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Is The Cue ‘Pull Your Shoulders Back’ Helpful?

in YD News, YogaDork Ed

shoulder-postureby Jenni Rawlings

One of the most common instructions we tend to hear in yoga class is “pull your shoulders back”. This cue is often offered as a universal guideline for how we should position our shoulders throughout our entire practice, and it has its roots in a broader cultural idea that “shoulders back” is inherently good posture. In fact, this belief is so ubiquitous that we often don’t think to question the anatomical reasoning behind it. But as we now know, many of yoga’s traditional alignment rules could benefit from the insight of a more modern movement-science perspective. It turns out that as well-intentioned as the “shoulders back” cue is, on an anatomical level this instruction does not solve postural issues, nor does it help our body function better.

THE ANATOMY OF “SHOULDERS BACK”

For many of us, the extent of our anatomy knowledge is that our shoulders are the general, vague area located underneath the prominent shoulder pads of our mom’s awesome 80’s blazer:

80s-shoulderpads

This seemingly-simple part of the body is quite complex, however, consisting of three separate interlocking bones and four individual moving joints. At the bony level, our shoulder (often referred to anatomically as the “shoulder joint complex” or the “shoulder girdle”) actually looks something more like this under those eye-catching shoulder pads:

shoulder-joint

The shoulder girdle can move in a myriad of different ways. One pertinent pair of shoulder movements for our discussion today is protraction and retraction. When we protract our shoulders, our scapulae (shoulder blades) move away from one another on our back, and when we retract, they move toward each other. One of today’s postural realities is that many of our yoga students present with “rounded-forward shoulders” and the corresponding appearance of a caved-in chest. We interpret this overly-protracted position as non-optimal, and we therefore naturally conclude that in order to remedy it, our students should pull their shoulders back, or retract their scapulae, throughout their entire yoga practice.

Here is my good friend Rachel exaggerating the appearance of rounded-forward shoulders.

Here is my good friend Rachel exaggerating the appearance of rounded-forward shoulders.

But this well-intentioned notion is problematic for a few reasons. The first and possibly most fascinating has to do with a lack of awareness that many of us have about the way we move. Unless we’ve consciously worked to change this pattern, most of us aren’t actually able to pull our shoulders back without also moving our spine into a slight backbend. In anatomical language, we would say that most people aren’t able to retract their scapulae without also extending their spine.

Just to make sure we understand the clear difference between these two movements, let’s take a look at a simple visual aid. Scapular retraction is a horizontal motion performed by the muscles that lie between the shoulder blades and the spine:

Scapular retraction.

Scapular retraction.

Whereas spinal extension is a vertical movement performed by the muscles that run up and down along the spine, like this:

Spinal extension.

Spinal extension.

Although these are clearly two distinct anatomical actions, in most people they have become “lumped together” as one undiscriminated movement. Therefore, when we ask students to pull their shoulders back, they will more than likely also unconsciously extend their spine.

Now spinal extension is of course a fine movement in general, but if we’re asking our students to move their shoulders back, we’re really requesting pure scapular retraction – no unnecessary extra movements included. Aside from that, as I’ve discussed before, when many of us extend our spines, we end up unknowingly performing most of the movement at T12/L1, the very mobile vertebral segment at which the thoracic and lumbar spines meet. When this happens, our front lower ribs protrude forward, our chest lifts toward the sky, and we end up creating non-optimal compression in the lumbar spine region. This is not a favorable position for our spine, but it is the position that 95% of our students will assume if we ask them to pull their shoulders back.

lungsAnother reason that constantly pulling our shoulders back all day is undesirable is that it negatively impacts the quality of our breath. The “shoulders back, chest up” position which we so commonly equate with good posture in fact impedes our ability to take a full, nourishing breath. Give this experiment a quick try in your own body: for a moment, pretend that your yoga teacher just cued your class to pull their shoulders back, and be a dutiful student by retracting your scapulae and lifting your chest. Then place your hands on either side of your rib cage and take a full breath cycle of inhale and exhale, allowing your rib cage to swell laterally into your hands on the inhale. Notice how deeply you were able to inhale. Now stop squeezing your scapulae back – just allow your shoulders to relax forward – and find a neutral rib cage by dropping your front low ribs down until they are buried beneath your abdominal flesh. Try inhaling into your hands in this new position. Your breath capacity should be noticeably more expansive. This is a perfect example of how the way you choose to position your body in space can have a direct effect on how your body functions.

A third reason that chronic scapular retraction is problematic is that this action creates unnecessary tension in our upper- and mid-back. In fact, if you happen to be familiar with massage therapy, you might know that the rhomboids and middle trapezius – the muscles that lie in between the shoulder blades – are a classic place in which clients love to receive massage. One main reason that this area so commonly craves the therapeutic touch of massage is that many of us spend the majority of our day using muscular effort to pull our shoulders back. Massage helps to relieve the chronic tension created by this habit, but its effects are usually only temporary.

WHAT SHOULD WE DO WITH OUR SHOULDERS INSTEAD?

As radical as it might seem, instead of pulling your shoulders back, try simply allowing them to relax. Let go of any retracting effort and just let your shoulders naturally fall where they will. Although this might “feel” to you like your shoulders are too rounded forward, the truth for most people is that if they were look at themselves in a mirror, they would discover that their shoulders are not nearly as far forward as they thought they were (although some rounding is quite normal). Allow your default alignment to be a shoulder girdle that is relaxed and free from effort. And then in the longer term, begin to proactively target the tension that is pulling your shoulders forward in the first place with smart stretches and conscious movement exercises designed for the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor muscles of the front of the chest.

