Please Stop With The Shoulders Back and Down

I know this is a much more directive blog post title than I normally do. My goal is to always post in the positive and not to have a negative title or go for the ‘click bait’ title (and I am well aware this sorta falls under that category), but I just needed to say it.

As an aerial coach and personal trainer, where some of my clients are circus folks and some are general fitness folks, I see so many people who have embraced the “shoulders back and down’ mantra and locked it into every movement. I see how people have created poor movement mechanics within their shoulder girdle because of this idea that they should not activate their upper traps or have any part of their neck disappear. And in some cases, I have seen how this has caused injury.

I am no exception. I, too, was taught this mantra and moved for many years with my shoulders firmly back and down any time my arms went overhead. I even taught that to clients and circus students… that is, until a few years ago.

What changed? My knowledge and understanding of movement mechanics of the body through continuing fitness education and working with over-head specialists on fixing my own shoulder dysfunction or through studying with movement specialist mentors. With all that, I have finally come to a place in my own learning, my own understanding, where I see now that this mantra needs to be changed. Learning how to appropriately raise my arms overhead helped me finally have my bicep tendonitis resolve itself and have my neck and shoulder ‘tightness’ disappear.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s work every day. I have to still think How is my posture? Where are my shoulders? as I just stand here. Some moments I have it and at others I don’t (as evidenced from some photos or videos I see of myself). But then I remember this is a work in progress and my shoulders didn’t end up dysfunctional in one day, it took many years and it will take time to truly change them and they have made changes.

So I ask, ‘Please stop with the shoulders back and down.’ That phrase has been misused and misunderstood for so long in an effort to help people to improve their mechanics while moving their arms up overhead. This misunderstanding shows up now as a league of people who have trained their scapula to remain stationary while they are moving their arms around–whether they are doing down dog or hanging on an aerial apparatus, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that many shoulder injuries could be avoided if a better set of cues were used. Or a better understanding of what the cue was supposed to be correcting and why one person may need that cue, but another person doesn’t.

The cue of shoulders back and down is not only over used in aerials, but in yoga, pilates and fitness (and potentially other spaces I do not find myself a part of) and it’s creating dysfunctional shoulder movements, which then generally lead to some form of injury. Maybe small. Maybe large.

The intention behinds phrases like: ‘Draw your shoulders away from your ears’, ‘Melt your shoulders away from your ears’,  ‘Place your shoulder blades in your back pockets’, or ‘Draw your shoulders together and down’ was to help people raising their arms up overhead to stop doing it with so much upper trap dominance.  Or, in the case of aerials, not to have a person just hanging from disengaged arms. It was all rooted in the hope to prevent injury, but that’s not what it has done. If anything, it has caused more harm than good. What is has created is this hyper-aggressive pulling of the scapula into depression, reducing the subacromial space and setting up for a host of potential injuries.


When we move our arms overhead, good shoulder mechanics means that the scapula needs to be in moving so that the socket (your glenoid of your scapula) is moving to stay ‘underneath’ the head of the humerus. When this occurs, the scapula upwardly rotates and the coordinated movement is called Scapulo-Humeral Rhythm. When the glenoid doesn’t stay ‘underneath’, this requires excess movement at the glenohumeral joint in the joint capsule and creates a higher stresses inside the joint (which leads to labral wearing).

The photo above and to the right shows upward rotation. The direction of pull from the muscles to create the upward rotation of the scapula is indicated via the arrows.)

This video explains Scapulo-Humeral Rhythm using some great visuals.

In the video below, I talk a little more in detail about why we want to make sure we are focusing on upward rotation of the scapula, which includes a little upper trap activation.

The Take Away

Whether we are raising our arms overhead during an overhead press exercise, for a handstand, to hang from an aerial apparatus or even for a down dog, we want to make sure that the natural rhythm and proper movement mechanics are being used for this movement. Trying to actively keep our neck really long or our shoulder blades in our back pockets sets us up for the potential of a myriad of injuries.

Some of these injuries include:

  • Bicep or supraspinatus tendonitis due to the fact that that when we limit the upward rotation of the scapula, the space between the head of the humerus and the acromion becomes greatly reduced. This squishes muscles and the bursa at the top of the humerus or can even have the acromion poking into the soft tissues on the top of the glenohumeral joint eventually causing tendonitis or a tear.
  • Stretching out of the joint capsule, resulting in what is called microinstability, which increases the potential for more wear and tear on the labrum, at best, and dislocations at worst.

Two Exercises to Help

Serratus Wall Slides (the video below explains, but here are some helpful written direction)

  • Face the wall with a foam roller as shown.
  • Feet are in a spit stance with right foot forward and left leg back. Toes will be touching the wall or close to the wall.
  • Wrists are placed on the foam roller or on the wall
  • Pelvis is in a neutral position and ribs are depressed down.
  • Push the wall away from you through your forearms. As you do this, your upper back will round a little as if you are finding Cat Pose–but only in your upper back.
  • Exhale as you reach arms out and up in a V pattern, feel the rib cage depress more on this exhale.
  • Make sure to exhale and keep the ribs depressed. We don’t want the spine coming into extension and the ribs flaring.
  • Make sure the arms stay in a V pattern and don’t start turning in towards one another in an A pattern.
  • The goal is not for your arms to get fully overhead as you reach, so don’t force your elbows to fully extend or lock out. The goal is really to promote upward rotation of the scapulae–making them wrap around your ribcage–and a lot of serratus anterior activation.
  • Do 10 reps several times a week or daily.

Back to Wall Shoulder Flexion (the video below explains, but here are some helpful written direction)

  • Stand with your back to the wall and feet about one foot from the wall
  • Depress the rib cage down and tuck your pelvis so that all of your back is touching the wall.
  • Head touches the wall (tuck your chin a little to make sure your head and neck are neutral) and the shoulders roll up and back a little so that they are touching the wall.
  • On an exhale reach arms out and up with thumbs facing up, reaching for the wall behind you. Maintain all of your back touching the wall as you reach. Your thumbs may or may not touch the wall.
  • You want to be actively pulling your thumbs towards the wall. If the thumbs touch the wall, great; if they don’t, this is a great exercise to put in your warm-up before training overhead.
  • In the exercise you want to feel how your scapula upwardly rotate, that your upper traps are doing some work, but there is still a little space at your neck.
  • I like to do this opposite of a mirror so I can see what my shoulders are doing.
  • Do 10 reps. Repeat several times a week or daily.

I hope this post has been helpful for you and that if you are someone who has been keeping your shoulders back and down, that now you have the tools to help change your movement mechanics.

If you are not sure how your scapula are moving and if there is any dysfunction, have them assessed. You could see or Physical Therapist or I also assess people in person or online, so feel free to shoot me an email or use the contact form below.

Please contact us if you have any questions, want to set up an assessment or if you want to talk more in-depth about this post.

Happy Training ~Theresa~