Immoral Shoulders: too forward for their own good?


There seems to be a  developing debate between ‘shoulders shrugged’ and ‘shoulders down with external arm rotation’ when overhead squatting, or hanging from a bar. As happens, too often. a therapist decides that their simplistic view of the world is “king” and attempts to foist it on others. The explanations they give often seem credible as they have quite good anatomical knowledge .

Here are some ideas and observations: I dont claim to be right. I do claim to be inspired by Greg Glassman and all those who teach the level 1 certification. The  Crossfit gift is  it’s encouragement  to think.

At first glance the debate seems to be about the elevation of the shoulder; and that,  by implication is wrong and bad (sorry, I have  a very childlike view of the world; wrong and bad, nice and good!
)So when I heard the advice ‘shoulders down’, I panicked (I do this  a lot; I’m 50 and already practising to be a bewildered OAP)In a real world, a pull up from the ground begins with shoulders elevated (especially if you are small and the bar/branch is high). We train the pull up because it is functional. It lifts us up from unfriendly places towards, hopefully, friendlier places; out of rivers onto the bank, from the ground into trees. The hang is a totally natural move and part of our physiology. An elevated shoulder girdle is, surely, part of the reaching-up process.

The shrug has also been part of physical training for many years. Paul Kelso produces an excellent book (Kelso’s Shrug book) which details (too) many types of shrugs.

But Jeff Martone  said in his Kettlebell Certification, “Pull your shoulder down when Turkish get-upping”, er, people” (he does that a lot). This didn’t make sense to me. If something is bearing down on me, I naturally push back (this is probably a psychological thing that  few years in therapy could sort out.  Its also the basis of an anti- welsh sheep joke)

I though about Olympic lifting, and as a result of an hour watching You Tube (and bearing in mind different camera angles and musculature) I’d subjectively say 80% had ‘active shoulders’ while attempting to shove their shoulders up.

However, on the cover of Kono’s book,” Weightlifting, Olympic style (a world champion)”, Kono’s shoulders appear to be down and packed. However the text states he ‘uses traps violently in his pulls’ and suggests you ‘should be fighting against the compressive force that the arms and body are subjected to by exerting a counter force to stretch as tall as possible and at the same time, pushing the bar as high as possible’.

Greg Everett was in his book  olympic weightlifting, is anti packing ( see page 61, 62), so well and truely on the side of the shruggers.

Then I saw an article by Craig Liebenson “ Y exercise for correcting the most common faulty movement pattern of the shoulder/neck region” (J body work 2011 15, 391-394)

“in the upper back . shoulder girdle  or neck area  the key faulty movement is an abnormal  scapulohumeral rhythm. this causes the shoulder girdle to shrug up towards the ears and results in increased neck/shoulder muscle tension, rounded shoulders and forward head posture. these are the hall marks of dysfunction which predispose to either pain or loss of athletic performance”

His  key solution is to learn how to “pack the shoulder”:

Then I started thinking. Up to now my thinking (above) had been  that of a  tearful 4 year old, “he said, then  she said  then he said…sob”

If you have been taught   how to squat properly its the same shoulder position as for the deadlift and the front squat: Shoulders back and  down ( not pinched!) There’s a natural place for them which make  you look as if you have  a noble posture and are worth procreating with ( probably what the therapists mean by packed)

Noble, shoulders down..good breeding stock…

If  from this position you shrug, or overhead squat, when you shrug your shoulders, they elevate nicely, they dont roll over. and here  I think is the main cause of the confusion.

unless the set up is correct, and especially if the trainee has rounded shoulders( and a forward head posture)

dont stoop.. and dont carry this into your physical training

The upward driving shrug becomes  a functionally misconceived  and misdirected forward roll of the scaplua,  no doubt lured by a tight and cheeky  pec minor( along with its tight chest cronies, the pec major, the subclavicular, and tight intercostals  under some  locked down fascia) thus changing the direction of the glenoid fossa into  in a sub optimal position could probably result in injury.

the immoral shoulder.. shoulder too forward

In short, there is nothing wrong with the core crossfit cue  of “try to get your shoulders into your ears”  Firstly Remember cues are quick  “fun” summaries. After all “hips, hips hips”  or the often heard “iipsipsipsips” doesn’t really summarized hip extension, so shoulders in ears isnt  the whole story.

i wonder if the better advise is to set the shoulders back and down, and then, as long as the movement is in that plan, its ok to shrug?

At Crossfit London we have always been lucky, We have always had the coaching point “kittens” to guide our training and shrugging: You want to bounce the (2)  sleeping kittems (the ones on your shoulder) straight up and off, not off to the front. For the overhead squat, raise those kittens as high as possible gets properly set shoulders to  engage and brace against the weight to come in the overhead squat and snatch: Up is, by the way, up there, not towards me… good job!

Feedback much appreciated.

Some Extra Research Observations

While researching this, I came across some interesting articles and observations

1) Median nerve and Overactive traps

There is much concern about the constant elevated positioning of the shoulder girdle., this can be due to the  preconditioning  of the median  nerve . the upper trap becomes over active to reduce tension in the median nerve, by elevating the shoulder girdle.

2) Perhaps Depression Not so Good

According to “Influence of scapular position on the pressure pain threshold of the upper trapezius muscle region “ 2008 (European journal of pain)  a position of scapula depression ( could that be scapula packing) will maintain the upper trapezius muscle region in a lengthened position, causing excessive strain. Hmm, Put that in your theraputic pipe, but don’t smoke , it as it will ruin your karma..

3) Single arms

interestingly, many commentators on  shoulder function, were  based on open chain activity, tennis, swimming, dumbbell where the movement has instability,,, unlike a pull up, bar, which is locked…..Im not sure if this means anything, but thought i mention it.

4) The Upper tarpezius Does not elevate the shoulder !!!
check out  “Anatomy and Actions of the Trapezius Muscle,” by Johnson and Bogduk, et al., nicely reviewed by Warren hammer. The Upper Traps, dont elevate.

Who Knew


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