‘Engage Your Shoulders!’…But Am I Doing it Right?

We’ve all probably heard (or even said for those instructors reading this post) “engage your shoulders”, but what does that mean? What do we mean? Do we know? Do our students?

There have definitely been many discussions on this topic and there are plenty of instructors who have a strong belief in their method. I am going to present mine, along with why I ask my students to engage their shoulders a certain way.

What Do You Mean?

Generally speaking, ‘engage your shoulders’ is a direction so that people grabbing and hanging from an apparatus are doing so with strength and stability in their shoulder joint and not in a passive, loosey-goosey kind of hang. The latter being a way to eventually cause injury to oneself.

Put Your Hands Up in the Air!

from FlexibilityRX.com

Optimally, when we raise our arms over our head we are doing so with good scapulohumeral rhythm, meaning the scapula (shoulder blade) and the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) are moving properly and in conjunction with one another.

This ‘rhythm’ occurs as such: the first 60° of arm raising is glenohumeral movement (the head of your humerus gliding on the glenoid fossa). As the arm continues to raise overhead, this is where the scapulohumeral rhythm kicks in and for every 2° the humerus moves up (flexion or abduction of the humerus), the scapula moves 1° in upward rotation [RefRef]. If you look at the photo above, you can see how if there was no upward rotation of the scapula how the humerus would bump against the acromion-that’s where the upper traps (UT) are connected (or at least one of the places they are connected to bones) and how this becomes an issue (generally impingement pain).

When good scapulohumeral rhythm is present, this allows enough subacromial space in the joint as to not smush all the soft tissue in this space more than is normally happening. I say ‘more than normal’ because when we raise our arms over head, even with good scapulohumeral rhythm, there is some natural closing down of space at the top of the shoulder, between the head of the humerus and the acromion–your subacromial space–that does slightly smush the soft tissue there.

Unfortunately, not everyone has good scapulohumeral rhythm. If you are not sure if you do or you don’t, I advise going to see a medical professional (not your GP or PCP), a sports medicine professional would be best. Or better yet, a medical professional that deals with overhead athletes or specializes in shoulders or both. Another option is seeing an Exercise Specialist (Personal Trainer or Strength Coach) who knows how to perform movement assessments and can assess your overhead range of motion and scapulohumeral rhythm.

Hanging From an Apparatus

Now that we’ve raised our arms over our head to grab an apparatus, how should we be engaging the musculature around the shoulder girdle to ensure a strong and stable position.

If you are hanging with feet still on the ground:

  • First, slightly brace your core, because all movement and strength begins from a strong core.
  • Grab the apparatus and take your weight into your hands with control–no plunking down.
  • Find the hollow shape: ribs down, thut contracted. (thut: thigh, glute meeting place, sometimes referred to as your thass or your butt smile). For hanging, this is not a flexed thoracic spine.
  • Be active in the musculature around the shoulder girdle, meaning don’t just hang like a noodle, be purposeful with the stretching and reaching up with your muscles involved in the raising of your arms up overhead.
    • Shoulders will be raised up near ears, but with control and strength, this promotes good upward rotation of the scapula. (see hanging without feet touching, below,  for more detailed reasoning)
  • From there, create a very slight pull down of your shoulder blades. You want to feel this in your mid back, in your lower traps (see photo above) because this is part of their function: depression of the scapula. (You do not want to feel a ton or only your lats.)
  • Then add some external rotation: this is done with your rotator cuff muscles, specifically the infraspinatus and the teres minor. I cue this as rotating your armpits towards one another like they’re trying to have a conversation. But I’ve also been known to say ‘like you’re trying to break the bar in half or bend it in a U.’
  • Keep head and chest lifted, without losing the hollow in your ribs–the knitting of your rib cage together. Lifting the chest keeps the spine from flexing and thus in a bit of extension, keeping the scapular a little bit posteriorly tilted on the rib cage and allowing for the most subacromial space.

If you are hanging without your feet touching.

All the cues are the same, but now you have more weight in your hands and shoulder girdle and all the more reason to have your movements come from control and strength.

  • Braced core
  • Whether you climbed into your hang (vertical apparatus), jumped up (under a hoop or trapeze just above your height) or lowered into it (lowered from a ladder to under the bar or lowered from sitting in the hoop), find your hanging hollow–ribs knitting together. This is not a flexing of your thoracic spine or a pike in your hips: it’s your abdominals contracting to pull the rib cage together and down and a thut contraction. We want the thoracic spine as neutral as possible so that the natural posterior tilt of the scapula that happens with good scapulohumeral rhythm can allow for as much subacromial space as possible.
  • Begin hanging with the musculature of your upper body being active in the process of holding you. Shoulders will first be up by your ears, commonly referred to as disengaged, however if you are actively holding yourself in this position you are not disengaged. On the flip side, if you are just hanging passively and like a cooked noodle, this is where this type of hanging is disengaged and not good in the long term.
    • We start from shoulders raised up near the ears to promote upward rotation of the scapula. As stated above, the upward rotation of the scapula is an important part of the proper movement patterning for the shoulder blades as the arms are raised overhead.
  • From there, create a very slight pull down of the shoulder blades, feeling this in your mid back because the lower traps contracted a little more.
  • Add a slight external rotation to your humerus, brining those armpits more towards one another.
  • All while maintaining a hollow shape and lifted head and chest. Again the lifted chest is to keep the spine from flexing and allow for the most space at the top of your scapula to continue to allow as much space at the top of the shoulder girdle as possible and thus greatly reducing impingement of soft tissue at the top of the shoulder.

Below is a video explaining as well as demonstrating from under a bar close to the ground and hanging from a bar and vertical apparatus to show these engagements in action.

The Big Points

The reason I ask for my aerial students to ‘engage their shoulders’ this way is based on how the scapula are moving–when moving properly–when we raise our arms overhead. With good scapulohumeral rhythm (upward rotation and slight posterior tilting of the scapula) and some external rotation, this creates the most subacromial space for the soft tissue at the top of the shoulder girdle to not be excessively smushed between the head of the humerus and the acromion. Engaging the shoulders with these cues doesn’t overly eliminate the subarcomial space as happens when we just pull the shoulder blades down,  as can happen when cued with shoulders ‘back and down’ or ‘into your back pockets’.

If you come to the end of this post and feel a little overwhelmed or even a bit lost if you are engaging your shoulders with your bodies biomechanics in mind, this is where discussing and evaluating your hang with your coach will be really helpful. I, of course, am also available to chat with via an email if you like.

Happy Hanging!

Be Well, ~~~Theresa


J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2009 Nov–Dec; 18(6): 960–967.

Physiopedia: Scapulohumeral Rhythm

Impingement of the shoulder, photo and description

These videos here and here

I also want to acknowledge that this information comes from attending many lectures, seminars and workshops on the subject of shoulder mechanics, especially for overhead athletes as well as speaking with physical therapists who focus on overhead mechanics for circus and gymnasts: Emily Scherb of Pure motion Physical Therapy  and Dave Tilley of SHIFT Movement Science and Gymnastics Education practicing out of Champion Physical Therapy & Performance. And also from my personal work with overhead specialist Eric Cressey of Cressey Sports Performance to work through my lack of scapulohumeral rhythm and how to retrain my mechanics and muscles to perform with proper mechanics. All have been vast resources in helping me provide the best for the students I teach.