If you’ve ever been to more than one Pilates class, you’ll understand how vital a strong core – something we wrote about in a previous blog here – is for a healthy body. In class, it controls our ability to move into, out of and hold most exercises with the correct technique, and out of class it controls our posture and helps protect certain areas of the body from becoming injured.
What is talked about less in Pilates is having stable shoulder girdle, however it’s just as important as the core area. You might have heard phrases such as “roll your shoulders back without pushing your ribs out” or “pull your shoulders away from your ears”, without really knowing why you should.
So what’s going on and what’s the shoulder girdle? It’s made up of lots of bones, ligaments, muscles, nerves and blood vessels from the shoulder blade through to the spine and then the ball-and-socket joint itself. Really the main purpose of the whole section is to support wide and free movement of the arm, but the reality is far more complex, as each physical movement that you make involves all of these components moving in perfect harmony. And when one doesn’t, you’ll feel it in the form of tightness or pain, anywhere in the shoulders, middle back or neck.
Hopefully this image (above) helps you to visualise the various directions and movements in the shoulder girdle.
Pain, either chronic or acute, in any part of our shoulders is very common and much of the reason is since a lot of people hold tension there or there’s an imbalance in the girdle. Add to that the fact that when you were younger, someone might have told you to “stop slouching and put your shoulders back”, which doesn’t actually put your body into a better postural position. Instead that advice, over time, causes the shoulder blades (scapula) to squeeze together, push the ribs or neck out and destabilise the shoulder girdle.
Catch yourself whilst driving, cooking, washing up or sitting at a desk and just notice if the shoulders are tense and lifted towards the ears. Shrug the shoulders up to the ears and drop them down – and feel a little of the tension release.
To really feel if your shoulders are well-aligned, we can try some exploratory movements in a sequence….
First, stand tall, chin down slightly, and imagine someone is pulling your neck up from the ears, so the skull is in line with the spine. Much of the time the head (which is the heaviest part of the body) is actually pushed forward, and that places a great deal of strain on the shoulders and lower back. The end result is to make the upper back very weak and the chest muscles at the front very tight -and cause shoulder pain. When the head is in the right place, draw the shoulders down the back and you should feel muscles under your armpit activate – that means you’ve moved correctly.
Next, raise one arm in front of a mirror, without moving the shoulders and your core should activate. That’s where the core and shoulder girdle prove themselves to be the perfect pair for keeping our entire bodies strong, flexible, fluid and stable. If the shoulder blade raises and rotates forward despite efforts not to, there’s a weakness somewhere in the shoulder girdle.
So what can you do in the studio to help with shoulder stabilisation? Well, this area is really complex, so unlike other areas of the body or for specific sports, giving a list of exercises isn’t easy – it’s best to come and speak to one of us instead. The good news is that Pilates equipment is more effective than matwork for improving the shoulder girdle, because the machines provide a level of controlled resistance beyond your body weight. A variety of exercises on the Cadillac and Reformer can be the most effective for the shoulder girdle – so please come and chat to us if you think you need to work on this area.