Is Scapular Stability a Myth?

Over the past year I’ve given my “Facts and Fallacies of Corrective Exercise” presentation approximately one billion times.

Okay maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but I’ve definitely given it a lot!

One of the topics I always come back to is the topic of scapular stability, and lately, I’ve been asking myself more and more questions. This is definitely a good thing; the problem is, I keep coming up with fewer and fewer black and white answers!

A Quick Recap on the Joint-by-Joint Approach

Mike Boyle is well-known for popularizing the joint-by-joint approach to training.

The premise is simple: The major joints in your body alternate or flip-flop with regards to whether they need more mobility training, or more stability training.

According to the joint-by-joint, the ankle typically needs more mobility, so the joint above (the knee) and the joint below (the foot) need more stability-focused training.

In case you are unfamiliar with the concept, please see the graphic below.

The Joint-by-Joint Approach

If we follow the joint-by-joint approach to the scapulae, it tell us that the scapulae needs more stability, so the joints above and below (i.e. the thoracic spine and shoulder) need more mobility.

But as with all things, I just don’t think the answer is quite that black and white. And it really all begins with one very simple question…

What is stability?

I’m a big fan of the following quote:

“Stability is control in the presence of change.”
– Charlie Weingroff

However, when most people think of scapular stability, I think the natural tendency is to focus on static stability.

Think about how you set-up on a bench press.  We all know that if your goal is to maximize your performance on the bench, you need to be as stable as possible through your upper body.

So what do you do?

Lil’ Stevie Working on STATIC Scapular Stability

Your pin your shoulder blades back and down, cranking the hell out of your rhomboids, lower traps, etc.

Again, this is static stability. In other words, once your scapulae are set they don’t move. If your goal is to bench press 500 or 1,000 pounds, this is obviously important.

But is this what most of us should be focusing on?

If you work with athletes, fat loss clients, etc., I would argue that dynamic stability is far more important and useful in everyday life.

Dynamic stability is more true (at least in my opinion) to what Charlie is defining as “control in the presence of change.”

Being able to put your shoulder blade in the right position and controlling it while pressing something overhead, performing a chin-up, or throwing a baseball is of critical importance.

The issue here is that many people have very poor active scapular stability, for at least two primary reasons

Let’s look at each of them in depth.

Stability Issue #1: Poor Thoracic Spine Position

While I’ve mentioned this numerous times before, it bears repeating:

If your thoracic spine is in a poor resting alignment, your scapulae will never be in the right position.

Read that again: If your thoracic spine is in a poor resting alignment, your scapulae will never (ever, ever, ever) be in the right position.

When we assess people at IFAST, we typically see one of two aberrant thoracic spine postures:

  • The typical excessively kyphotic/computer guy type posture, or
  • The excessively flat thoracic spine.
Excessive Thoracic Kyphosis

I think we all know an excessive kyphosis when we see one. There is either an excessive apex of the kyphosis, or the kyphosis itself is longer than it should be.

When a client comes to you with an exaggerated kyphosis, it’s standard to see winging of the inferior border of the scapula.

I’ve talked about this ad nauseum in the past, so I’m not going to belabor the point here.

A postural flaw that we don’t discuss as often is that of an excessively flat thoracic spine. When viewed from the side these clients look incredibly thin through their thorax and ribcage.

While I see it more often in women, you can definitely see it in men as well.

Flat Thoracic Spine

Furthermore, when observed from the back, you tend to see the entire medial border of their scapulae.

Back in the day we’d just diagnose this person as having a weak serratus and go on about our business, but this isn’t necessarily the case.

Instead, what we need to do is restore some degree of flexion through the thoracic spine.

If you look at the anatomy of the scapulae, there is a natural curve or arc to it. When you have a normal/natural kyphosis, the scapulae lays flat against the thoracic spine.

If you were to run your hands across their upper back, you shouldn’t be able to detect the bony prominences of the scapulae.

In contrast, a client with a flat thoracic spine has very obvious bony prominences on their scapulae. When the t-spine is too flat, the curved scapulae literally has nothing to “rest” on, which makes its bony landmarks much more prominent.

If your goal is to have adequate scapular stability, it all begins with having a natural and normal amount of kyphosis through the thoracic spine.

Too much, or too little, and your scapulae will never be as stable as it should be.

Write this down:

You must know the resting position of your body, and in this case, your thoracic spine. If you start randomly stretching/activating/strengthening without knowing position first, you’re doing it wrong!

Stability Issue #2: Poor Active Scapular Stability

Once you’ve restored a normal curvature through the thoracic spine, it’s time to focus on dynamic stability at the scapulae.

