Unstable shoulders can make you feel weak and put you at risk for painful injuries. Don’t ignore shaky shoulders, use these scapular stabilization exercises to build the solid shoulders of your dreams.
Most sports and activities, from baseball and volleyball to boxing and weightlifting, rely heavily on power coming from your shoulders.
But if your shoulders are unstable, these activities may be regularly interrupted by pain and weakness. And you might even be setting yourself up for an injury that’s a big setback to your exercise regime.
Let’s say you’re a volleyball player, for example.
You’ve always been pretty naturally flexible, but recently your shoulder has started to feel a little too flexible… it almost feels loose.
You don’t think much of it, and continue killing it on the volleyball court – repeatedly swinging your arm overhead to spike the ball down powerfully.
But then a few times, during key moments in a game, something strange happens.
Your teammate sets you up and you prepare for your signature spike. But right as your arm moves overhead, and you prepare for a powerful swing, your shoulder has other plans.
The joint gives out and your arm crumples weakly down.
Over the weeks this happens more and more frequently as that “loose” sensation increases and general shoulder pain starts to interrupt your daily life.
Despite your years of strength-building activity, you’ve got unstable shoulders.
Don’t worry, we’ll get to the scapular stabilization exercises that will help you address this. But first, let’s take a deeper look at what’s going on.
Shoulder Stability From Every Angle
When most people think of shoulder stability, they think of scapular retraction – pulling your shoulder blades back toward each other.
This makes sense – for most of us, this feels like a very stable and solid position.
But your shoulder is a highly mobile joint that allows for a variety of different movements.
TRUE stability is setting the scapula in the most stable position for whatever shoulder position or movement is happening – and not just those that require retraction of the scaps.
In fact, your scaps have 6 different movements they perform:
- Retraction – To imagine scapular retraction, imagine a backwards motion of the scapula, moving closer towards the midline of the spine -like maybe during the backstroke of a canoe row .
- Protraction – In scapular protraction, the scapula moves toward the front plane of the body and away from the midline of the spine – like when you reach forward .
- Elevation – In scapular elevation, your scapula moves up, or toward the head – like when you’re shrugging your shoulders.
- Depression – When you depress your shoulder blades, they move back down, or toward the feet.
- Anterior tilt – In anterior tilt, your scapula tilts toward the front of your body – like when you hunch your shoulders forward .
- Posterior tilt – In posterior tilt, your scapula tilts toward the rear of your body – like when your arms are reaching overhead.
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Shoulder Movements & Scapulohumeral Rhythm
To be effective, all of these movements have to be paired and correctly timed with the humerus of the upper arm – something called scapulohumeral rhythm.
If your scapula and humerus don’t move together effectively, it can set you up for pain, injuries and instability.
For example, take the shoulder flexion required to lift your arm overhead.
To perform this movement, your scapula should upwardly rotate as your arm bone moves up.
This scapular movement allows the glenoid cavity (or shoulder cavity) on the scapula to be upwardly rotated as well . In turn, this allows the humerus, whose head is situated inside the cavity, to upwardly rotate, allowing your arm to reach up effectively.
This upward rotation of the scap allows for about half of the degrees of motion possible during shoulder flexion .
Or consider horizontal pushing and pulling.
As you push forward horizontally, the scapulae protract, or move forward and away from the spine, providing an additional range of movement and power to the motion.
This same movement happens when you throw a punch .
When you pull horizontally, the scapulae retract, moving backwards or closer toward the spine. Think about the movement of your scapulae when you’re on a rowing machine and pulling back.
This again allows for an increased range of motion by moving the shoulder cavity itself back.
If these scapular movements aren’t performed efficiently, effectively and in time with the movements of the humerus, it can help create unstable shoulders.
What’s Causing Unstable Shoulders?
There can be many contributing factors at the root of shoulder instability. And chances are, you might be at risk for unstable shoulders based on more than one of these factors.
Use it or lose it!
The sad truth is, most of us don’t learn how to control or use our scapulae properly. Overtime, if not using it, we suffer significant losses to our range of control.
This loss often stems from muscular weakness around the scaps, but it may also be caused by shoulder injuries.
Surprise, surprise! Like every shoulder and spine problem, posture plays a key role.
Picture, for example, the kyphotic thoracic spine that is all so common these days.
This hunched back doesn’t provide an ideal surface for scapular movements – leading to an interrupted scapulohumeral rhythm and shoulder instability.
Overtraining certain exercises, although likely done in an attempt to stay fit, can actually contribute to shoulder instability.
