by Simon Borg-Olivier
When you should lift your shoulder blades up as high as possible
As I travel around the world I see many people in the world of exercise and yoga teach and practice that when you lift your arms up in the air you should pull the shoulder blades down (scapula depression). While there are times when you should not lift your shoulders or shoulder blades (such as if it causes pain), there are a lot of really good reasons to lift your shoulder blades up (elevate the scapulo-thoracic joint) when your arms are raised above your head (glenohumeral joint flexion) (Figure 1). This is not new information. It is precisely what Sri BKS Iyengar taught and you can see him practice in his classic book ‘Light on Yoga’ (Figure 2), but for reasons, (some of which I’ll also explain below) many teachers around the world of modern yoga today teach and practice that when your arms are above your head you should pull the shoulders down.
Lifting the shoulder blades up high (scapula elevation) while the arms are above the head (glenohumeral flexion) is actually a very natural movement. Most people have done this at least when they were children and they hung on a tree or a bar. Even adults who find it difficult to lift their arms high can often do it easily and without pain if someone helps them like I am showing in Figure 3.
If a person with stiff shoulders and tense and stiff lower back (most normal adults), and especially those with lower back pain, lift their arms above their heads, they will tend to also bend their spine backwards (spinal extension), which can compress their lower back. This will often increase back pain due to the compression and extension of the lower back. However, back pain will tend to increase further if such a person is told to pull their shoulder blades down (scapular depression) while their arms are up (glenohumeral flexion). However, if they are instructed to lift their shoulders up (scapula elevation) while their arms are up (glenohumeral flexion), the pain tends to decrease. If the neck becomes tense or painful when the shoulder blades are lifted, then a simple solution, that works for most people is to push the shoulder blades forward (scacpula protraction), and this can release any tension above the shoulders in the neck region (via reciprocal relaxation) and increase shoulder stability (via activation of the ‘armpit’ muscles latissimus dorsi (Figure 4) and pectoralis major (Figure 5). If pushing the shoulder blades forward (sacpula protraction) does not release tension above the shoulder blades up (scapula elevation) in the neck region, then simply do not lift the shoulder blades up all. However in this case if the shoulder blades are not able to be elevated it is important you address the issues mentioned below that are alleviated by lifting the shoulders.
Raising your shoulder blades can help lengthen and mobilise your spine:
Raising your shoulder blades (scapula elevation) can traction (lengthen) your spine by physically pulling your upper spine away from your lower spine. Your spine can be lengthened more easily in the standing erect posture if you bend the knees slightly and allow the sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) to ‘drop down like a weight on a string’ that is the spine.
Raising your shoulders can relieve lower back pain:
Tractioning the spine can also relieve any pinching in the lower back and thus relieve lower back pain. This is especially true if the back is bending backwards (spinal extension) in postures such as Urdhva Hastasana (arms above the head in standing), Utthita Virabhadrasana (‘warrior posture’) and Utthita San Chalanasana (‘deep lunging posture’ see Figure 6a).
Relief of back pain in postures with the arms lifted high above the head is more likely to happen if you breathe diaphragmatically (i.e. into your abdomen), which causes a reciprocal relaxation of the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation muscles (such as the internal and external abdominal oblique muscles – Figures 6b and 7). The muscles of forced abdominal exhalation muscles actually cause tension in the lower back when they are constantly active because they are circumferential muscles and go from the front of the trunk to the back of the body.
Figure 6b: Internal Abdominal Oblique Muscle: When the internal and external abdominal oblique muscles are activated at the same time they act as the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation. These muscles are circumferential trunk muscles that make the lower back tense when over- active. These muscles are also made active when the shoulder blades are pulled down actively by the latissimus dorsi (figure 4). The oblique muscles can be reciprocally relaxed using the muscle of abdominal inhalation (the diaphragm) by breathing into the abdomen. They can be further released and relaxed by lifting the arms and shoulders as high as possible above the head (glenohumeral flexion with scapula elevation) (Diagram from Essential Anatomy App)
Raising your shoulders can increase blood circulation without increasing heart rate:
Tractioning the spine by lifting the shoulder blades creates more space between each vertebral segment and therefore increases blood flow to those parts. Whenever you move two parts of the body apart (such a two vertebrae) this will decrease local pressure and create a suction-like effect that can ‘pull’ blood to that area and increase blood flow in general. This is especially important in the trunk as the spine is surrounded by blood vessels (veins) that do not have the same one-way back flow valves that are present in the veins of the arms and the legs. This also works a lot better if you emphasise diaphragmatic inhalations (which tend to help relax unnecessary tension in the lower trunk), and also if you move from one position to the next by moving one vertebra at a time from the base of the spine at L5-S1 to the base of the skull (like squeezing a toothpaste tube from the bottom to the top).