When assessing clients, it’s very easy to pick out those who have performed tons of bench presses and rows. If you ever get the chance to evaluate a powerlifter, have them perform this simple test:

When assessing their posture from the back, simply have your clients place their hands on their hips.

Rhomboid Dominance

If the scapulae wing away from the t-spine, or they try and “pin” their shoulder blades together it’s indicative of what we’d call rhomboid dominance.

Instead of the serratus and lower traps kicking on to a slight degree, the rhomboids “pull” the scapulae back and/or off the rib cage.

To improve dynamic stability, it’s important to train stability in a variety of planes/movements. I’m not as big a fan of the old-school I’s, T’s and Y’s as I used to be, but they can definitely help teach position and motor control early-on.

I hope you’re probably familiar with basic training terminology that breaks movement patterns down like this:

  • Horizontal Press (i.e. push-up variations, bench press variations, etc.)
  • Horizontal Pull (i.e. rowing variations)
  • Vertical Press (i.e. overhead pressing variations)
  • Vertical Pull (i.e. chinning variations)

When you start to rebuild a stability pattern at the upper extremity, the horizontal options are typically the safest best. When pressing or pulling horizontally there are fewer mobility and stability demands versus going overhead.

Furthermore, starting with closed chain exercises (i.e. push-ups and inverted rows) and then progressing to open chain exercises (i.e. bench presses and chest supported rows) is superior early on in a program.

Something that is rarely talked about in coaching and training circles is the role of the ribcage when training the scapulae. A critical component of scapular stability is locking down the trunk/rib cage and allowing the scapulae to move on a stable ribcage and thoracic spine.

Think about it like this: If you’re doing a push-up, allow the shoulder blades to fall together natural when lowering, and focus on actively pushing your body as far away from the floor as possible on the overcoming portion.

On an inverted row, think about actively lengthening through the upper back and allowing the scapulae to glide around the rib cage when lowering, and think about squeezing the shoulder blades together at the top.

In both of the above examples, the rib cage should be stable throughout, while the scapula is free to protract and retract. If you’re having a hard time envisioning this, hopefully the video below will help.

Another progression that we’ve had great success with here is something along these lines:

Progression to Vertical Pulling

By following this progression, you minimize mobility and stability demands on the shoulder, while starting to re-build effective stability patterns. If used in conjunction with a smart corrective warm-up and exercise progression, you should be moving significantly better in no time.

Last but not least, I’m definitely not saying that pressing is a bad thing. On the contrary, I think pressing can help improve stability and control at the shoulder joint.

However, we need to be judicious in our approach.

Again, consider starting with horizontal, closed-chain movements (i.e. push-ups) and moving to overhead work over the course of a few weeks or months. I know I’ll catch some heat for saying this, but I think more people can/should be overhead pressing, but they need to have the foundation to do it safely and effectively.

Even if I never intend to load someone by pressing them overhead, I’m still going to train them biomechanically as if I will.

That means improving their thoracic spine position, scapular stability, and dynamic rotator cuff strength are going to be integral components of their programming. I may never actually load the pattern, but I want them to have the underlying movement qualities necessary to do so safely and effectively

Summary

Scapular stability may not be a myth, but it’s definitely not as easy as pinning your shoulder blades back and together and hoping for the best.

Instead, scapular stability comes down to two primary components: Good thoracic spine positioning, and training in multiple planes for dynamic scapular stability.

Focus on both of these critical areas and you’ll be rewarded with healthier joints and improved performance to boot!

Stay strong
MR

38 Comments

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  1. Great post, Mike – and echoes a lot of the same thoughts I have with high-level throwers on a daily basis. The “down and back” generation really needs the opposite cueing they’ve received for the past decade!

    I think we need to get away from the term “scapular stability” and instead start to think of it as “glenohumeral congruency.” Of course, that would just be one more term that’s synonymous with instantaneous center of rotation, centration, etc.

    Nice work.

    EC

    • My guy!

      Only you could expect people to use the term “glenohumeral congruency” though 🙂

      Great stuff and thanks for chiming in!

      MR

  2. Mike-

    Great post. I was taking a batch of interns through the idea of “stability and mobility” last week and as soon as we got to the scapulae you start to realize that there are a lot of “ifs and buts” that go into describing the type of stability needed there. This will be some reading for them this week. Thanks man.

