Shoulders Tug of War

Woman with upper back and neck painWhen I keep seeing a theme in my practice I know it’s time to write about it here on FFF. Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of people who are suffering from pain in their neck and upper shoulders/back, and they are trying to relieve or resolve the pain by pulling their shoulders down and away from their head, only to find that this makes the pain worse. While “pull your shoulders down” doesn’t exactly make my movement cue hall of shame (like, say, “tuck your pelvis” or “lift your chest” do), it does make my movement hall of lack-of-nuance. Since that just rolls of the tongue so easily, we’ll go with that.

“Pull your shoulders down” is one of those things that many people are mistakenly under the impression they need to be constantly vigilant about. In reality, most people’s shoulders are a totally fine distance from their head, and so when they are tugging their shoulders down, in what is a chronically overtaxed and tight area for most in our culture, they wind up agitating their soft tissue instead of relieving it. It’s kind of like the tension put on the rope in tug of war. If both teams are pulling the rope is taught. Tugging harder on the rope isn’t going to make it longer, it’s just going to pull the team on the other end around while creating more force and strain on the rope. When what we’re talking about is your tissue instead of a rope: Ouch.  In short, you can’t force yourself past an end range and expect to find more space. Instead you will find more strain.

Here’s where the lack of nuance issue comes in; Yes, most of us in our culture are suffering from overworked and tight muscles in this area. Namely the upper trapezius, levator scapula, and scalenes. Plenty of other things come into play because there are no local problems, but these places are for sure gummed up and tight. And when these places are tight, they can contribute to an upwards creep of the shoulders. But things aren’t always short and tight. We can have plenty of places that are pulled long and tight, and that happens a lot in the upper shoulders and neck.

Regardless of whether you are a “long and tight” or “short and tight” person in this area, because of the sensitivity of the tissue here, tugging the shoulders down often just lights up the pain pattern. It can also be useful to know how nerve rich an area this is. In particular, the ulnar and median nerves exit your cervical spine (neck vertebrae) here to weave their way through your shoulder and down the arm. And nerves just don’t like getting yanked on.

So what to do for your cranky shoulders, neck, and upper back? First, the ultimate goal should be for the shoulders to rest, not for them to be chronically pulled downward with muscular effort. Second, giving the tissue some slack in your stretches for it often helps to unglue the area more effectively. And lastly, external rotation is your friend. Let’s talk about each one at a time.

Nuance! We like it in our movement cues! Here goes:

  • Shoulders are designed to rest. The beautiful design of our interior architecture is made precisely so that we can be supported from the inside out, not so that we need to be constantly efforting. I think sometimes we forget that the goal is to feel supported and fluid rather than to be striving in the direction of perfection (Wow I could go on a long tangent here about what that means about our cultural conditioning! Another time…). In other words, your tissue has got your back. That’s what it is designed to do. In the case of our shoulder girdle (which just means the entirety of what we define as shoulder structures), the clavicle, scapula, and humerus, and all the soft tissue that emerges from and weaves into those bones, make up this lovely structure that just rests on top of your ribcage. So before you do anything else, first ask if you really need to be pulling your shoulders down. Take a good look in the mirror. Are your shoulders really masquerading as ear muffs? Really?  In my experience, that is not the case for many people. If your shoulders seem to be a just fine distance from your head, why not give up yanking them down and see if this act of not doing actually resolves or relieves your pain. I have seen in many of my clients that when they stop forcing this corrective on themselves that they get better.
  • Give your tissue some slack. My brilliant Yoga Tune Up® colleague Lillee Chandra has a great way of describing this. She says that it’s kind of like when you have a drawer that’s stuck, and you keep yanking on it in the hopes that you’ll free the drawer to glide again, but it won’t budge. Ultimately what really frees the drawer is to stop yanking on it, and to actually push it back in until it gets back on its track, and then it slides open without the slightest glitch! A simple way to do this is by rolling your shoulders instead of pulling them down. You go through a full rotation of bringing them up to your ears, down towards your back, and then to rest in neutral. Another way to play with this is with the extreme trapezius shrug, which is in the video below and is from the Yoga Tune Up lexicon.
  • External rotation is your friend. Much of what we perceive as shoulders that are “too high” are actually shoulders that are internally rotated. Because we primarily use our arms in one configuration in our culture (out in front of us and internally rotated at the humerus while typing, texting, holding the steering wheel, carrying groceries, lifting weights, etc, etc) we tend to get stuck in internal rotation. Go back to your mirror and internally rotate your humerus (upper arm bone) as much as you can on one side. Does that shoulder now appear higher than the other side? And if you now externally rotate the humerus (the pit of the elbow will begin to face out) does that shoulder now appear lower? Magic! This doesn’t mean you need to be walking around in forced external rotation, but it can be a much more useful direction to stretch in than simply pulling the shoulders down. I also demonstrate this and talk about it in the video below.

Enjoy! And be kind to your shoulders. Give those guys a break this holiday season, ok?

And now on to the video:

   

The Ubiquitous Keyboard and How It's Setting You Up for a Shoulder Injury

This is a new article of mine that came out on Breaking Muscle today on how the things we do when we're not training, specifically the things that involve screens and keyboards, set us up for shoulder injuries. Here's an outtake of the article, but if you want to read the whole thing and view the 2 corrective videos I made to address the issue, you can do that here. 

keyboard typing

"We are how we move. Our soft tissue is always responding to the demands we put on it, willingly complying by creating tissue patterning that makes it easier for us to do what we do more, well, more. This means our tissue is staying hydrated and gliding where we keep moving, and gluing us up in the ranges that we avoid.