In conclusion, the idea that we should pull our shoulders back throughout our whole yoga practice (and all day long in general) is a universal alignment cue that does not serve our body well. Let’s instead learn to only offer this cue during yoga asanas in which scapular retraction enhances the specific anatomical purpose of the pose. The more that we strive to teach intentional movement versus scripted alignment cues, the more our students will benefit from the insightful quality of our classes!

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Jenni Rawlings loves to weave her natural interest in anatomy and biomechanics into her yoga teaching. She is grateful to so many teachers who inspire her, most notably amazing biomechanist Katy Bowman. You can find out more about Jenni at www.jennirawlings.com.

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Earlier

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10 comments… add one

  • John

    Another “every one says” article. This “ubiquitous” cue is one I’ve only heard from John Friend’s people. I’m sure a lot of other people use it but the problem with these “every one is wrong, I’m here to put them right” articles is every one isn’t “wrong”. A number of teachers specifically cue relaxing the shoulders, rather than pulling them back. As some one guaranteed an injury if I follow the “pull back” cue I’m all for teachers doing away with it but this recurring “every one thinks, I’ll teach you better” format is grating, and inaccurate.

  • Nadine

    Agreed. I would receive this author’s articles much more willingly without the “I’m right and everyone else is wrong” tone.

  • ela

    I agree. I understand a relaxed upper body, however for me, if I am not using conscious awareness to expand my chest and relax my shoulders away from my ears, I’ll have major thoracic complications.

  • Great article. Posture is also predominantly an unconscious process and there are many historical factors that contribute. I like your advice to just relax and it could perhaps go one step further. Simply become deeply aware. Follow the sensations deeply with real curiosity and there is a lot to be gained. Thanks for the article.

  • John

    I have to disagree. There is no such thing as a universal alignment cue. Everyone’s body is different, and every instruction is entirely relative. However, for certain people retracting the scapula is an important action because they are chronically protracted with kyphotic spines. As you point out, retracting the scapula aids in spinal extension. For older, less mobile folks, this can be very helpful in creating freedom in the cervical spine and breathing. Not everyone is young, mobile, and anatomically neutral. “Pulling the shoulders back” isn’t very elegant, but moving the shoulder blades from the outside in is helpful for A LOT of people. Just look at what happens as the body ages. Relaxation and “stretching” will only do so much. There has to be opposing strength created.

  • Lisa

    Yes! I have very rounded shoulders and was seeing a chiropractor. He gave me a number of strengthening exercises for the upper back and shoulders, and the basic movement involved in all of the exercises was pulling the shoulder blades in and down (and doing a series of movements while maintaining that shoulder position). It has helped me immensely with my general posture, and overall strength. If I had just let my shoulders be, for my body type, this would not have been healthy and balanced in the long run.

  • Dwayne

    Seems like a manufactured “controversy”. I’ve *never* heard the cue “pull your shoulders back”. I often hear the cue “pull your shoulder blades together”, which (fortunately?) mostly works for me. Agreed on the author’s constant “I’m right and everybody else is wrong” tone.

  • Natalie

    Harsh comments. As an anatomy nerd, I enjoyed this article and the author’s effort to bring more movement science to yoga. That said, I agree the issue with shoulders and cuing is more subtle than rejecting “universal alignment” cues.

    There are a lot of different cues that can lead to the end result of people pulling on the shoulder blades and tightening the upper back in ways that are not helpful. For instance instructions relating to the arm bones. Further, this type of tension often happens even without cues or yoga class. It would benefit yoga teachers to deepen their understanding of the underlying movement and tension/compensation patterns simply because they are present in students’ bodies, not necessarily that teachers are cuing wrong.

    Personally I’m tired of simplistic portrayals of protraction as forward and retraction as back. In reality shoulder blade movement is complex and unfortunately oversimplifying happens too often and isn’t constructive. I do think this problem affects both yoga articles and yoga cuing. In my experience yoga teachers who get into anatomical detail in their cuing often do so in a simplistic way that ranges from overlooking individualization to basic anatomical inaccuracy (any alignment-based teaching style, not just Anusara). It’s also questionable how much teachers should use internal rather than external cues anyway, for overall effectiveness.

    However if I had to boil my yoga shoulder instruction grievances down to one thing, I would say the lack of inclusion/emphasis on the importance of posterior tilt for neutral posture (in the case of rounded shoulders with excessive anterior tilt) and shoulder flexion. Yet I don’t see how that could be discussed without also discussion of upward/downward rotation, slight lateral scapula movement also needed for overhead elevation, as well as the role of excessive lat activation or tightness (for some students but not others) and how this contributes to restrictions in thoracic mobility and breath that need to be addressed for healthy shoulder movement (I think this is very relevant to the author’s mention of excess spine extension), and of course how chronic shoulder protraction and anterior tilt (whether or not also associated with dominance of the lats and internal rotators) are often accompanied by tension patterns in the levator scapula, neck, and rhomboid minor (muscles in the upper back moreso than the midback – author mentions midback however this could be more related to lats and extension than compensation for shoulder blade posture, although perhaps depends on the individual student’s underlying patterns), as well as how thoracic mobility generally impacts shoulder function.

    In conclusion, I don’t know how to make shoulder blade anatomy both accessible and effective, but I admire the author for trying.

  • ela

    I agree. I understand a relaxed upper body, however for me, if I am not using conscious awareness to expand my chest and relax my shoulders away from my ears, I’ll have major thoracic complications.

  • How would one laterally rotate and stabilize the shoulders when lifting the arms if they were slumped / rounded excessively forward?

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