Musicians' Health Collective

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

Filtering by Tag: scapula

What are your scapulae doing in a push up?

Image from the  Bar method.

Image from the Bar method.

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.

Winging Scapula: What are they and do you have them?

You may have heard of the terminology "winging scapula" whether in the context of fitness/movement, posture, or even in regards to instrument setup and performance.  What exactly is it?

I received an email from a yoga apparel company, and my first instinct was "wow- look at those winging scapula!"  Notice how the lower borders of the scapula protrude significantly?

I received an email from a yoga apparel company, and my first instinct was "wow- look at those winging scapula!"  Notice how the lower borders of the scapula protrude significantly?

Let's start with some background: your scapula (shoulder blade) is one of three bony structures of the shoulder girdle, those being scapula, humerus, and clavicle.  These bones and subsequent muscles work together to both stabilize and mobilize, depending on the joint action or movement (AKA. they all have the potential to move)  However, not all body actions require movement of all three joints- some movements just ask the arm bones to move, others ask for elevation of the scapula and clavicles, and other movements integrate all three bones into collaborative movement.  A "normal" scapula (is anyone really "normal" though?) would lie against the ribcage in rest, and in movement, would have a full range of motion, permitting full overhead range (shoulder flexion, as seen in this video above!).  A winging scapula may protrude at rest, and when the body moves in different ways, the scapula protrude on the back and move significantly.  One of the classic tests for winging is a wall push-up and quadraped push-up, which determines whether the motion is coming from the arm bones or if the whole arm/scapula/collarbone unit is moving unnecessarily off the back.  The primary muscle that opposes this whole winging thing is the serratus anterior, which protracts the scapula (brings scapula wide) amongst other things.  This can also tie in with trapezius and pec imbalances (which, let's be honest, most of us have either from instrument playing, desk sitting, or hyper-kyphosis). 

This stunning image is from, which is the blog and website for Dr. Ray Long.

This stunning image is from, which is the blog and website for Dr. Ray Long.

So what's the big deal with winging scapula?  Many people have lost the ability to individualize arm movement (humeral movement) from scapular movement, and don't have the ability to protract (or stabilize or propriocept) the scapula.  For some people, that translates to pain, lack of range, and instability, and for others, just "tightness" and difficulty in different exercises.  It's something I've worked on a LOT these last two years, and it's changed the way that I teach and practice (meaning that I rarely teach chaturanga-vinyasas because it's a winging scapula nightmare). 
To get started on your scapula assessment, took a look at your backside in the mirror- notice how your scapula orient on the back in standing.  Then try different arm movements and notice the movement in your scapula (or lack of movement).  Try the classic wall pushup and have someone observe (or phone video) your scapula.  (This video shows winging scapula in the wall pushup! Notice howin both versions, she has excessive scapular retraction, meaning the scapula draw together on the back as the arms bend.)  My favorite exercises to strengthen serratus anterior are planks with protraction, protraction/retraction exercises in quadraped, and developing an awareness of the back body in all movements, especially in quadraped and plank positions, which are essential to many different movement disciplines. 

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