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!


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