DW 27 after thoughts – Moving with ease in the shoulder girdle and neck


The key to movement with ease in your shoulders is to understand the body’s design

Does this situation sound familiar to you?

You are asking your students/clients to take their arms out to the side and up towards the ceiling (in Body Control Pilates terms this movement is called “Floating Arms”). And the students do as you ask them, their arms go up and so do their shoulders. How’s that when you asked them to lift their arms up towards the ceiling.

Maybe this situation also sounds familiar to you: In order to remedy the lifted shoulders you might say something like “take your ears away from your shoulders” and typically the shoulders release back into place more or less easily.

Many people don’t know and have the sense in their body that you can lift your arm without lifting the whole shoulder girdle up towards the ear. What many people are lacking, is the understanding that the arm can lift overhead independently from the shoulder.


Workshop “Strength, ease and balance in the shoulder girdle and neck” by Tom McCook

Building on this understanding of disassociated movement in the shoulder and arm (i.e. lifting your arm without lifting the whole shoulder), Tom McCook from Center of Balance in Californien started out on this pre-Development Weekend workshop by

  • reviewing the anatomi of the shoulder girdle and
  • exploring what kind of movement is possible in this part of the body.

On the workshop he presented:

  • The key to moving with strength, ease and balance is to understand how our body is designed
  • Tension is the enemy of movement
  • Always mobility before stability

He utilised some simple exercises both in standing and lying on small ball to show how to the movement potential in the shoulder girdle and how to release/mobilise this area. For the rest of the workshop we did exercises on the Reformer and Reformer with Tower and he always referred back to the fundamentals of good shoulder girdle movement while we were doing the exercises on the equipment.

“What a difference it made to the movement experience to have spent some time on the fundamentals!”

We actually didn’t do any specific exercises for the neck but felt anyways how the neck benefitted from moving better in the shoulder girdle. The thing is that when you move your shoulders in a more optimal way the right muscles will do the job. This means that other muscles which normally have to stand in for doing the movement can actually now relax.


Move the way the body is designed to move

Tom McCook is both a pilates teacher and Franklin Method Movement Educator. This means that his movement teaching is based on the The Franklin Method, where you learn to move your body the way it is designed to move which means more functional.

The reasoning behind it is that if you know how the body is put together and how the bones move in relationship to each other then you can move with much more ease – you avoid using muscles for a movement which you actually don’t need to use and thus you avoid unnecessary tension in those muscles.


An anatomical trip to the shoulder girdle

Let’s briefly review the shoulder girdle anatomically as we did in the workshop. How is it designed so we get the full effect of “strength, ease and balance in the shoulder girdle and neck” … ;o). If you aren’t into anatomy in general, maybe it is a relief to know that what is coming next is a very short and simplified review.

Back to the shoulder girdle. It comprises of 3 bones:
Shoulder girdle

  1. collarbone (clavicular)
  2. shoulder blade  (scapula)
  3. upper arm (humerus)

and has 3 primary joints and 1 primary functional joint

og har 3 primære led og 1 funktionelt led

  1. The joint between the collar bone and sternum (sternoclavicular joint)
  2. The joint between the collar bone and the part of the scapular called acromium (acromioclavicular joint)
  3. The joint between the upper arm and the part of the scapular called glenoid fossa (glenohumeral joint)
  4. The functional joint is the scapula sitting at the back of the rib basket (called scapula articulation)


“When we move the shoulder girdle all 3 primary and the functional joint should be moving.”


The job of the shoulder girdles muscles is:

  • provide stability AND allow mobility
  • move the scapula
  • move the upper arm

So which movement potential do we have in the shoulder girdle?

Stand up or sit on a chair and try the following movements (while you do them place a hand on the various joints and try to feel the movement. You might want to stand in front of a mirror to see how the shoulder girdle moves):

  • lift the shoulder blades up (elevation) and down (depression)
  • bring the shoulder blades slightly forward  (protraction) and bring them back together (retraction)
  • roll your shoulders – a combined movement of the above
  • lift your arm out to the side and up which means your shoulder blade swings out to the side and slightly up (upwards rotation) and swings back in and down when the arm goes down again (downwards rotation)

How was that? Did you get a sense of the movements in the joints?


