As I explained in a previous article , lifting your arms shoulder-level or higher is an action that involves not just the arm bone (humerus), but the shoulder blade (scapula) as well. Now, let’s talk about what your shoulder blade has to do, and how it does it.
When you reach our arms away from your torso (in arms overhead pose or in Cat Pose , for example), you’ve probably heard your teacher tell you to:
- “hollow your armpits”
- “wrap your triceps forward”
Or while in cat pose:
- “round your upper back”
- “draw your shoulder blades apart”
It takes a bit of imagination, but what we’re trying to do is get your scapula to glide around the sides of your rib cage. This action is called protraction, and it’s created by the pectoralis minor at your chest and the serratus anterior under your armpits.
To really feel this action, you have to round your upper back a little. But this action is also done when you’re reaching your arms over head. The serratus anterior are muscles that attach from the shoulder blade to the rib cage. When you protract or round your upper back, the muscle pulls the scapula around the sides of the ribs, then tilting it upwards when you reach the arms overhead so that the humerus can more comfortably reach upwards.
When you move from your whole shoulder blade and not just your arm, your planks, chaturangas, handstands, and downward dogs become a lot more efficient. Building strength in the serratus anterior can change the way you practice and it can be done in different ways. You can modify the amount of weight on your hands doing it while seated, in Cat Pose, Plank pose or even reclined mimicking the shape of Bakasana.
Protraction is especially important in load-bearing poses like Crow or Bakasana and the related poses in that arm balance series. This (along with core awareness and strength) is one of the keys to lifting your body off the ground.
When she isn’t drawing body parts, you can find Tami Ledesma teaching Vinyasa, FNR, Gentle Flow, and Pre-Natal yoga at Urban Ashram, or pulsing among her students at Barre3. Follow her asana adventures on Instagram at @movewithtami.