Fascia (your connective tissue) can be your friend when it is adapting to support you in healthy ways, and it can be not so friendly when it starts to put the blinders on and gum up the works. It’s a basic use it or lose it set up. This is excellent news when what we’re doing with our bodies is perfecting the form of our deadlift. As we get more sophisticated in our movement, our tissue patterning allows for and adapts to this sophistication. However, this is not such great news when it comes to the sheer quantity of time we spend doing other less than helpful things.

Enter the ubiquitous keyboard. Whether it’s on a desktop, a laptop, or your phone, the odds are if you are reading this article you log more hours as a typing slave than you would like. Hey, look! I’m doing it right now! And while I love the fact that my keyboard means we all get to have this nice chat here at Breaking Muscle, it costs me. Specifically, it contributes to the plague of internal rotation that we are all living with these days. YOU CAN READ THE REST AND WATCH THE 2 CORRECTIVE VIDEOS ON BREAKING MUSCLE

 

DIY Friday: Upper Back and Shoulders Part 2

diyfriday (2)

*Do it yourself! Every Friday we do a roundup of great posts, videos, or other resources around a theme that help people to turn their bodies from cranky to happy.*

CA350181Last week we began tackling that crunchiest of crunchy bits: our upper back and shoulders. If you're like most people, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's that place that you squeeze at the end of every workday, the relentlessly congested upper trapezius and levator scapula (and the supraspinatus and rhomboids come in to play, as well as plenty of other musculature). Unfortunately, the way many people deal with this is through postural efforting patterns that cause only more harm, leaving your poor upper back and shoulders in worse shape than they started out. To see my rant on the trouble with the "pull your shoulders back" cue, you can check out last week's DIY Friday. And for more information on the lousy posture cues and why they don't work, you can read more here.

That said, let's dive into more at home help to get your shoulders genuinely happy rather than trapped in unpleasant fake-it-til-you-make-it posturing.

First up, Katy Bowman takes on that other annoying and unhelpful cue, "pull your shoulders down". You can read her take on it, and watch a video explaining how external rotation is the name of the game, not yanking your shoulders away from your ears. It's here! 

Katy also has some short and sweet products that you can use to work on your own shoulders here (this is the whole collection, so you'll have to scroll to the appropriate shoulder goodies): Alignment Snacks

And lastly, here's Jill Miller with some Yoga Tune Up® help in the form of the active pose Pranic Bath. This is one of my favorite ways to get your shoulder mojo moving. And with no toys needed, it makes for a great movement to use when you're taking your (frequent) computer breaks during the day. In fact, I'm going to go do that right now! Do it along with me:

Go forth and have happy shoulders!

photo by hiromy

DIY Friday: Combating T Rex Arms Part 2

diyfriday (2)

*Do it yourself! Every Friday we do a roundup of great posts, videos, or other resources around a theme that help people to turn their bodies from cranky to happy.*

3194747923_59c6c04f98_zHowdy! On last week's round up we began to look at some therapy ball help for those wound up, bound up forearms and the elbow tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome that so often come along with them. This week we're looking at the same thing but from a movement perspective. Both are fab ways to tackle the issue and I like them (therapy balls and movement) best as a combo platter.

Note: as Sue Hitzmann remarked in her video on last week's DIY Friday, sometimes stretching carpal tunnel syndrome can just agitate things. So if your nerves are currently all gummed up and inflamed, you may want to start with therapy balls and progress to these movements from there. Or give the movements a shot and see how you do with them, but listen to your body!

First here's a little mini Yoga Tune Up® video that I made for you of the fantastic shoulder and arm unraveller, Dancing with Myself (ha ha now you have the song stuck in your head!):

   

Secondly, here's Willow Ryan on Breaking Muscle going over some great stretching and strengthening movements:

Now you and your computer can be better friends!

Photo by Reva G

DIY Friday: Combating T Rex Arms (and elbow tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome)

diyfriday (2)

*Do it yourself! Every Friday we do a roundup of great posts, videos, or other resources around a theme that help people to turn their bodies from cranky to happy.*

6466222045_5cb6cc05d0_bLately my life seems to be all about pretty large quantities of seeing people in my Rolfing® practice and working on the computer. Which leaves me over here with the T Rex arms. You know, the forearms that have gotten so tight that my whole arm is shriveling up into itself. It's super sexy. It's also a big giant red flag of elbow tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome on the horizon (not to mention what that strain does to a neck and thoracic inlet). So I've been on top of my stuff and working my forearms every day which is helping tremendously. And since we live in a T Rex arms kind of a culture, I thought I'd share some of my favorite resources out there. There are so many that I'm going to break this into a 2 parter, so tune in for more goodies next Friday (Or hey now! You could subscribe so you don't miss any FFF treats!). This week is the "therapy balls gone wild" portion of the programming, next week we'll get into movement that you can use to open and strengthen your arms and hands.

For all the manual therapists, power lifters, and those chained to a computer or smart phone (99.9% of us), this one's going out to you!

We'll kick off the party with a couple of great videos from Sue Hitzmann, creator of theMELT Method®. First she talks about why stretching the wrist itself might prove agitating if your nerves are inflamed, and what to stretch instead (video courtesy of Wellcast Academy):

And here's Sue again showing some of her MELT Method techniques for working the hands, wrists, and forearms:

 

Lastly, Kelly Starrett of Mobility WOD shows some of my favorite ways to work the forearm with therapy balls (they're using lacrosse balls, but I vastly prefer the Yoga Tune Up® therapy balls, I'll put out a whole post on why soon...). And I'm not going to lie, I'm very intrigued by the Arm Aid gadget that they pull out towards the end. I'm not usually a big gadget person, but this one looks compelling:

Use the resources, keep the roar, lose the (T Rex) arms.

Photo by octolilly