    Wil

  3. Agree Eric. Back and down is a great cue for someone with extremely weak lower traps, rhomboids, etc. but in general we don’t want our scapula extremely protracted or end range retracted during GH movements. It’s analogous to pelvis position during running walking or leg movement. You wouldn’t want the patient or client to have an exaggerated anterior pelvic tilt or an exaggerated posterior pelvic tilt, so our scapula should be “centrated” on the rib cage.

    Tyler Krausert, SPT, CSCS

  4. Great article Mike! I’ve been following your work (along with Eric Cressey’s) for some time now (I discovered you guys about 5 years ago when I was a freshmen in college). It’s really great to see that you guys are are always striving for progression in the field of performance enhancement and treating dysfunction.

    In regards to the Y, T, I exercises, if these small muscles are truly stabilizers, then wouldn’t it make sense to train them in that fashion versus purely concentric patterns?

    • If the ONLY goal is static stability? Maybe.

      I still think there’s value in I’s, T’s and Y’s – mostly in teaching people how to move dynamically and create motion through the scapulae. If you coach these exercises enough, you see really quickly that people have no clue how to depress, retract, etc.

      Hope that helps!
      MR

  5. Great stuff, Mike! Quick question. As far as the scapular positioning goes, do you see common positional differences between scapulae? I am thinking along the lines of the PRI methodology.

    Matt

    • Yes – typically the right side is more anteriorly tilted versus the left, and it’s largely due to rotation/position of the thoracic spine and rib cage.

      MR

  6. Fantastic post Mike, it’s always good to challenge what we think.

    I wonder if you could comment on the idea presented by Dr. Evan Osar that during exercise the scapulae should stay seated in a slight upward rotation while avoiding much retraction or depression to maintain joint centration. In a number of his videos Osar mentions the classic “down and back” cue drives dysfunction or at very least does not promote proper function.

    Thanks very much and keep putting out great articles,
    Matt

    • I can dig it, and I agree wholeheartedly.

      Got links to an relevant materials from Dr. Osar? I haven’t read much of his new stuff lately…

      Thanks!
      MR

  7. Great read as always, Mike! Just curious…since you use the I’s, T’s, and Y’s, is there a place for W’s? Or would this be a progression due to the concentric action? Or would you even use them at all in this case?
    Thanks!!

  8. Mike,

    I agree with you 100% with regard to the utilization of the overhead press, as long as the athlete has been deemed both appropriate and has been prepared for this exercise performance. With “active scapula stability” there is a requirement of efficient gleno-humeral (GH)/scapula-thoracic (ST) timing/ rhythm, which is dependent upon mobility, stability (strength), and other neuromechanisms of the body. This GH-ST “rhythm” varies depending upon the specificity of the overhead motion i.e. passive vs. active vs. light loaded vs. heavy loaded, hence I agree with Charlie’s statement of “stability is control in the presence of change”. However, throughout this overhead type exercise performance the shoulder complex is free to move efficiently for effective execution of the exercise unless inappropriate cueing, program design, etc… are incorporated into the process.

    The bench press requires retraction of the scapula to establish a stable platform from which to push. However, what also occurs during this process is an “artificial” stabilization so to speak of the scapular musculature due to the fact that additional “stability” or “fixation” has occurred due to the “pinning” of the scapula via compressive forces placed upon the scapula-thoracic joints as they are positioned between the bench and the body weight of the athlete as well as the bar load programmed for exercise performance. Compressive forces enhance joint stability, thus, if a joint is stabilized via an “artificial” vs. active method of exercise performance, does the scapula musculature need to work as hard and/or effectively or do they get a “free ride” so to speak? There is no presence of “artificial” stabilization with overhead movements.

    When appropriate for incorporation into a training program, a review of the anatomy, biomechanics and science of the shoulder complex vs. the “myth” of overhead pressing will support overhead pressing as an effective method of training. With this information at hand I am often confused why the overhead press is criticized more often than an exercise such as the bench press for the reasons cited.

    Nice article, I hope that all is well.

  9. Great article Mike. I just read a guest post on Brett Contreras’ blog where the author said he didn’t like the “packing” cue on an overhead press. He was encouraging use of the upper traps to help stabilize the shoulder in an overhead press, resulting in a big shrug. This is in obvious contradiction with the “packing” cue where the lats are working to keep the shoulders down an preventing them from elevating. Do you teach shoulder “packing” on an overhead press or do you think there is any validity to the efficiency of “unpacking” essentially and allowing a big shrug on the OH pressing variations. Thanks for making my brain work with your great articles!

    • Hi Jeremy, and hi Mike!

      Mike, as with all of your work, this article is extraordinary and thought provoking. I have been following your teachings for 12-years? now..(is that possible?) I consider you and Eric to be the OG shoulder guys, and could not have greater respect for both of you.

