Tag: Fitness

3 Things You Should Know About Shoulder Anatomy to Address Shoulder Pain

When I first injured my right shoulder in 2010 I joined the ranks of circus performers, acrobats, dancers, and athletes with shoulder injuries. I was bummed out, but far from alone. It is one of the most common sites for pain and injury for anyone who engages in vigorous upper body activities from aerial arts to lifting groceries out of the trunk.

And it’s no wonder. Shoulders are a complicated piece of equipment and, even though most of us have them, they didn’t come with an instruction manual. When I started to learn more about how shoulders are constructed I was amazed, and immediately changed the way I was training, stretching, and thinking about shoulder movement.

So here are three things that I wish I had known before I injured my shoulder that have helped me in my rehab process and informed the way I address shoulder pain in my clients.

The Shoulder is Not 1 Joint… It’s 4 Joints!

1. The Sternoclavicular joint is the place where your clavicle meets your sternum, right below your throat. We aren’t going to worry to much about this one because there aren’t a ton of muscles that affect it, but it’s important to know that it exists!

Stylish skeleton showing the sternoclavicular joint

Where the clavical meets the sternum and is attached by some ligaments.

2. The Glenohumeral joint is what we traditionally think of as the shoulder joint, where the arm bone meets the shoulder socket. It is pretty mobile, controlled by the rotator cuff, deltoids, pectorals, and lats. However it is vital to know that the glenohumeral joint, if no other joints are moving, cannot lift your arm above about shoulder height and is pretty limited at bringing your arm behind your back.

Adorable skeleton showing the movement of the glenohumeral joint

The Glenohumeral joint where the Humerous meets the Scapula and Clavical in a ball and socket joint.

3. The Scapular joint is the most mobile part of your shoulder. There is nothing but muscle attaching your scapulae to your back. No bones, no connective tissue, just muscles. The scapulae is primarily controlled by the trapezius (upper, lower, and mid), the levator scapula, the serratus, and the rhomboids. These muscles coordinate in an intricate dance to move the scapulae all over your upper back to position the shoulder socket for optimal arm movement. It is this versatility that gives the shoulder its mobility but also makes it extra tricky to control and understand.*

Adorable skeleton drawing showing the scapulae moving around the back

The scapulae have no bones or ligaments attaching them to the back so they can move around all over the place!

4. The acromioclavicular joint is where the scapula and the clavical come together. Since we don’t have a lot of musclular control of this joint I’m not going to bog us down but it is important to mention that this is another area that can have pain and strains if you aren’t using proper shoulder mechanics.


Only 2 Muscles Attach your Arm to Your Torso, The Rest Attach to the Scapula

So here is this wild, wiggly scapula floating around on your upper back, and the kicker is that the stability of the shoulder is deeply dependent on the stability of this very mobile joint. Only two muscles go directly from the arm bone to the torso. They are big, important muscles though: the pectorals run from the arm bone to the sternum and the latissimus dorsi run from the arm bone all the way down to the base of the spine and the pelvis. These are great muscles for big movements like push-ups and pull-ups, but they aren’t stabilizer muscles.

All of the muscles that provide finer control of the shoulder (the rotator cuff muscles and the deltoids) attach to the scapulae. And that means that no matter how much you strengthen your rotator cuff or pump up those delts, if you don’t have control over your scapulae then you are anchoring those muscles to an unstable surface.

This is why any campaign to improve shoulder health and address shoulder pain must include the muscles of the upper back.


We Must Improve Our Strength, Control, and Mobility in our Upper Back

Almost everyone I work with, myself included, could improve the strength, control, and mobility of our upper back muscles. The scapulae are theoretically capable of amazing ranges of movement and can act as a gorgeous base for shoulder strength and mobility. But poor posture, lack of attention, and just not being aware of what is going on in the back side of our body has a cumulative affect of creating tight, weak, unenthusiastic scapular muscles.

When our scapulae don’t engage and move properly it has a profound effect on the ability of the shoulder to do its thing.

One common example of this is when the scapulae are stuck in an elevated forward rounded position (computer hunch). This means that when we lift our arms over our head to do a pull-up or put dishes away after dinner, our glenohumeral joint, which doesn’t work well one it’s own once the arms are above shoulder height, has to strain past its happy place because it’s not getting the help it needs from the scapular joint. Over time this can lead to the miserable condition known as shoulder impingement and even to tears in the supraspinatus tendon.

