How to Improve Scapular Stability – Many sports and athletic activities like baseball, volleyball, swimming, boxing and weightlifting, rely heavily on strong and powerful shoulders. If your shoulders become unbalanced or unstable your participation may be limited by pain or weakness and eventually injury.

Shoulder Anatomy

Your shoulder is formed by the intersection of three bones: your clavicle or collarbone, your scapula or shoulder blade, and your humerus, the bone in your upper arm. These bones and their intersection are surrounded by supporting ligaments, tendons and muscles. You will often hear this group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint referred to as your rotator cuff.

Your rotator cuff involves four small muscles that form a “sleeve” around the shoulder joint and allow you to raise your arm overhead. These four muscles are the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis. The rotator cuff muscles work in opposition to the deltoid muscles and depress the head of the humerus, that upper arm bone, during shoulder elevation.

Your scapula is often referred to as your shoulder blade. The scapula and its overlying muscles and tendons connect your humerus to your collarbone. There are three major muscles that are responsible for the movement of the shoulder blade: your trapezius, rhomboids and serratus anterior. These muscles, known as scapular stabilizers, help your shoulder rotator cuff muscles to stabilize the entire shoulder joint while in motion. Without this scapular stabilization of the rotator cuff, you would not be able to hit a baseball, tennis ball or swing a golf club.

How To Improve Scapular Stability

Swimmers and Olympic lifters are considered “overhead athletes” who are more susceptible to shoulder injuries. These athletes need a good scapular stabilization program that targets not only the prime movers the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor but also the scapular stabilizers and the entire rotator cuff. Athletes often neglect their rear shoulders, but incorporating rowing and pulling exercises can correct that. In many people, their scapula is protracted, tilted forward and rotated downward which eventually leads to shoulder impingement. As your scapula moves forward and down, the head of your humerus gets caught under the acromion, the bony process at the top of your shoulder blade.

Your scapular stabilization program should also be designed to avoid scapular dyskinesis which is an alteration in the normal position or motion of the scapula. Your training should prevent the abnormal recruitment timing and increase the strength of the lower and middle trapezius, the two prime movers (major muscles) in your back and balance training with their opposing muscles, the pectorals and deltoids. Good scapular stability is crucial to preserve range of motion and prevent injuries. A critical component of scapular stability is locking down the core and rib cage and allowing the scapulae to move on a stable rib cage and thoracic spine.

Avoiding Rotator Cuff Injury

A good shoulder training program should include both scapular stabilization and rotator cuff strengthening exercises. The most commonly injured muscle in the rotator cuff is the supraspinatus which is responsible for initiating and elevating the arm. If your supraspinatus is injured or torn, you would likely experience persistent pain in your upper outside arm and noticeable difficulty raising your arm without an involuntary motion from your scapula. You will literally shrug your shoulders as you lift your arms. The typical signs of a rotator cuff tear are night pain, loss of strength, and the inability to raise your arm overhead.

The first step to avoiding a rotator cuff injury is to perform adequate conditioning prior to jumping into vigorous activity. Don’t pick up the softball, baseball, or racquet and begin throwing or swinging forcefully without properly warming up.

Second, to warming up, you should focus on strengthening and conditioning the muscles of the rotator cuff. Your rotator cuff muscles are small, it is best to utilize lower weights and resistance and higher repetitions to sufficiently strengthen them. Some simple example exercises include stretch bands or light dumbbell external and internal rotational exercises.

Specific rotator cuff (and scapular stabilization) exercises include forward elevation to shoulder height in the plane of the scapula, press-ups, dumbbell horizontal abduction with and without external rotation, and diagonal arm patterns with bands, weights or medicine balls. It is also important to strengthen the muscles around your shoulder blade. These exercises include wall push-ups, shrugs, bent or cable rows and lower trapezius exercises.

When training in the gym it is important to take precautions with general exercises that are routinely performed incorrectly to avoid injury:

  • Do not perform lat pull downs or military presses behind your head. This places your shoulder in a very poor biomechanical position and may cause impingement.
  • When performing bench presses, do not lower the bar or allow the dumbbells to go below parallel with your chest.
  • Don’t use heavy weights for lateral shoulder raises, but do maintain an arc of movement slightly in front of your body with lateral raises to decrease stress on your rotator cuff.