Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

Detangling the Pec Minor: Part 2

Here's a picture from a concert I did with Edgar Meyer last summer.  Although he's slightly rotated to the left, notice where his shoulders are and the slight internal rotation on the right side.

Here's a picture from a concert I did with Edgar Meyer last summer.  Although he's slightly rotated to the left, notice where his shoulders are and the slight internal rotation on the right side.

Yesterday, we looked at what the pectoralis minor is and what it might do to the shoulder when it's not working at its optimal length.  Let's take a look at how the shoulders function with different instruments and their holding positions.  With the cello and the bass, the left shoulder is mostly externally rotated, with the bow arm slightly internally rotated, similar to the upper string shoulder situation. In some ways, because the bass and cello are larger instruments requiring different muscle groups, the amount of internal rotation on the right side should be theoretically less, and because the bow arm is not as actively resisting gravity at the tip as with upper strings.  (Upper string players need to pronate their bow arm more to reach the upper half, and some short armed folks sometimes also internally rotate the shoulder to be there!)

James Galway, courtesy of ClassicFm. Even with the best of postural intentions, it's easy round the upper body, bring the shoulders forward, and internally rotate the arm bones.

James Galway, courtesy of ClassicFm. Even with the best of postural intentions, it's easy round the upper body, bring the shoulders forward, and internally rotate the arm bones.

Moving into the woodwind family, the flute is one of the most asymmetrical instruments. Although the optimal position for playing flute has been discussed by many people, it's certainly a challenging instrument for shoulder, neck, and spine position.  Even with the most embodied, aware flutist, the position is certainly a tricky one, and can easily lead to some challenges in the pectorals.  Let's take a look at why.  

This woman's arms are already internally rotated, meaning that as she lowers and lifts her body, her arm bone is just going to move further and further forward, and her pecs will just contract further, but not helping to actually balance her shoulder. Ah, stock fitness photos.

This woman's arms are already internally rotated, meaning that as she lowers and lifts her body, her arm bone is just going to move further and further forward, and her pecs will just contract further, but not helping to actually balance her shoulder. Ah, stock fitness photos.

The pectoralis major has many functions- adduction (flapping arms to the sides), internal rotation, shoulder flexion (arms overhead), extension (arms reaching back), and horizontal adduction, i.e. holding an object in front of your body.  When one is told to strengthen their chest muscles, they usually do two things: push ups and chest presses, meaning that lifting an object in front of you at chest height will require some strength.  So go grab something to hold in front of you- I'll wait.  (If I wasn't wearing pajamas in my living room, I'd take a picture of myself doing it.)  Try a heavy book or small weight, and just palpate the front muscles below the collarbone.  They have to work to hold the object, correct?  Most instruments require holding an object in front of you (voice, piano, and a few other exceptions), but often at an awkward, asymmetrical position for the shoulders.  Take a moment to think though- how many hours have you played your instrument in your life?  Even if your instrument only weighs a few pounds, your pectorals are constantly working to support you, even if in a small way.  Many of us also slightly internally rotate our shoulders when we play, which can create more havoc in these muscles. This is certainly true for instruments like clarinet, oboe, trumpet, and trombone, which are instruments held directly in front of the body.  Even if your instrument doesn't create this shape in the upper body, a lifetime of driving, texting, and head forward position may also shorten the pectorals.  What's the solution to all of this?  It's creating strength in the external rotators of the shoulder (the muscles on the back of the shoulder blade), creating awareness about posture and movement habits, avoiding movements that will just exacerbate the shoulder, and creating length in the front pectoral muscles.  More on that next time~

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