      If you would permit, I would like to clarify my perspective from the guest blog that Jeremy mentioned above. Your phenomenal and well deserved reputation followed you over to that discussion, where multiple readers brought up your name!

      Granted this is a tricky idea to discuss. I think a more accurate way to sum up my perspective is that the traps will still effectively stabilize (control in the presence of change) the humerus with a dynamic signal from the CNS, as opposed to an unnecessarily confusing isometric “bracing” signal from the CNS. This assumes appropriate T-spine positioning, and balanced lower and upper trapezius strength. If those variables are not in place, does it really matter what we cue?

      A significant portion of the aforementioned “change to control” is actually brought about by the “controllers” themselves (traps), as active MOVERS of the scapula, into upward rotation.

      This upward rotation combined with conscious elevation makes room for the humeral head to more cleanly rise in the subacromial space, and provides synergistic force to complete the overhead movement. The traps will still certainly tighten in its battle with the load; that could be characterized as “packing”. In this sense, they are no different than any other muscle group encountering a sticking point during a lift.

      Clearly, there is a co-contraction with the lats as the arms are down, to help stabilize the humerus with the RC, but the lats (and lower traps) better release on the way up, or you are deltoid and supraspinatus driving with the parking brake on, lifting the load as well as working against your own muscles in an antagonistic fashion.

      More importantly, excessive lat force pulls the humerus anteriorly, and excessive lower trap/rhomboid force pulls the AC joint inferiorly. This will spell impingement for some as the humerus has no room to operate as it tries to rise upwards. You did intend to raise the arms, right?

      Maybe it’s just semantics as we are all seeking appropriate contributions from all muscle groups, in appropriate sequence.

      I understand that this may not be a useful strategy for all lifters, as we all enter the party with our own anatomical, neurological tendencies. That’s what makes this issue fascinating to me!

      I will say that this cueing pattern combined with T-spine work and lower trap strengthening effectively solved all of my overhead soft tissue issues, which were substantial for some time. Plus I started lifting way more weight!

      Sorry if this post is too lengthy; these are not the easiest concepts to state briefly. All the best, and keep up the great work.

      Derrick Blanton

  10. Mike,

    Nice article.

    Do you ever teach a scapulae retraction before performing Y,T or I’s on each rep? Just curious as to your thoughts on this. I’ve seen it used, but in the vid above you didn’t.
    Great work
    Shannan

    • I will sometimes cue retraction first, especially early on if someone doesn’t understand what “retraction” or “depression” is.

      However, as a client progresses you need to smooth it out and simultaneously retract/depress the scapulae while moving the humerus.

      Hope that makes sense. Thanks!
      MR

  11. hey Mike-
    first off I must begin by saying the bench press is not my best lift but in a previous article of yours called step by step benching you say that your shoulders should be back and down…now in this article you (and Eric in his comment) are saying they shouldn’t be…I am confused…I have always depressed and retracted my scapula when I bench not to mention always packing my shoulders in my oh movements (specifically KB work-C&P, snatch e.g.)

    • Ellen –

      You DO want shoulders back and down when benching – this is a static position and it improves stability and performance.

      However, simply cuing “back and down” all the time (and especially during dynamic overhead exercises), isn’t ideal and there’s a lot more to it than that.

      Hopefully this post cleared that up a bit 😉

      Thanks!

  12. Great stuff Mike! That makes so much more sense. ‘Down and back’ has it’s place but things are not black and white and cueing everybody the same way couldn’t be further from right. @ derrick- good points

  13. Hey Mike, Great Read. I had a few questions and I’ll try and keep it brief.
    – What do you think about posterior tilting the scapula, to free up the labrum and bicep tendon during the row? (using the row as one example)
    – In reference to the pushup, you mention lowering down during the eccentric phase of the pushup, so that the scapula glides on the rib cage. Does that mean you wouldn’t try to engage the lats on the lowering phase , (I.e. pulling yourself towards the ground?
    Thanks – I understand nothing is black and white especially when it comes the shoulder. Thanks again.

    • Moshe –

      I don’t cue active “pulling” of the shoulder blades together. I just want the eccentric to be natural and controlled.

      Also, I think it’s hard to posteriorly tilt the scapulae on a row. The movement doesn’t lend itself to posterior tilt as much as it does pure retraction.

      Hope that helps!
      MR

  14. I love the post Mike! You definitely hit the nail on the head about working the scapula in different directions and not always training static scapula stability. You have great insight on portraying how deep the rabbit hole goes on the term “scapula stability” or “glenohumeral congruency”. Keep up the great work!

