“To sink your shoulders means that your shoulders loosen and lower heavily with an energy of hanging. With your shoulders sinking and your elbows dropping, the springiness of internal power will be doubly harvested. Seek movement within stillness.” - Yao Fuchun & Jiang Rongqiao
There is a saying in the budo world, and it was said thousands of years ago. “Sink the shoulders.” It was probably described in many different ways, yet there is an enormous validity to this phrase, and it has a powerful connection to health and body mechanics.
image©2018 Timothy Agnew
I see many patients at my clinic with neck and shoulder issues, and aside from low back pain, it is the number one ailment I treat. While some might have injured their shoulders doing sports or some simple chore at home, many issues are from poor body mechanics.
The Scapulae: A Quick Anatomy Lesson
The two bones on the posterior upper back are the flat, triangular scapulae, and their position in a clinical assessment often reveals faulty movement. I like to refer to them as islands floating in connective tissue (fascia).
They should be seated flat towards the spine. There are many muscles that help keep the scapulae in their proper flat position. The rhomboid and trapezius tissues help secure these bones toward the spine. The serratus anterior helps prevent the bones from winging out along the rib cage. This is not a good position for them, but we’ll get to that.
The scapulae are active in movements of the shoulder. The scapulohumeral rhythm is the interaction between the humerus and scapula. Normally, this movement is smooth as the scapulae cooperate with the humerus.
Scapular dyskinesia exists when this rhythm is abnormal, and the shoulder does not move freely. Scapular winging, for example, is a common dysfunction, and occurs when the scapulae “wing out” on the rib cage. Yet there might be other poor movement patterns involved as the arm flexes or abducts.
While muscles are often involved in injuries, I see scapular dyskinesia as a connective tissue issue, and movement in the entire body is usually flawed. It is corrected, for starters, by rewiring the brain to new patterns.
The tissues that surround our muscles are connected posteriorly from occipital to under the heel, and anteriorly from the mandible to the toes. In essence, we are floating in a space suit of fascia. Since fascia shares forces with muscles, it plays a vital role in movement.
The Wrong Way to Power Movement
In simplest terms, when the humerus moves into flexion, the scapulae should already be flat toward the spine, and in those first degrees of movement, stay there. As the arm continues in flexion, they upwardly rotate, posteriorly tilt, and externally rotate.
This is not what the scapulae do in the majority of the population.
Performing shoulder movements are “learned” by firing the biceps brachii, the upper trapezius, and many other muscles. It’s evident in the biceps curl. Performing this exercise should be taught by having the client sink the scapulae to the waist first, then the movement begins. The shoulder must be set so the force of lifting the weight is transferred evenly in the body.
This is also evident in everyday movements of the humerus.
Again, the trapezius contracts first, and the shoulder’s shrug, or elevate. And the scapulae? They are moving around the posterior back and not seated toward the spine.
A Loss of Power
Shoulder dysfunction has the normal consequences: possible strain to the cervical area, rotator cuff tears, and limited movements.
Yet the most important loss, to me, is the loss of power. The body is messed up. Your workout is messed up. When the scapulae wing along the rib cage and the shoulders elevate, power in the body is disrupted. Force along the fascial lines is lost. Instead of the force - power being distributed along the proper lines in the entire body, the force is directed out. This force is felt in other areas of the body. Form is lost as the frame collapses.
How the Tissues Power Movement
Applied force and a gentle tensioning of fascia changes its architecture, and it also stimulates receptors embedded in the tissue. Fascia is full of nerves, and the latest research shows its an integral communicator with the brain.
Yoga, and movement arts, are designed to change this tissue for better health, although the way they are sometimes taught doesn’t always yield this outcome. Movement creates forces on fascia, and this changes the body.
Sink the Shoulders
While movement is an integral part of staying healthy, correcting shoulder mechanics is invaluable. Setting the shoulder makes body motion effortless and strain free. This
is especially true for professional body workers, who often employ muscle strength with messed up structures. How do you begin to change this?
- Stop elevating (hiking the shoulder) during arm movement (flexion). This is a learned movement pattern, partly created by stress. Pay attention to this during your day. Don’t be surprised to find the shoulders hiking during routine activities, even during conversations. Stop and correct it.
- Sink the shoulder blades and elbows to the waist before arm flexion. Sinking fuels arm movement, and no flexion exists without sinking first. Get into this mind set.
- Put it in your brain first. This is known as “intent,” or movement before movement. The shoulders and elbows sink in brain imagery first, then the physical movement
follows. Athletes use intent in training.
- Incorporate exercises into your day that focus on sinking the tissues. This can be performed in the car, seated at a desk, or standing with hands on a wall. Imagine the tissues sinking to the floor then do it physically. (see my video blog for exercises).
- Remember, hiking the shoulders has no biomechanical benefit. It’s a loss of power in the body because it distorts the structure. Qi, or energy, cannot be transferred out the hands or in the body.