no actual knowledge to what and where it was located. Now that I’m aware of the location of the muscle, and it being the more commonly torn muscle in the rotator cuff, I’m going to be careful when i’m going into chatturanga. THANKS! =)

Robert Veihman

Hi Gwen,

Very informative, I knew of the Supraspinatus and it’s functions, and I’ve always heard that improperly jumping back or landing in plank can cause rotator cuff injuries so this article sheds some light on my understanding of whats actually happening. Best of luck with your recovery, I hope you can avoid the surgery as well.

Alejandra Seader

Hi Gwen, thanks for your article! I do a lot of chaturangas and aim to teach it one day. This article and some of your post replies give a light about the role of the rotator cuff muscles and specifically the supraspinatus in this regularly and over practiced pose. You say in your article that your injury started 15 years ago when practicing before you were ready for practicing this pose. I am curious to knw when do you consider a student of yoga is prepared to practice chaturanga withouth rinking long term injury?
Thanks a lot!

Miei

Thank you for this article Gwen. The supraspinatus, which lies along with upper scapula, constantly used heavily in my daily life I guess. Because I have a chronic stiff shoulders. Since I’ve started to practice yoga 3 years ago, I’ve never hurt my shoulder. But around my shoulders are always tense. I often massage shoulders with my hand. Now I know it is the supraspinatus! Hope yours get well without surgery

Gwen

Brooke, thanks so much for weighing in with a different perspective! My focus was injury through overuse or misaligned use, but it’s equally as important to examine injury due to lack of use. That’s why YTU is so unique and great, waking up underused tissues and taking strain off of overused ones. I especially love the YTU poses that take the shoulders and hips though circumduction, which leave no area unexplored.

Kate, practice away! It’s how we learn. I’m glad you’re not learning through having an injury yourself!

Gwen

Emilie, I’m sorry you have a similar injury… I agree that controlling inflammation and the correcting the alignment of the shoulder is important for recovery. My continuing to practice poses that strained my supraspinatus (even keeping my arm abducted in Warrior 2) perpetuated the inflammation and the injury. Stopping everything that strained my shoulder in any way has helped it start to heal. As has massage, acupuncture, and YTU!

Cari, thanks for your imput. 🙂

Gwen

Amanda, I’m sorry you’re having pain but I’m glad it’s provided you with inspiration. Here is a little test to determine a supraspinatus injury: Abduct your arm to shoulder height, and rotate it forward slightly, point your thumb down as if you were emptying out a can. Have someone press on your hand. Gently resist them (you don’t want to further aggravate by strongly resisting). Then turn your thumb up and have them press on the hand again. If it was weaker and hurt worse the first time, the supraspinatus likely is part of your injury. Injuries aren’t fun but… Read more »

Gwen

Hi Taylor, I, too, focus a lot on teaching the integration of the shoulders in the vinyasa series. There are so many things that can be “off”: elbows flaring out to the sides when lowering into chatturanga and pulling through to Up Dog (the shoulders become internally rotated and adducted which strains the supraspinatus among other things), lowering too close to the ground (shoulders elevate and head of humerus drops forward, less engagement of serratus anterior to stabilize shoulder blades and glenohumeral joint), and jumping back into straight arms (a jarring force that challenges the integrity of the small muscles/tendons/ligaments… Read more »

Kate Kuss

I’ve heard of supraspinatus before but I didn’t know where it was so thank you for this post. Since I am currently learning more about the body, I had to look up the other three muscles that make up the Rotator Cuff muscles. Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Teres Minor and Subscapularis. Just practicing my anatomy vocab 🙂
Your post gave me an inner gaze to my shoulder so thanks again.

brooke thomas

Yay for giving supraspinatus props! I’d also like to add that many people as they age get supraspinatus tears from under use. The poor little underused tendon simply gets dry and brittle and snaps. In my Rolfing practice I typically see under use as the cause of tears more commonly than a sports injury. In fact, I had a colleague from Japan once who told me that in Japan (one of the very few countries that may be in front of their computers more than we Americans) they have a term called “40 year old shoulder” because it’s so common… Read more »

Cari Devine Bjelajac

Last year I worked with six women ( I helped them with rehab) following PT and shoulder surgery. Three were total tears in the supraspinatus. Keep up the good work with your modifications, acupuncture and bodywork. Not one of those clients was prepared for the aftermath of shoulder surgery.
All the best!

Taylor

Hi Gwen – Thanks for this article! I’m constantly teaching how to engage and integrate the shoulders properly in and out of chatturanga/up dog/down dog – and I’m curious if you can help shed some light on why the supraspinatus specifically is what tends to get injured upon misaligned impact. (such as jumping back into chatturanga prematurely).

Amanda

Gwen, I really enjoyed your article because I recently became more acquainted with my shoulders when I started to have pain in my right shoulder. My self diagnosis is that I irritated my supraspinatus muscle through repetitive chaturangas, and poor awareness of my shoulder while flowing through asana. While my self diagnosis may not be 100% correct, I welcome the inspiration it has given me to explore the anatomy of the shoulder and to bring mindfulness to this part of my body while practicing and teaching. Ever since my shoulder has been bothering me, I have noticed many teachers and… Read more »

Emilie Smith

Hi Gwen,
Great article. My supraspinatus is torn and I also have a grade II separated ac joint. I am also doing lots of therapy (including YTU!). I think learning how to control the inflamation and correct the posture of the shoulder is key to recovery. From what I have read and heard from multiple sports dr’s, recovery from shoulder surgery is very tricky and should be a last resort. Best of luck to you!

Kristin Marvin

Love it Gwen!!! I can’t believe you are making me wait until next week to see the cool exercises you have concocted! The supraspinatus is such an important muscle that many of us overlook. Mine is tight a lot, so I need to be careful. Fantastic article. Thank you!!!!