In my early years of training and working in the fitness industry, I can honestly say I never gave too much thought about the good ole' scapula, otherwise known as the shoulder blade. I remember an up and coming chiropractor once said to me “The scapula is the golf tee and the humeral head is the golf ball, so wherever the humeral head goes, the scapula has to be able to go with it and support it”.
Uh, who cares?!?!
We all just wanted to be bigger, faster, stronger, right?
Man was I an idiot.
Lucky for you guys and my clients, I’m a little wiser and thought I’d share a secret with you that will help you if you’re dealing with pain around your neck, upper back or shoulders….
You must train your scapulae to move every direction humanly possible!
Train those shoulder blades to have the capacity to move up down and all around because if they don’t, pain is going to come in bunches in all the areas closest to them. This includes:
Back pain (upper and even lower)
And even elbow pain!
So if you’re currently struggling with pain, keep reading to get a little introduction to the scapula and how crucial it is for the human body.
HOW DOES THE SCAPULA WORK?
The scapula is strange joint compared to the rest of the joints in the human body. It’s a triangle shaped bone that is slightly curved, and it essentially connects our arm to the rest of the body. In order for the shoulder to be able to go up, down, and all the other multiple motions it’s capable of, the scapula is what houses this movement. Without it, we simply wouldn’t have a functioning shoulder and pain will inevitably set in.
KEEP YOUR SHOULDERS OUT OF YOUR EARS
Have you ever worked with a coach or trainer and they’re constantly telling you to keep your shoulders down? No matter how hard you try though, they always keep rising up, right? Yep, it’s those pesky scapula and this brain-joint disconnect is commonly referred to as scapular dyskinesis. Such a fancy word for something so simple, right?
Believe it or not, if you’re suffering from neck issues, the scapula can also be the culprit as well. If they’re unable to move up and down freely (elevate/depress), then your traps (those big muscles that connect our necks to our body), will become super pissed off and tight.
So if your neck is always feeling tight or you can’t keep your shoulders out of your ears, start working on your scapula movement ASAP.
HOW TO TRAIN THOSE SCAPS
At this point you might be wondering what scapular exercises to do. The simplest, most effective way to start training your scapula is to start doing a mobility exercise called Scapular CARS immediately. This exercise trains the scapula to protract (move forward), retract (move backward), elevate and depress. Now I’ll forewarn you, if you sit a lot, these will produce a noise similar to a machine gun! Don’t freak out though, it’s totally normal. Start out by doing 5 reps each direction as instructed in the video below and you’ll see real quick how “sticky” your shoulder blades are. With time and eventually moving on to harder progressions, they’ll start moving a more freely.
Once you feel like you’ve gotten the hang of what the muscles controlling the scapula is supposed to be doing with Scapula CARS, it’s time to turn up the complexity of the movement by removing the shoulder. I know earlier, I said the scapula and the shoulder work together, however, we need to have them also be able to work really well independently. If the scapula can’t move all over the place without the shoulder, then the shoulder will have to pick up the slack, and that’s when dysfunction sets it. In the video below I demonstrate how to block the shoulder from moving forward and back so you can isolate the scapula. This version of the Scapula CAR will feel very different and will really limit how much you’re capable of moving it. This is a good thing so be patient and enjoy how it feels to unstick those scapula.
INCREASE GAINS WITH A STABLE SCAPULA
If you want to look at the scapula from a performance perspective, the ability to keep your scapula down and back are a huge component in the three big lifts; the squat the bench and the deadlift.
In these moves, the scapula are the base of your stability in the upper body and should be down and back. I like to say “Put your shoulder blades in your back pockets.” Try to keep that cue in mind the next time you’re training.
NO MORE SHRUG LIFE
To recap, the scapula helps the shoulder do all of the cool things a shoulder can do plus, it allows those big trap muscles to stay nice and relaxed so we don’t always have a pain in the neck or living in what I call “shrug life” with your shoulders at your ears.
Utilizing the exercises above, there’s simply no excuse to letting this small unknown bone become such a huge problem.
ABOUT COACH MATT PIPPIN
Matt is a Strength and Mobility Coach with over 15 years experience in his field and has coached over a thousand professional, collegiate and everyday athletes with the goal to help them move, feel and perform at their highest level. He's incredibly passionate about bringing simple and effective online mobility training programs to everyone who wants to take control of their self care and make lasting change. CLICK HERE to learn more.
NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Level 3: Fascial Stretch Specialist
Level 1: Institute of Motion Health Coach
Certified FRC Mobility Specialist (FRCms)
Level 1 Kinstretch Instructor
Weck Method Qualified