In addition, it is also important to not pull the shoulders down in every posture or the blood supply to your arms and hands will be compromised. People who always practice with the armpit muscles (latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major) tense (active) or by pulling the shoulder blades downwards often have cold hands. If fact it is quite easy for most people to demonstrate this for themselves by consciously tightening the armpits. The best way to really tighten the armpit muscles (latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major) is to pull the shoulder blades down, turn the arms inwards and squeeze the elbows towards your spine behind your back (scapulo-thoracic joint depression and retraction, and glenohumeral joint extension, internal rotation and adduction). This activity can temporarily restrict blood flow to the extent that most people can voluntarily restrict or even stop the pulse in their wrist by doing this.
Raising you shoulders can help you breathe calmly into your chest:
The ability to calmly breathe into the chest confers a number of health benefits including being able to fill the top of the lungs with air, expanding the chest and upper back (which mobilises the ribs and also tractions the thoracic spine), and increasing blood return to the heart. Most people (up to 90% of people) can only breathe into the chest by stressfully inhibiting the diaphragm (the abdominal inhalation muscle) by activating the muscles that oppose the diaphragm (Note – you can check if you cannot really inhale into the chest without inhibiting the diaphragm if it is easier for you to inhale into the chest with your abdomen firmed by the abdominal exhalation muscles and much harder to inhale into the chest with the abdomen completely relaxed like a relaxed baby’s belly). The abdominal exhalation muscles draw the navel closer to the spine and inhibit the diaphragm, block blood flow, and stiffen or immobilise the spine. Raising the shoulder blades pulls on the chest, and thus causes the chest to expand without causing stress; and this can lift the internal organs up away from the hips and allow a natural relief for the prolapsed organs.
Raising your shoulders can help you relieve organ prolapse:
With age and illness the internal organs tend to prolapse (move towards the hips) and can cause problems related to infertility, the absorption of food, the elimination of wastes, the immune system as well as bladder problems. Once you can learn to breathe into the chest without inhibiting the diaphragm you will be able to pull your abdominal internal organs away from your hips and relieve prolapse. Lifting the shoulders and breathing into the chest can help to lift the abdominal organs upwards and relieve certain types of infertility in both men and women by reducing the downward pressure on the reproductive organs caused by the digestive organs pressing on them. It is relatively common, for example, for the intestines to put pressure on the Fallopian tubes and prevent the release of eggs from the ovaries to the uterus. It is also relatively common for the intestines to put pressure on the bladder and prevent it from either filling or emptying fully. Lifting the shoulder blades can help you expand the chest more easily with the abdomen relaxed, and thus help to pull the internal organs away from the hips in the same way that uddiyana bandha (Figure 8) can do in yoga.
Raising both your shoulders can help you traction your neck:
For people who have relatively short necks and have flexible strong shoulders it is actually possible to self-traction the neck, and relieve pain and stiffness in the neck by lifting the shoulders up towards the skull and physically pushing the skull away from the body. This can be felt in almost any posture where the shoulder blades can be elevated enough, but you can clearly see this is what Sri BKS Iyengar is doing in Pada Hastasana (Figure 9).
Raising one shoulder can improve side stretches:
If you simply raise one arm to stretch and you lift your shoulder blade up this can really help to length your side, which can help to relieve lower back pain as well as make it easier to reach the top shelf at home! This is what Sri BKS Iyengar shows in his classic book ‘Light on Yoga’ (Figure 10)
Raising one shoulder can stimulate kidney function:
Raising one shoulder up during a side stretch (lateral spinal flexion) of the same side can also traction the kidney on that side of the spine while compressing the kidney of the opposite side of the spine. Compressing any region of the body or any organ tends to push blood away from that region, while expanding a region of the body or any organ tends to promote blood flow to the expanded region. Hence in the side lengthening exercises that have been enhanced by lifting the shoulder blades on that side can be very effective ways of improving kidney function.