  15. Mike – I read both your and EC’s blog regularly and I always see you guys showing pictures of kyphosis and scapular positioning. I’m not gonna lie…I cannot see the difference or what exactly you’re referencing. And, I have scap issues…my mobility, stability, and control sucks! I read a lot about the scapulae because I get unilateral winging. I feel like I may be in a little bit of a kyphotic posture and my mobility in that region isn’t great, but I work on it daily. I use exercises like scap pushups, side lying thoracic extensions, band pull aparts, and reach, roll, and lift as activations in my warmup. Also, I do what I call the shoulder shop (int rot, ext rot, upright row to ext rot, band T’s, X’s and pulldowns) once a week and a posterior shoulder shop (hand walking, side DB drop, OH BB shrug, cuban press, St. arm lat pull down, scap pushup) once a week. Also during working strength sets I’m always working on stretching my upper traps and neck as I feel like they are tight and doing more sets of the activations I do in the warmup. I also do a lot band pullaparts and side lying external rotation in between working pressing sets. I also go to a chiropractor every other week. (I also did your corrective program once upon a time) But, it seems no matter how much I’m doing on my thoracic area it always seems tight and I always get unilateral winging after it’s been about 3 days since my chiro visit. My scaps even have a little bit of cracking/crunching sound when I pinch them together or move them apart. It’s frustrating to admit this because I am a strength coach myself, but just can’t seem to self assess and fix my own issues. What gives?

    • Chris –

      Stop trying to fix things yourself! You need to have someone evaluate you who can be impartial.

      Where do you live? I’ll see if I know someone there (or close) that can help.

      Thanks!
      MR

  16. Mike, i understand from a functional anatomy standpoint why rhomboid dominance can result in the person “pinning” their shoulder blades together. but why would rhomboid dominance cause the scapulae to wing away from the t-spine? if they are winging away, are not the rhomboids relaxed and on stretch? as from what i understand their job is to bring the scapulae together. or is it a matter of upper rhomboids being dominant over the lower rhomboids?

  17. Hi Mike
    Thanks for all the great info. I am a physio in New Zealand and find all your stuff really useful.

    When you talk about changing the thoracic spine position (reduce or increase kyphosis), what have you found to be the best tools for doing this ?

    Thanks again
    Marcel

  18. What things should be prescribed to help excessive thoracic kyphosis? Besides consciously being aware of posture and horizontal rowing, what else can be done to fix this? Thanks!

  19. Hey Mike!
    Im a strength & conditioning coach living in Helsinki, Finland. Was googling this topic for a couple of hours and you by far seem to have the most sofisticated thoughts about the issue compared to other trainer blogs.
    I also completety agree with with Charlie’s statement of “stability is control in the presence of change”. Some of us here in Finland though have an different approach conserning the horizontal pulls and how it at best supports Scapular Stability. Letting the scapula slide across the thoracic spine in certain movements can be very important, but in pulling movements such as bent over row we actaully have had success with retracting the scapula to its natural position and keeping it there the whole movement (success meaning no non-contact injuries yet! Knock on wood). By keeping it there in a static position, even though the weights get big, is a sign of good scapular stabilization. As soon as the scapulas move, the athlete is told to pull the barbell up.
    With certain push movements such as the push up we sometimes practice more of dynamic stabilization, where we let the scapulas retract on the top to active the serratus muscles in a controlled manner. After emphasizing this we progress to jump push ups so that the serratus get that proper nervous system stimulus.

    So to summerize I actually disagree in letting the scapulas slide in horizontal pulling movements, but I was hoping you would respond and find a flaw in my logic.

    Anyway, great post! And have a great Week!
    – Johan

    • If you define stability as simple as the scapulae “not moving” then it’s hard to argue your point.

      However, scapular stability is just one component of total shoulder stability. Shoulder stability is having the scapulae in the right place at the right time, so that the ‘cuff can reflexively do its job. Basically, it’s more than just holding an isometric, as most sporting movements require stability while the shoulder/scapulae/t-spine are moving.

      You make a great point, but I think it all comes down to how you define stability, and the context in which you’re looking to improve it.

      Hope that helps!
      MR

  20. Hi Mike,

    I’ve got a really quick question for you: Are the middle trapezius fibers also dominant (tight/short) when rhomboid dominance is present? Hope to hear back from you, thanks!

  21. As someone with a flat thoracic spine, what are the corrective exercises that you would recommand ? I would highly appreciate an answer on this subject

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