Take the Bench Press. In this move your scapulae are fixed on the bench, meaning they are unable to move naturally.
If this move is overtrained, it can affect proper scapulohumeral rhythm and shoulder stability.
Chances, you’ve probably been cued at some point to keep your scaps depressed and retracted (down and back) while performing overhead movements, like an overhead press.
But we learned earlier that UPWARD rotation of the scaps should be contributing a good bit of our range during overhead movements like shoulder flexion.
If you’ve gotten information like this misguided cue stuck in your brain and muscle memory, you could be setting yourself up for shoulder issues.
Testing for Shoulder Instability
You can perform a simple Winged Scapula Wall test to assess shoulder instability.
It specifically will help you look for winged scapula – a protrusion of the scap due to weakness or scapular movement control issues in the surrounding musculature, often the serratus anterior.
Have a buddy take a video or picture of your back as you perform it.
Simply stand in front of a wall, a few feet away. Reach your arms toward the wall with fingers pointed down.
Place your palms on the wall at about waist height and press your hands flat.
If one side of your scapulae protrude noticeably as you perform this test, it’s likely you have scapular winging and an unstable shoulder support system .
Love the exercises and your demo's. Just the right length of time on each exercise and easy to listen to. It's amazing how well some of the exercises target the area; and how testing they are with little or no weight/ resistance.
My scapula are already becoming less winged, and my shoulders feeling healthier and stronger. I have increased my shoulder press as well. These new types of exercises have re energized me in my training as well, keeping it interesting.
4 Scapular Stabilization Exercises
Now that we understand a bit more about the role of scapular movement in creating shoulder stability, let’s tackle some scapular stabilization exercises that will help shore up this important joint.
Shoulder Rotation Robot
This drill is great for training reciprocal movement at the shoulder joint – creating a nice rhythm and give and take for the joint.
Your scapulohumeral rhythm will get a reset and your scapular control will be challenged.
- Stand with your back against a wall, fingers pointing down toward the ground and elbows slightly bent
- Keeping your upper arm and elbow pressing into the wall, start to lift your right fingers and forearm away from the wall as you rotate them up
- Let the back of your hand reach the wall, fingers pointed up, and pause, pressing both hands into the wall
- As you rotate your right arm back down to the starting position, lift your left arm up, swapping positions
- Continue to move, taking one hand up as the other moves down and pausing in between
Overhead Wall Rollout
This move also works to retrain scapulohumeral rhythm through a deep range of motion. It requires an upward rotation of the scapulae during shoulder flexion, paired with a challenge for core stability.
- Stand leaning against a wall with an ab-wheel in your hands
- Protract your scapulae
- Slowly roll the ab-wheel up the wall and ensure you’re shrugging your shoulders to elevate your scapulae as your arms rise up while keeping tension in your core to avoid lumbar extension
- Roll back down slowly and with control and return to the initial position.
- Breathe naturally throughout the movement
The Scap Step-up is excellent for training asymmetrical scapular motion.
During this move, one scap will be protracting while the other is retracting – challenging and strengthening your asymmetrical scapular control.
- Find a step or something level 3-4 inches off the ground and come to a push-up position with your hands on the step
- Take your feet slightly wider than a normal push-up stance and keep your elbows straight
- Keep both elbows straight as you retract your scapula and slowly lower one arm off the step and onto the ground
- Protract your scapula to bring that arm back up to the step with control and repeat on the other side
The Sword trains through a diagonal proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) pattern. This will help work your shoulder to develop a large range of scapular control.
- Set up a cable as low as possible, ideally with a flexible handle
- Stand with legs shoulder-width apart and hold the handle with the hand farthest from the machine
- Start with your hand near your opposite hip
- Inhale as you reach up and across your body (like you were pulling a sword from a sheath)
- You should end with your arm fully extended at about a 45° angle
- Exhale as your return to the starting position with control
- Keep your shoulder down throughout the movement
- Complete 10 reps, then switch sides
These scapular stabilization exercises are great for building rock solid, stable and healthy shoulders.
They’ll help prevent painful injuries and training set-backs, plus the embarrassment of a crumbling arm when your shoulder gives out on the court or in the gym- something we’d all rather avoid.
Stick with these exercises and I’ll bet you’ll start to feel like you’ve got more scapular control and stable, strong shoulders.
And if you really want to take these gains to the next level, you’ll definitely want to see my Scap Control Program. This comprehensive and detailed approach will take your shoulder stabilizing efforts to places you probably didn’t think were possible.