That is just one of many sad stories about what can happen with the scapulae aren’t strong and free to do their job.

What I took away from learning all this was that I need to spend much, much more time thinking about my upper back and my scapulae. And that extra time has paid off in reduced shoulder pain, increased stability and mobility, and improved performance overall.

If you are curious about what has worked for me and for my clients, the shoulder series included in the Video Club Membership has a lot of the exercises I love to coordinate between the shoulder joints and build scapular awareness.

Happy Bendings!


*OK, you anatomy experts know I left out the scapuloclavicular joint. This is where the scapula and clavicle come together but since it has very little movement I don’t want to muddy the waters with excess information. But if you have a burning desire to get deep into shoulder anatomy, this is the fourth joint.


Advanced Hip Flexibility: Swim Through Splits Tutorial

The swim through splits (not sure where this term originates, I may have made it up but I don’t think so), are a beautiful transitional movement requiring advanced hip flexibility, strength, and control. I love this transition which can quickly and dramatically take you from sitting on your rump to laying on your belly and, with a little more effort, back again.

Below please enjoy a tutorial that breaks this movement down into stages, demonstrating the swim through both with and without assistance from the arms.

I only recommend this tutorial to folks who already have an established practice of hip stretching and strengthening and are close to 180 degrees on both straddle and middle splits. I have seen this transition used as a training tool for folks who are still far off the ground in middle splits and I’ll be honest that it isn’t my favorite. I feel that it can put too much pressure on the hips and, without adequate control, its a bit risky for my taste.

If you are still working on getting those deep straddle and middle splits, check out our free splits workouts on YouTube or full-length workouts on the Fit & Bendy Video Club Membership.

For those of you ready to tackle swim throughs, my recommendation is to start with the straddle slides and the no-hands leaning forward to pancake. These two movements build strength in the external rotators (piriformis and friends), outside butt (gluteus medius and minimus), and upstairs butt/lower back (upper gluteus maximus and spinal extensors) that you will need to successfully execute the full movement.

The most common misadventure I see in learning this movement is to heave your hips up and over to transition into the middle split. If this is you, continue to build that active flexibility in your hips with side leg lifts in a tucked position. The goal here (which I admit I do not execute to perfection in this tutorial but am continuing to work towards) is to be able to do the entire movement without lifting the pelvis off the floor at all.

As always, enjoy the process and many happy bendings!



Stuck on Learning a Difficult Move or Pose? Here are 3 Strategies to Achieve Your Goal


Whenever learning a new physical discipline you’ll have the experience of trying out a new aspirational move and thinking… this seems utterly impossible.

One way to approach this new challenge is to keep trying the beast move over and over again, hoping that eventually it gets easier. This may work! But it is also miserably frustrating and has a high potential for burnout or injury.

As an alternative attack, try modifying your exercises to make them easier so that you can manage them and control them. A strategic approach with the right combination of achievable exercises, gradually increasing in difficulty over time, can win you that monster move without the misery, just a little smarts and patience.

How do you make your difficult move easier? Here are three strategies, just add creativity!

To make it easier to understand I’m going to use the example of the standing front split. I wanted to pick a move that I’m not good at and don’t practice very often and you can watch the video  at the end to see what the struggle bus looks like!

1. Break it into pieces

Every pose, ever move is a combination of elements. What are those different elements and how can you practice them separately? Break your monster move down into 3-5 exercises that are challenging but doable and practice those.

Example: Standing front split could be broken down into standing on one leg with excellent balance, deep hamstring flexibility, and an opening of the standing leg hip (there are other ways to break it down this is just what worked for me).

Check out the video to see what exercises you could try out to work these components.

2. Change the Relationship with Gravity

Gravity, ever-present, can be either friend or foe. The most challenging moves work against gravity, so how can you change the position around to make gravity a little more helpful? This can allow you to work on form, alignment, strength, and depth with control in a position that feels more manageable and accessible.

Example: Part of what makes standing splits so hard is that gravity is pulling that leg down to the ground. Practicing the standing split while laying on your back enables you to check your hip position, build active flexibility, straighten out the standing leg, and stretch the hamstring with a floatier-feeling leg.