When you should pull the shoulders down:
There are a number of occasions when it is appropriate to pull the shoulder blades down (scapula depression). For example if it hurts to lift the shoulder blades up (scapular elevation), then it is usually best not to lift them. In addition, the shoulder blades can be pulled down (scapular depression) when the arms are held up horizontally in abduction in postures such as the ‘sideways warrior stance’ (parsva virabhadrasana). The benefits of pulling the shoulder blades down in this position include:
- Releasing of neck tension (via the reciprocal relaxation reflex; when the shoulder depressors muscles including the ‘underarm’ muscles are active they can cause the reciprocal relaxation of the muscles that elevate the shoulders, which include many of the muscles that make the neck feel tense)
- Easier access to chest muscle control, chest breathing and tha-uddiyana bandha (expansion of the chest while not breathing) (via stretch reflex activation from the pectoralis muscle to the chest muscles) (Note that most people can only breathe into the chest by inhibiting the diaphragm and essentially putting themselves into a state of ‘flight or fight’ (sympathetic nervous system over-dominance) that inhibits the digestive system, immune system and reproductive system, and also causes unwarranted increases in heart rate and breathing (hyperventilation).
- Easier activation of all the abdominal muscles and mula bandha (via stretch reflex activation from the Latissimus dorsi muscles to the lower trunk and the abdominal muscles)
- Increased shoulder stability via the co-activation of shoulder depressors and elevators when you pull the shoulder blades while the arms are held horizontally (but to get the same shoulder stability with the arms above the head (glenohumeral flexion) you need to pull the shoulder blades forward (scapula protraction))
It is for these reasons that many teachers around the world teach and practice that you should always pull the shoulder blades down, and hence the confusion in many people’s teaching and the seeming discrepancy between what Sri BKS Iyengar and other yoga masters have taught compared to what many modern teachers are teaching. No single rule is good for all situations. While some times it is good to pull the shoulder blades down, it is also on many occasions much more beneficial to pull the shoulder blades up.
When you can or should pull the shoulders forwards:
The shoulder blades can or should be pulled forwards (scapula protraction):
- when the arms are above the head (glenohumeral flexion) and you need to release your neck (here pushing the armpits forwards gives reciprocal relaxation of the shoulder elevator muscles, which are behind the shoulders in this position, while the shoulder depressors (the underarm muscles) are in front of the shoulders)
- when the arms are above the head (glenohumeral flexion) and you need to stabilise the shoulder joint complex (here pushing the armpits forwards gives co-activation of opposing muscles around the shoulder joint complex (amsa bandha), which gives stability in postures requiring stability such as the handstand and even postures such as the downward facing dog pose (adho mukha svanasana)). This is also true in back-bending postures such as Urdhva Dhanurasana (the ‘supine back arch’ or ‘wheel posture’, see Figure 11)
When you can or should pull, or try to pull, the shoulders backwards:
The shoulder blades can be pulled backwards or tried to be pulled backwards (scapula retraction):
- when the arms are moved behind the body (glenohumeral extension) in positions such as those that have the hands interlocked behind the back, then you can actively try to retract (pull back) the shoulder blades.
- in positions such as the bound lotus posture (baddha padmasana), or similarly held postures such as garudasana or vatsyasana where the shoulder blades are held apart in a protracted posture, it is sometimes good to ‘try to’ pull the shoulders backwards, thus activating the muscles between the shoulder blades (shoulder retractors) in a lengthened position, and this can really relieve any tension in the upper back including the region between the shoulder blades and the base of the skull.
Keep your shoulder blades mobile (unless it is painful or causes problems to move them). Don’t keep them always in the same position. The expression says that ‘if you don’t use it you will lose it’. Therefore, keep your shoulders free and move them up and down and forward and back at different times in the different positions I have suggested here.
You can learn more about how to move your shoulders in our online courses entitled the ‘Anatomy and physiology of yoga’ and ‘Teacher training essentials: Yoga Fundamentals’. You can also refer to the comprehensive article on ‘How to lift your shoulders’ by Anatomist and yoga teacher Roger Cole
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