AKA why a strong and mobile mid and upper back matters to shoulder health
Part 1: The four sisters of Shoulderland
Once upon a time there lived four strong sisters in a beautiful not-so-far off place called Shoulderland. The oldest sister, Supraspinatus, ruled the northern border. Infraspinatus, the next eldest, ruled the greater middle kingdom, with the help of Teres Minor, the second to youngest. The youngest sister, Subscapularis, ruled all of Shoulderland that laid below the surface. The sisters were an amazing team that worked perfectly together to maintain the harmony and happiness of everything in Shoulderland.
The four rotator cuff muscles work together to stabilize the humerus bone in the shoulder joint for safe overhead movement in pole and aerial art:
Part 2: A dark cloud in Shoulderland
But then one gloomy day, disharmony arose in Shoulderland. The lovely Infraspinatus awoke in the grip of a terrible spell. At breakfast poor Infra was irritable and fatigued. Teres quickly feel under the same spell, but Supra and Subsca were able to resist and began seeking the root of this evil that had befallen their dear sisters.
If these tiny rotator cuff muscles are used a lot (think hanging on your arms for an hour or so) and:
- Are not given specific attention in strength training outside of apparatus work (cross train much?)
- They are pushed to be used after fatigued (“I’ll just do one more rep”), and/or
- There are other muscle imbalances (more on this in Part 3) that affect the rotator cuffs ability to work, injury can occur.
Part 3: The Quest
Supra and Subsca searched high and low in Shoulderland without avail. The two sisters were at their wits end and were about to give up, when Supra heard a whisper of rumor at the market. Rumor of a tiny giant on the other side of the globe that had powerful magic and a grudge against Shoulderland.
Desperate for answers, the sisters traveled many long days and nights to seek out the malevolent Pectoralis Minor in the far, far away Thoracicland. Supra and Subsca finally found the home of Pec Minor and peeked in the window. The sisters were surprised to see that at Pec’s table were the rulers of Shoulderlands’ neighboring kingdoms, Serratus Anterior to the east, Rhomboids to the west, and Lower Trapezius to the south. It appeared they were all in cahoots, plotting against the four sisters!
Some culprits in rotator cuff overuse injuries are weak or “sleepy” scapular stabilizers like the Serratus Anterior, Rhomboids, and Trapezius. Chronic tightness in opposing muscle groups can inhibit function of these scap stabilizers. Pec minor (the TINY muscle that can be a GIANT pain) tightness is a major culprit that can keep these muscles from stabilizing or gliding the scapula as needed. When weakness, inhibition, or opposing tightness occur, the rotator cuff (attached to the scapula) has to try to stabilize and move the head of the humerus from a scapula that isn't in a stable and/or optimal position. So the cuff gets pinched, overworked, irritated, and/or eventually can lead to injury. Add in factors like rotator cuff muscles are not regularly part of your strength training and you often push through fatigue in apparatus training, you up your injury risk.
Part 4: Lifting the spell means working together
Supra wanted to burst in attacking their apparent enemies, but Subsca convinced her to take a compassionate approach and sit at the window and listen a little longer. What a wise woman! Because as it turned out, the rumors were just that, rumors! Pec Minor, Serratus, Rhomboids, and Trapezius, weren’t plotting against the sisters, but were concerned because they had heard of their plight. They thought all four sisters had fallen prey to the evil spell and they had came together to find a solution!
The longer Serra, Pec, Rhomb, and Trap talked about what each could do to help, and the longer the two sisters listened, it became clear how to lift poor Infra and Teres from under this spell! They all had to combine their efforts and work together.
So, after a polite knock on the door, and gracious greetings, Supra and Subsca proposed a plan of action to restore harmony in Shoulderland and all of the neighboring kingdoms once and for all! The others heartily praised the sisters’ wisdom and got to work right away. This is just what they did:
- Release Pectoralis Minor (Spiky ball release): Roll out the pec minor to release tightness and knots that put strain on upper and mid back scapula stabilizers.
- Activate the Serratus Anterior (hug a tree, serratus push ups, plank walks/box push ups): Get the scapula gliding and stabilizing in the optimal position for safe overhead work.
- Build endurance for Rhomboids & lower Trapezius (scap slides, Locust lifts, W lifts, T lifts): These upper and mid-back heavy lifters help the scapula be a stable platform for the rotator cuff to stabilize the humerus (upper arm bone) effectively.
- Rotator cuff training (external rotation): Build endurance in your external rotators that help the shoulder stay in an optimal safe position while hanging from the arms.
Note: As you work through these exercises, allow the scapula to glide, but remain gently anchored on the rib cage without flaring off. Keep the chest open, shoulders NOT rounding forward. Keep your spine neutral and stable as possible.
Part 5: Happily ever after
It took many months of hard work, and cooperative effort to put all the necessary pieces in place, but at long last the Infra and Teres were released from the power of the evil spell. And because of their new alliance with their neighbors, the four sisters enjoyed an even stronger bond and more harmonious Shoulderland where they lived happily ever after.
Guest blogger Betty Ann is a poler, aerialist, and exercise science aficionado who trains and teaches out of Aerial Affinity in the greater Mankato, MN area.
The Pole and Performing Art Blog and articles within is not a substitute for professional advice or expert medical services from a qualified healthcare provider.