Now try the exact same movements again and this time DO NOT allow any movement in

  • sternoclavicular joint (joint between the collar bone and sternum)
  • acromioclavicular joint (joint between the collar bone and acromium)
  • glenohumeral joint (joint between the humerus and glenoid fossa)
  • scapula
  • pull the scapula down and keep it down while you try to lift your arm

How was this? How did it feel? Was it even possible to do the movement? Did the movement look like something you have seen your clients/students do?


The conclusion of this short “DO-NOT-move-the-joint” exercise is that when you move the shoulder girdle

all 3 primary joints and the functional joint MUST move so you move with ease and balance in the shoulder girdle.


The shoulder girdle follows along as you move your spine

Your the shoulder girdle is placed on top of your upper body and is attached to it at the sternum and rib basket. Therefore, it is important to consider your posture or the position of your torso during the movement.

Let’s try the following movements to experience how the shoulder girdle follows along when you move your spine:

  • Stand up and do a roll down. While you are rolling down and up pay attention to what’s happening in your shoulder girdle. Are the shoulder blades moving away from each other  (protraction) or together (retraction)? And what happens when?
  • Lie onto your stomach and do a baby cobra (meaning just lift your head and upper body off the floor, your elbows will still be bend). Do the shoulder blades move towards the lumbar spine (depression) or away from it (elevation)? And what happens when?

Movement in the shoulder girdle happens as a reaction to you moving your spine.

Now try to actively move the shoulder girdle in the above movements and pay attention to how it feels. E.g. when we actively pull the shoulder blades down in the baby cobra, you might feel how your lumber compresses in not a very nice way and makes the movement uncomfortable.


Tension is the enemy of movement

Let’s try the following: Make a fist with 1 hand and really activate the whole arm to 100 %. Let go of the activation a little bit so it only “feels like” tensing 60-75 %. Hold this tension while you do a “Floating Arm” (arm out to the side and up overhead). Grab a weight or something similar while holding the tension and continue with “Floating Arm”. Also try pulling your shoulder blades down while lifting your arm.

How did that feel? Not so nice, right? ;o).


Maybe you felt that your actually couldn’t move the arm properly. Maybe you felt that you tensed even more in your muscles so the movement became painful. Or maybe you felt something different again.

Whatever you felt, you could ask yourself how prepared and capable a muscle is to do a movement if it is already engaged sufficiently before the movement even happens?

It isn’t as capable of moving you as it would have been if it had started out from a more relaxed muscle tone. And this brings me to:

Always mobilise before stabilising

During the workshop, Tom spent some time on exercises to mobilise the shoulder girdle to allow the muscle to relax. Then he would go to the stabilising exercises. As he pointed out: Stability is not only static, it is actually very dynamic and requires controlled movement.

At one point during the workshop he asked: How would you like your muscles to be (and while your read on try to imaging a piece of meat – muscles are meat after all ;o)):

“tense & dry or relaxed & juicy?”


The conclusion being that if you take some of the tension out of your muscles, they have more capability of moving you around and this will in consequence – hopefully – increase the quality of the movement.


So what now?

I am sure that the above isn’t all news and surprising to you. So how do you already utilise the knowledge about the shoulder girdle’s movement and the idea of “mobilising before stabilising” in your teaching? Or, in case they are new concepts: How do you think you can utilise them going forward?

Just to talk for myself, I find it easy to integrate “mobilising before stabilising” in my group classes. Introducing the movement and anatomy of the shoulder girdle proves more of a challenge because the concept needs more explanation.

On the other hand, I get very quick and good results in my private classes by introducing both concepts. Sometimes the change happens from one instance to the next that I marvel over how easy it is to change a movement pattern if you know how to do it.




PS: If you should have become curious about learning more about to move the body the way it is designed, you might want to consider the following workshops:

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