Misunderstanding “shoulders down and back”

Posted on January 6, 2020


(Last Updated On: January 6, 2020)

A homosapien asks,

“I’ve read one of your recommended books, Exercises for Common Hip and Shoulder Dysfunctions, awhile back. Dr Osar says that when doing rows, shrugs, bench presses, and pushups, he doesn’t recommend pulling the shoulders down and back, and rather keep them in neutral position, with slight protraction and retraction during the movement. What’s your opinion on this? I’m trying to explain to my peers that it is better off to do movements like Osar recommends alongside working on overhead work more frequently, but I don’t have good enough evidence to explain things.”

This was in response to my article Overhead Shrugs vs Regular Shrugs.

There are a lot of ways you could answer this. I’m just going to riff. Hopefully some part of it is helpful.

I basically agree with Osar there.

I’m even more lax with those movements though. When doing seated rows for instance, I don’t even tell people to think about their shoulders. I cue them to keep their torso perpendicular to the floor. “Don’t swing back and forth.” “We want the arms to move, but the torso to stay still. We’re rowing, but not like we’re in a row boat.”

Now, if a person is rowing and their shoulders are riding up into their neck (rhomboid dominant seated row), then I will cue them to not do that. However, that can be very different than cueing someone to pull their shoulders down. I’m trying to get the person to avoid a movement, not generate a movement.

-> If you look at the line of pull of the rhomboids, you can see how they pull in and up:

So, when a person is doing a seated row, and their shoulders come together and up, we know the rhomboids are part of that.

(As I hit on in the overhead shrugs article, of course, a person, like a bodybuilding oriented one, may purposely want to target that area. That’s a different discussion. We’re talking general shoulder health and keeping muscles balanced here.)

This is a very subtle difference in cueing, but makes big differences in how people do movements. When you tell someone to do a movement, they tend to do it with a very hard contraction. So, when you tell someone to pull their shoulders down and back, they tend to do it so much, those muscles get worked more than you probably want. Sure, you might want a person to work the lower traps more when they seated row to avoid that shrugging

-> Lower traps pull in and down:

Lower trapezius

but why trade shoulders-too-pulled-up for shoulders-too-pulled-down? When we’re aiming for neutral?

Because when someone has gotten good at pulling their shoulders down and back, they often do worse at the opposite…moving their shoulders forward and upward.

That’s truly the crux of it. Shoulder retraction, downward rotation and depression isn’t something people usually have trouble with, but shoulder protraction, elevation and upward rotation i.e. overhead motion is much more commonly problematic.

Why focus on practicing retraction, downward rotation and depression then?

But ramble-on-we-must.

In a great deal of shoulder issues, the person is having trouble with-

1) Overhead motion

and or

2) Elbow behind their shoulder motion (like the bottom of a bench press or push-up)

We’ve basically gone over 1) already. If you want to improve moving your arms, you don’t want to be practicing pulling your arms down!

-> It’s tautological, right? Try to raise your arms overhead while keeping your shoulders down and back. The cueing is oxymoronic.

-> Even in a seated row, while you may work the rhomboids less by pulling the shoulders down, you’re working a whole host of other muscles which…pull the shoulders down.

With 2), where the elbows move behind the shoulders, pulling the shoulders down and back can help in that movement.

For example, when you bench press, if your shoulder blade is anteriorly tilted, then by pulling it down and back, you will give your elbow more room to descend before the humerus goes into extension, which can make the anterior shoulder (where most people have issues at the bottom of a bench press) feel better.

Scapula (shoulder blade). Red is anterior tilt; green is posterior tilt.

Notice here how the person’s scapula is anteriorly tilted:

And because of that, the humerus is extended (elbow behind shoulder). And as the elbow moves behind the shoulder, the top of the shoulder presses forward, right where people often have pain:

It’s like a lever. Move one side of the lever one way, the other side eventually compensates by moving the opposite way.

We’re changing the mechanics of the long biceps head when we don’t need to.

bicep pain

Because while the short head connects to the scapula, and can thus be slackened or have no change in tension when the scapula anteriorly tilts,

-> Less appreciated about the biceps is its role in flexion of the humerus.

So, if the scapula anteriorly tilts, that would slacken the short head of the biceps i.e. its origin is brought closer to its attachment point.

However, if the humerus is brought into extension at the same time, that can lessen some of that slack.

(You also need to factor in what happens at the elbow!)

This isn’t really relevant. The point is it’s clear the short head isn’t, say, clearly mechanically changed from anterior scapular tilt.

But the long head, due to its origin site, doesn’t slacken like that. The origin runs laterally. You can imagine how that’s going to cause the tendon to compress the superior humerus in a different, unlikely desirable, manner. Think clicking, catching, etc:

However, just by pushing the bottom of the scapula forward i.e. getting it more into neutral / posterior tilt, the humerus is pushed forward:

Note how you can see all the fingers by the scapula now, because the inferior (bottom) scapula has been pushed forward, making them more visible.

The elbow is now more in front of the shoulder. Thus, it has more room to go into extension now (like the bottom of a bench press), without being behind the shoulder.

