Scapular Control Part 1
Over the last 7 years as a trainer I’ve noticed a few things that remain pretty consistent.
Men want to get ripped, women want to “tone-up” (which I think is the same thing!), and both are deficient in overhead movements.
At one point in time we moved on all fours and while we didn’t have lats the size of gorillas, we did have far more control of our limbs than we do now.
The obvious answer is we moved from quadruped to biped. One can argue our overhead movements are inadequate because of technology, lack of movement, etc.
I don’t really think it matters though because on the whole people have very poor shoulder health. Period.
Whether you’re “locked up” or “hypermobile” both present the same problem; a lack of scapula control.
In this two part article I’ll show you 3 steps you can take that’ll vastly improve your shoulder health and your life at the same time.
We’ll look at steps 1 and 2 today.
Step 1 – Take a Breath
Everything starts with a breath. You’ve heard me mention this before but the plain fact of the matter is people seldom know how to breathe the proper way.
Heavy “belly breathing” and lack of apical expansion (lungs) lead to concavity in the chest, slumped shoulders, and poor shoulder health.
For some, this can all be corrected by the power of a single breath. For everyone, the inability to breathe the proper way is ultimately setting the stage for injury/setbacks down the road.
What can you do?
Practice breathing into a balloon.
The 90/90 Hip Lift is a great positional breathing exercise that will help retrain the diaphragm and promote apical expansion.
Grab a balloon and try blowing it up the way I describe below. Stand up and tell me that you don’t feel lighter, more relaxed, and better overall.
- Place the balloon in your mouth holding the balloon with your left hand
- Place the tongue on the roof of your mouth and slowly breathing in through your nose
- At the top of your inhale hold your breath for 3 seconds
- After your pause, breath into the balloon exhaling all of your air out of your lungs
- When done properly you should feel your pelvic floor engage as well as your abs tighten
- Hold the bottom of your exhale for 3 seconds and repeat.
This is a very simple breathing exercise yet so many people have a very hard time preforming it correctly.
Some common cheats:
- Pinching the balloon when you inhale
- Lifting your head when you inhale
- Not pausing at the top and bottom of each breath for 3 seconds
What you’ll notice:
- A feeling of “lightness” throughout the upper and lower body
- The ability to take a deeper breath, easier
- Increased mental clarity and focus
Your breath is the foundation to everything you do. Therefore, make sure you do this exercise before moving onto the following exercises I outline.
Step 2 – T-Spine Awareness and Control
Your thoracic spine (T-spine) is the region of your middle-back where your scapula sits. It should flex, extend, twist, and bend to each side.
As I mentioned earlier there are two problems, a lack of control due to restriction, and a lack of control due to too much range of motion.
Both have a lack of control.
The breathing you did in step 1 will only set you up for success here in part 2. Skip part 1 and you’re not only paddling upstream, but you also put yourself at risk for creating pathologies and further injury.
I’ve spoke in the past about a number of great T-spine exercises. Just the other week I mentioned the Brettzel and the Rib Pull. Both are great for mobilizing the t-spine for people who present with stiffness and lack of mobility control.
However, the Arm Bar is my favorite as it achieves both stability and mobility simultaneously.
Spending time trying to increase your flexibility is a waste of time. Instead, aim for control, which is exactly what the arm bar provides.
- “Corkscrew” your shoulder into position before initiating the roll
- Keep the shoulder away from your ears at all time during the movement
- Leave your knee at 90 degrees until you’ve gain control of the kettlebell
- Once under control begin to slide your knee out to a confortable range of motion
- Always check your breath, it should never strain or shorten
I prefer to use a manual resistance applied to my clients when their first learning the arm bar, as it’s always cautionary while holding a cannon ball with a handle over your head for the first time.
Start light and work your way up to a comfortable weight keeping in mind that this is a mobility drill, showing off that you can use a 53lb kettlebell at the expense of less mobility is unimpressive.
Here’s why this works so well…
As I mentioned the name of the game is control. The arm bar places you in a “brettzel-esque” position that helps promote T-spine mobility.
The game changes when you throw a weight over your head.
Now instead of hanging out in a nice stretch, you’re being asked to stabilize a weight over your head while rolling at the same time.
This is also where the shape and structure of the kettlebell come into play.
Unlike a dumbbell, when held overhead the kettlebell places most of the weight behind the users wrist. This helps the shoulder sit “down and back” and makes for easier packing and greater ability to gain scapular control.
Scapula control + Movement = Rock Star status
It’s an exercise beginners and advanced clients should use often. The former might use it as a workout while that latter might prefer to use it as a solid warm up.
A client with restriction gains control via mobility and stability in the arm bar.
A client with too much mobility gains control from packing the shoulder – engaging the muscles in the posterior shoulder – and maintaining that control through movement.
Both gain control and both can now move more freely.
Next week I’ll go over the 3rd and final step and how to put it all together in a workout you can use to help gain control of your scapula and be strong!