The video shows you what it looks like when you flip that standing split on its back.

3. Slow it Down

This is quite possibly the least fun part of this breakdown process, but it is extremely helpful in perfecting your transitions in and out of a position. Too often we focus on the end product, just long enough to snap a photo, but you don’t really have a pose until you can get in and out of it with grace and control.

Slowly moving in and out of the position, even if you are 10 miles away from your end goal position, builds strength, awareness, and control. It’s also good for flexing those patience and humility muscles, which are no one’s favorite muscles to train.

Example: Transition to standing split could be just lifting the leg up in front, holding it for a breath, and lowering it back down without buckling in the standing leg or losing your straight spine. Does it look good? No! Does it feel good? Heck no! Does it make you stronger and more balanced? Yes! Watch the video to see the humility.

Make Up Your Own!

What are your goals? What is your dream pose or move? Break it down, flip it up, slow it down, and—most importantly—give it time. Impatience invariably causes us to skip important steps in our training that will catch up to us eventually and we are in this for the long term, right?

Happy Bendings!


What to do When Stretching Doesn’t Help

Sometimes Tight Muscles Need Strength Instead


Muscles are tight for a reason. They are not tight because they hate you and want you to fail, or because they want you to be in pain. Your body is your devoted partner in this life and everything it does, it does because it believes that it’s helping you.

So why do muscles get tight, since it is so clearly unpleasant and painful? Why do some muscles seem to be impervious to stretching? Even if they relax for a few blissful moments, not long after they are right back to feeling like steel cables.

Muscles get tight because they are nervous, fearful, or downright terrified. They believe that if they relax, something really bad will happen in your body or your life. They feel responsible for your integrity, guarding you against injury or death.

The thing is, the nervous system as it relates to our muscle reflexes is very old. Lizard brain old. It responds to any perceived stressor as a threat. Threaten that muscle often enough and its like a kid on a playground afraid of bullies, it’s always tense. It may not really trust you to make the best decisions, especially if you have done mean things to it in the past (over-training, injury, exhaustion, excessive stress, dehydration, accidents, you get the picture). So even though you are begging it, yelling at it, demanding that it relax, it’s not going to listen.

This is especially true when you are going into a deep passive stretch. Passive stretches are perceived by the body as scary positions, so if a muscle is already a little freaked out, stretching will just confirm its worst fears. You may be able to force it to relax for a little while by pushing it hard enough, but that tension and hyper-vigilance will come back with a vengeance once you let up.

So what’s to be done? How do we reassure these muscles that they are safe and loved and it’s ok to relax?


We often think of strength and flexibility as being in opposition, but in fact they are utterly intertwined.

If a muscle is chronically scared, the best way to reassure it is to build its support system, and its capacity. Building its support system means strengthening the muscles around that muscle, the synergists (muscles that do similar things) and antagonists (muscles that are opposite). Building capacity means strengthening that tight muscle itself.

So often when I suggest this (especially to gym addicts), I hear people say, “but I’m already so strong.”

To which I reassuringly reply, “Yes, you are. And just because you are overall buff does not mean that you can’t have some muscles in your body that aren’t keeping up.”

Muscles build only and exactly the way that you use them. That means that as we train we default to certain muscles that are already strong and our body finds ways to compensate for muscles that are weaker. It all works out great for a while, then it starts to catch up to you because those sleepy muscles aren’t helping out enough.

In my years of working with bodies, when I have been investigating for the source of tightness, I have found some kind of weakness 100% of the time. I’m totally open to being proven wrong, but it hasn’t happened yet.

In terms of your daily practice, this means constantly searching for your weakest points. Usually we like to go right to where we are strong, because it feels good. But our bodies need balance, and balance comes when we dive into our discomfort and root around for the parts of our body that most need our attention.

Balancing ourselves out brings increased confidence and peace to our muscles—that feeling of cat-like grace, suppleness, strength and flexibility combined.

So next time you are feeling like you and your muscles are locked in mortal combat over a particular stretch, take a step back, thank your tight muscles for their loyal service to your well-being, and start investigating the cause of their stress. Who needs to be stronger and more capable so that they feel safe again? They will reward you with delicious flexibility.

Happy Bendings!