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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Amber Bilak

Thanks for a clear and succinct explanation of supraspinatus function. I have always tended to focus on the other “sexier” shoulder muscles, but it is clearly important!

Ashley Corlis

I really enjoyed your concise and interesting anatomy lesson! Thanks for making it appear functional and clear for which movements people do daily and what movement activities they may do. This is why I love the Yoga Tune Up work! It is so important to relay this info to people so they understand how their body works.

Pascale hazledine

Thanks for such a thorough description of the supraspinatus.it really helped clarify for me what is actually does in real life.it is amazing that such a small muscle is so important and can give us such grief.

Heidi Schaul-Yoder

Thanks for the great explanation of the supraspinatus! It’s definitely an under-looked muscle, and like you say, it’s one that many people are confused about.

Heather Dawson

Thanks for the easy to read and informative post on the supraspinatus.

Amelia

We rolled our rotator cuffs today in class – Holy Moly! My shoulders have been hurting a lot especially when over head or out to the sides and I wonder about the origin. Maybe this is the beginning of that eureka moment. 😀

Dustin Brown

Great article I have had a great deal of success in releasing shoulder tension with the Yoga Tune Up balls by locating and focusing on the supraspinatus and surrounding tissues. I found it very interesting that your injury helped you become more aware and I interested if your own therapy and ball work has helped your injury. Thank you for sharing.

Emilie Goldstein Mikulla

Thank you for reminding me of how important the supraspinatus is functionally – to get you through your every day life basically! I also appreciate the clarification that it is the only muscle of the Rotator Cuff that does not rotate the humerus. One thing that I often notice as well is that people mention shoulder and they bring everything into it, often ignoring that the rotator cuff act on the stabilisation of the humerus into the glenoid fossa – for glenohumeral rhythm, and that other muscles located on the back are responsible of scapulo-thoracic rhythm. Shoulders is such a… Read more »