Shoulders Down or Back?

I love your newsletter and I was reading your explanation on how to stretch and exercise to keep your shoulder blades flat. I’m a 17 year old dancer and I’ve been told both to keep my shoulders down and my shoulders back. Now my question is what is the difference? And if these to things require different ways of strengthening and/or stretching I would love to know.

What a great question! Love that you are learning and questioning and seeking answers to confusing concepts. Certainly how to get proper shoulder carriage is one of those challenging areas.

The first place to check is the spinal alignment. Too often I see dancers trying to correct their shoulder placement by pulling their shoulders down or back when they need to get the spine aligned correctly. Try sitting on a chair, close your eyes, and elongate and lengthen the spine upwards without doing anything with the shoulders.

As you lengthen the spine upwards while keeping the shoulders where they are do you feel some engagement below your armpits? That’s the serratus anterior muscles.

When these muscles are working correctly they will help keep the shoulder blades properly placed on your back. I believe when teachers say put your shoulders ‘down’ they are attempting to get these muscles to turn on and your trapezius muscles to release.

Pressing your palms together while lengthening your spine upwards will also activate these important stabilizers.

Make sure you can easily move your neck when doing this to keep the neck muscles soft.

Before doing the exercises offered in How to get the shoulder blades flat you’ll want to mobilize the scapula aka the shoulder blades. Did you know that they don’t actually connect to the spine or ribs but should be able to move freely in multiple directions? I’ve found the quickest way to free them up is by doing figure 8’s. In fact, if you look at your shoulder line before doing them, then do one arm, look again at your shoulder line, you’ll find that shoulder and arm of the side you just mobilized, hanging lower. Below is a short clip demonstrating the figure 8.

Figure 8’s mobilization exercise

I don’t often tell dancers to take their shoulder blades back – although I do work to help them open up the front of the chest if its tight. (ie: slumping or rounded shoulders) Remember when a situation has both tight and weak muscles involved, generally if you release the tightness first, the muscles that need to engage will be in better placement to do so.

So stretching out the front of the chest, the pec muscles can be useful so that the rhomboids or the muscles that pull your shoulder blades towards the spine can work better. The challenge I see is when a dancer is directed to pull their shoulder blades back it often creates unnecessary tension in the upper back and doesn’t address tightness in the pecs.

The last suggestion I have for you is to see how your arm is placed in the shoulder joint. If you stand and rotate your arms inward (medially) you’ll see how the shoulders round forward. This is many people’s normal position.

Next rotate the whole arm outwards (laterally) and notice how the front of the shoulder/chest open up when you do so. You want to keep that upper arm bone more laterally rotated and then when doing port de bras have the lower arm bones rotate to give a beautiful line. I should probably do a post solely on that issue sometime!

Bottom line, more than shoulders ‘down’ or ‘back’ I think if you focus on the alignment of the spine to shoulder girdle and getting the arm properly placed in the joint you will resolve 80% of the corrections about the shoulder blades.

Last note… there are still some spots left for the June 21-23, 2019 workshop I’m offering in Fort Worth, Texas! Come play with me and other amazing teachers in an intimate setting on the beautiful TCU campus.

To your success!


How to get the shoulder blades flat on the back?

“What suggestions do you have to help dancers get their shoulder blades to lie flat on their back?”   Felicia

Okey dokey!  Let’s first talk about the anatomy of the shoulder girdle so it will make sense. It really is important to get those shoulder blades lying flat on the back so they can support the arms in port de bras as well as stabilize the shoulder girdle in multiple movements and decrease the potential for injuries.

Anatomy of the shoulder girdle

The shoulder blades, aka your scapulas, are a fairly flat, triangular bones that hang on the backside of the ribs.  They connect the upper arm bone to the collarbone.  There are 6 movements of the scapula.  You can elevate and depress (essentially a shoulder shrugging motion).

You can protract and retract which is pulling them together and separating them.  Picture on left is retraction.  That is what I often see dancers do wrong when they are doing their port de bras.

And you can rotate the scapula upwards and downwards, which is describing how the bottom of the scapula moves towards or away from the spine.

We’ve all heard of ‘winging’ shoulder blades, and that is when the inside border of the scapula moves away from the ribs.  Some teachers call them chicken wings:) This happens when there is an imbalance in the muscles of the shoulder girdle and may require both doing some stretching and strengthening in the area.

What are common reasons for winging of the scapula?

If they have a rounded of slumped standing posture when they aren’t at the barre, it’s quite possible they have tightness in the pec minor and the latissimus muscles.  Those muscles will need to be stretched as you work to strengthen the stabilizer of the shoulder blades, the serratus anterior muscle. This is the primary muscle that will need to be strengthened.

Here are pictures of the 3 muscles I’m talking about.







Stretching the lat and pec minor

There are many different ways to stretch and strengthen these muscles but I’ll give you a couple of my favorites.

I like to stretch the lats by doing a doorway or what I call a C Curve stretch.  You may feel the stretch more at the armpit area or more towards the waist and lower back.  I’ll move gently looking towards and rounding my lower back to find the sweet spot of the stretch. Another stretch is called the prayer stretch and you can google that one.

A really nice way to stretch out the pec minor is lying on a foam roller and placing your arms on a high diagonal (sometimes I start by first doing slow angel wings to move through a range of motion) Breath and allow your arms to hang towards the floor.  Move your arms slightly to find your best places to stretch.

Strengthening the serratus anterior

Now onto the serratus anterior.  It is important to properly identify when this muscle is working.  Start standing, in good alignment, and draw your hands down towards the floor.  Feel the muscle engagement under your armpit?  That’s your serratus anterior.  I want you to keep that muscle engaged through the next exercise.  Start lying on your back with your elbows at a 90 degree angle and the back of your palms lying on the ground by your head.  (like the picture above on the foam roller but without the foam roller) Keeping your back lengthened, ribs dropped, slowly slide your forearms and back of the hands upwards. You are using the serratus anterior to keep your scapula drawing towards your pelvis the whole time.  This is not easy!  Keep them engaged!

If you want a challenge you can do the same thing as a wall slide – starting with your back against the wall, feet slightly away with knees bent.  Same instructions – keep the shoulder blades drawing downwards as the forearms keep contact with the wall and are sliding upwards.

Now have them stand and place their hands in a prayer position, pressing the palms together while drawing the scapula downwards. Maintain the placement of the scapula and open thearms easily to second position and notice how wide and open their chests are! Over time they will create better muscle balance and improve their port de bras line.

To your success!