Scapula health is important to the longevity and resilience of an athlete, especially in overhead athletes. Almost every sport requires the athlete to use their arms but without healthy scapulae the chances of injury increase. Overhead athletes who lack scapular control may be at an increased risk of tearing their ulnar cruciate ligament (UCL), better known as Tommy John. They may also experience pain in both their glenohumeral joint and elbow joint due to increased demand on the muscles surrounding both areas. Learning to control the scapulae will lead to improvements on the field and a decrease in injuries. To first understand how healthy scapulae can improve the ability of an athlete, one must first understand how the scapulae work.
There are six ways that the scapulae (shoulder blades) move. The act of retraction occurs by squeezing the shoulder blades together towards the spine. Retraction is controlled by the rhomboid major/minor muscles, the trapezius, and the latissimus dorsi. Protraction is the opposite of retraction, where the shoulder blades move away from the spine. This movement is controlled by the pectoralis major/minor and serratus anterior. Elevation is raising the shoulder blades as if you were to shrug your shoulders. This motion is controlled by the levator scapulae and the upper trapezius. Depressing the scapula is bringing the shoulder blades down which is controlled by the latissimus dorsi, serratus anterior, pectorals major/minor muscles, and the trapezius, but is also aided by gravity naturally depressing the scapulae. The last two motions are upward rotation controlled by the trapezius and serratus anterior and downward rotation controlled by the rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, and pectoralis muscles with the help of gravity.
Before an athlete can improve upon their strength in the weight room, they must first learn to control these specific functions of the scapula. A great way to learn scapular control is to perform the six motions with added resistance. Resistance bands, body weight exercises, and light weights are great tools to teach the proper mechanics of shoulder blades. Exercises like scapula pushups teach protraction and retraction, chin-ups place the scapulae through all six motions and weighted carries can help improve the stabilization of the shoulder blades. Performing a proper warmup can also help improve the function of the scapulae making pushing and pulling exercises feel more natural and limiting the over-activation muscles. Once an athlete has mastered scapular control they will start to see an improvement in the weight room and a carryover to their sport. Eventually, pain will subside and movements will feel more fluid.
- Coach Matt Smith