After another great weekend of assisting a teacher training, it's time to look a little deeper at what the shoulders are doing in push-ups or yoga push-ups, chaturangas. It can be extremely difficult to know what's going on behind you, not only because we can't see our shoulder blades, but also because most of the time, no one ever taught us how to do a push-up, other than "do it." It turns out that there's a lot more to it than that!
One of the key players in stabilizing the shoulders in a plank, push-up, or any loaded position, is the serratus anterior. Often thought of as the "superhero muscles," they line the ribs in a serrated fashion, originating at ribs 1-8, and inserting at the medial border of the scapulae. The function of the serratus is to stabilize the scapulae, especially in protraction, meaning that the shoulder blades are wide on the back. What does that look like in real life?
Take a look at this first video of me: I would not claim to be perfection, but I'm comparing two actions that often happen in push-ups.
1. In the first example, as my elbows bend, my shoulders blades glide together. This means the serratus anterior is not helping to stabilize the shoulder. Without fear-mongering, an unstable scapula in regards to push-ups and beyond can be problematic.
2. In the second example, as my elbows bend, I'm attempting to keep the shoulder blades wide on the back, an action called protraction. My serratus is firing to help that happen.
If you don't know what's happening with your shoulder blades, have a friend video you in a push-up, or take the push-up to the wall, and just see what's going on as you bend and straighten your elbows. It's not that your shoulder blades should never come together in retraction, it's that you will be more stable and muscularly engaged if you weight bear in protraction.
Here's another video looking at the actions of protraction and retraction in a weight bear position. I'm trying not to elevate my shoulder blades up towards my ears as I move my scapula on my back, although I'm not always successful at that! (Something to keep working on.) The intention is to build awareness in the back body, start to notice where your scapula are, and see if you can retain the broad/wide scapula position as you move into weight bearing positions like plank, and then progress to a push up.