The scapula and the muscles surrounding the scapula can be a common point of restriction among a variety of population, from athletes to members of the general public. This article aims to provide people with effective exercises and a framework for improving the mobility of their scapula’s and the muscles surrounding it.
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The scapula is a bone that joins the clavicle and the humerous, it is more commonly known as the shoulder blade. When we discuss scapula mobility we are talking about the ability to move our scapula through space using the muscles surrounding and joining the scapula, mainly the muscles of the rotator cuff.
When a joint or a muscle is not used for a sustained period of time either due to inactivity or restricted movement post an injury, the range of motion of the joint will progressively become more and more restricted. All the while the muscle will atrophy due to the principle of reversibility. These two result in sedentary individuals having very little range of motion or strength in their rotator cuffs and scapula’s.
This means a great deal of very sedentary individuals will need to pay close attention to their shoulder health when they start a new physical activity, especially if it requires weight being put through the scapula. Do not take that as a warning against physical activity, it is the inverse as activity of the joint will bring back full function, however it is just to ensure you take progressive steps on loading the scapula joint. An example from our lift of exercises might be doing quadrupled scapula rolls prior to testing out the active hang.
Sports injuries are another very common cause of restriction and tightness in the scapula, high impact sports like rugby and judo are common culprits, but so are sports like tennis and Crossfit that require a high number of repetitions through the shoulder joint.
When performing a full body resistance training and cardiovascular training plan you will likely train all elements of your physiology. Whereas when you specialise in a single discipline, say running or cycling, this can result in a lack of movement through the scapula’s and often promote a kyphotic posture. This can create poor movement capabilities in the upper body and lead to discomfort in the thoracic spine and the rotator cuffs.
When we have full control of our scapula (the muscles surrounding the scapula) we are able to manipulate our bodies much more effectively in our respective sports, two examples of this would be olympic weightlifting and climbing. In these sports have strong and capable muscles surrounding the scapula are essential to performance, therefore improving function in the muscles of the rotator cuff can be of great benefit.
As we discussed above, there are many injuries that occur in the muscles or the rotator cuff, especially in contact sports, but also very predominantly in throwing sports such a baseball and cricket. Having strong shoulders (rotator cuffs included) that are able to move through full range of motion will be nothing but of a huge benefit for anyone involved in these sports.
It is generally health to have normal function in a joint, being that the joint can move through its desired range of motion. I have a great deal of clients that are unable to reach their hand straight over their head when they start training with me. This lack of function around the scapula and in the shoulder joint can make day to day tasks like taking items from shelves a difficult task. This is often seen in people with poor posture and high rates of lower and upper back pain issues. Bringing movement into your day to day will likely solve all these issues, a mixture of mobility and strength training can do a world of good for people who have been sedentary for an extended period of time.
Hanging from a bar is a great way to ensure healthy shoulders and scapula’s that move freely. This is highly recommended by coaches like Ido Portal , and although I don’t agree that hanging is an “innately human” activity, I do feel like hanging in many different variations and swinging in many different variation can be extremely beneficial towards long term shoulder health. Hanging is an excellent way for beginners who are able to take their own body weight to take their first steps toward both healthy shoulder movement and their first pull up.
We are what we repeatedly do, so if you are repeated moving through poor pull positions, doing half rep pull ups and not finishing off your rowing exercises by not moving through a full range of motion, you are putting the health of your shoulders at risk. Always insure that you are moving through the full range of motion when performing pulling exercises.
Adding specific mobility work sessions into your schedule is an option, you can take the elements you want to improve, say scapula function and rotator cuff strength and write a programme specifically to improve these attributes. This is for those of us who have a great deal of time to dedicate to their training.
For those of us who have a smaller training economy (the amount of time available to train) which is many of us, the bast way to progressively improve your range of motion is by adding exercises that open the joint up to your warm up. Once you have moved through the joint multiple times during your warm up, then continue to add strength to that joint in the resistance training session. For example someone who is trying to improve scapula function may want to perform scapula rolls in the warm up, then strengthen these positions with pull ups and finally to sets of active hangs during the session. Doing this over an extended period of time will likely see large improvements in scapula function.
Complete 3 rounds
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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.