Think of it as the humerus has a neutral relative to the scapula. Scapula moves? Humerus compensates.

Look at the difference below. Let’s use a floor so it’s easier to see.

Bottom of a floor press; scapulae anteriorly tilted => elbow quite behind shoulder (humeri in extension):

Bottom of a floor press; scapulae posteriorly tilted relative to above => elbow much less behind shoulders (less humeral extension):

The range of motion is the same in the sense the hand is the same height above the torso, yet the range of motion at the shoulder joint is significantly different:

And a great way to irritate the shoulder is to load it when the elbow is significantly behind it. (Think how cops arrest someone by pulling the arms, and thus elbows, behind a person i.e. this movement is often used as a way to “disarm” someone.)

But notice what we did above. All we did was change how the scapula was tilted. We did not have to pull it back and down. In fact, we pushed it forward!

-> An easier way to think about the above may simply be we’re trying to make the shoulders less rounded. BUT, that means the top of the shoulders go back WHILE the bottom of the shoulders go forward:

Notice how you can see less of the letters on the person’s upper back as they become more upright. Because that part of their upper back is moving forward!

Just to hammer this home a little more. Your typical “computer posture”:

I’m not sure who drew this.

Notice when the person’s torso leans forward (left images), which coincides with scapular anterior tilt, how their elbows are now behind the shoulder ala the humeri are in extension.

-> This of course does not have to happen:

But leaning on your arms all day isn’t great for the shoulders either.

A big benefit people have found is when they think about “down and back” at the shoulders, they tend to also get some posterior tilt, which IS something many people could go for, and IS something that can help a e.g. bench press feel better and it IS a lot easier to cue “shoulders down and back” than “shoulders posteriorly tilted.”

But you do not need to squeeze your shoulders together, or depress your scapulae, to generate posterior tilt! (With that, just because you pull your shoulders down and back does not guarantee you’ll posteriorly tilt them, which is why some people have not found that cueing helpful at all.) And you get what you train. The issues that getting good at pulling your shoulders down and back cause offset the benefit of (possibly) getting better at posterior tilt.

-> A much easier way to work on the bench press movement is to instead do a floor press, so the person’s elbow can’t really move behind the shoulder to begin with.

Humerus does still go into some extension, but it is much less relative to bench pressing, and the floor is much harder than a bench press pad, making anterior tilt of the scapula much harder (a good thing). In a really sensitive shoulder, I’ll also place a pad under the elbow here, so the humerus can’t even reach neutral.

In comparison to,

If available, changing a person’s environment can do the cueing for you, and it’s a lot easier to change a movement when the person doesn’t even have to think about it.

Think about what a bench press is doing with the shoulders- flexing them (it brings the humeri forward). Nothing wrong with that.

But, why would we want to practice pulling our scapulae back and down when we are trying to flex our shoulder? Again, try to raise your arm in front of you (shoulder flexion) while also pulling the scapulae down and back. It won’t feel so great, because you’re not allowing the scapulae to reciprocate.

You can imagine if the scapula doesn’t start moving above, the top of the humerus simply jams into the top bones of the scapula, and everything in between those bones. In other words, purposely not allowing protraction and upward rotation to happen is purposely causing impingement.

Now, it’s true pulling the shoulders together can also impact the humeri in terms of flexion / extension. Notice when the shoulders are pulled together, the humeri move into extension:

That is, you can get the humeri further back (or down in the context of a bench press) without actually extending the humeri. Again, the scapulae can move the humeri.

But in my experience that benefit is offset by the fact you make flexing the humeri much, much more uncomfortable when you’ve pinned the scapulae into retraction. (Scapular stability, a phrase that can be quite alluring to many fitness professionals, is often not desirable.) And it’s hard to cue people something like “when your arms come down, pull your shoulders together. When your arms go up, protract your shoulder blades.”

Instead, I usually just don’t say anything and let people move their shoulder blades naturally.

-> Which is easier to do with DBs compared to a barbell, because the hands aren’t fixed. When protraction happens, the shoulder blades moves around the ribcage. The hand and arm can’t go along with this movement if they’re fixed.

Notice how the glenoid (where scapula and humerus meet) rotates anteriorly (and superiorly) as the humerus moves:

The humerus can’t reciprocate if it is fixed.

Notice how the olecranon fossa (pointy back part of person’s elbows) rotates as the person’s shoulder blades move:

(Your hands can come together when you DB bench press. They can’t when you barbell.)

The context this all happens in is critical. Doing some movements where the shoulders are being pulled together can be fine. But if it’s being cued over and over and over, and a person is never practicing e.g. upward rotation, it’s not surprising the person has gotten really good at NOT being able to move their shoulder complex overhead.

If a basketball player wants to improve their 3 point shot, they go practice it. But if they practice it so much they don’t also practice their 2 point shots, then we can’t be surprised if their 2 point shooting gets worse.

When we train people, we are always making them practice something. If we’re practicing them pulling their scapulae down and together way more than we practice them moving their scapulae forward and upward, then we can’t be surprised when people get bad at moving their scapulae forward and upward.

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