Shoulder Strength – Scapular Mobility and Stability

Can you raise the roof?

Scapular mobility and stability are important components of a strong and functional shoulder girdle. Mobility and stability must go hand in hand for this joint to be functional. As the scapula is stabilized in place, the shoulder is given a stable base from which to enact the various arm movements involved in daily actions and sundry activities. The scapula must also, at times, be mobile so that the full range of movement in the shoulder joint is possible.

The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body. Mobility is loosely defined as the ability to produce ‘x’ degree of the desired movement. The muscles and ligaments which attach to the scapulae stabilize them; this stabilization is advantageous for a full range of movements in the shoulder joint.

All upper body arm movement is dictated by the health of the shoulders. If the shoulders are not healthy, upper body movements will be compromised.

We have put together a pictorial and videos of movements that involve synchronous interaction of the shoulder and the scapula. When the arms reach up, the scapulae move up and out (elevation and outward rotation), when the arms reach forward, the scapulae move around and forward (protraction), when the arms pull (something) back, the scapulae move in toward the spine (retraction) and when the arms extend down from the side of the body towards the floor, the scapula move down and rotate in (depression and inward rotation). In all of the actions, the scapulae move and stabilize the movements of the shoulder joint.

    Neutral scapula allows for maximum width of the chest and a resting engagement of the muscles that move the scapulae (shoulder blades). The scapulae are in neutral position when they lie flush against the rib cage. There is no winging or tilting.

A picture of the scapulae in neutral position.

    Scapular elevation – This movement turns on the upper traps, the Levator scapulae and associated muscles. This movement tends to overemphasize the strength and tone of the neck musculature. Boxers utilize this move as they tuck their heads down to avoid “taking it on the chin.”

    Scapular elevation, in a less extreme instance, can be indicative of continual, undue tension and tightness in the neck and shoulder area. An imbalance in between the tone of the scapular elevators and the scapular depressors may need to be corrected.

A video on how to release tightness in the neck and shoulders.

A picture of the scapulae in elevated position.

    Scapular protraction – This is the movement involved with pushing things away from you. The muscles of the back totally relax as the pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, and medial deltoids come into play. If one is pushing something, the abdominals will engage also.

    This is also a position of the scapulae and shoulders, when one is sitting and the arms are by the side, that is indicative of poor muscle tone in the back and or excessive tone in the musculature of the chest.

A video on reversing the effects of sitting and reaching all day

A picture of the position of the scaplae when there is minimal muscle tone in the back.

A video showing basic movements for depressing/retracting the scapulae

A video showing an advanced movement for depressing/retracting the scapulae

A picture of the scapulae when the associated musculature is fully engaged with arms overhead.

    Scapular retraction/with shoulder flexion – With arms extended, the shoulders blades are pulled together, like the two sides of a table come together after the leaf is taken out. This movement maximally engages the mid to low trapezius muscles and the rhomboids. This movement can also be executed with the arms down by one’s side.

A video demonstration on developing scapular retraction

A picture of the scapulae when pulling something back toward yourself.

    Scapular depression – This is maximal engagement of the lats and the mid to low trap. There is medium to maximal amount of activation of the rhomboids. This movement, when used with dips, is a definite triceps/deltoid/latissimus dorsi builder.

A picture of the back musculature when the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids and mid and low trapezius are fully engaged.

Rick Olderman, MSPT, author of the ‘Fixing You’ series of books, believes that all neck and shoulder pain is the result of poor scapular function. “Scapular dysfunction is prevalent because [the scapulae] sit on the back of our trunk and aren’t adequately addressed by most exercise programs, or in our daily routines,” Olderman adds.
Idea Fitness Journal, September 2011, page 17.

We will be presenting some exercises that can help with correcting most deficiencies of movement that you may be experiencing in any of these areas.

Please e-mail us at if you have any questions.

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