WHAT ARE MY SCAPULAE?
Your scapulae (scaps for short) are the foundation of your shoulder joint and these flat wing like bones help to anchor your shoulder to your torso. Any exercise where you move your upper arm utilises your scapulae in some way and any weakness in the 17 different muscles that connect to it will translate into weakness in the movement. They are an incredibly mobile bone, tilting and rotating to accommodate the wide range of movement of the shoulder joint.
HOW TO TEST YOUR SCAPULAR HEALTH
Here’s a quick test for you: grab a small straight object like a pen or toothbrush, one in each hand and stand up straight, shoulders relaxed. Are your objects pointing straight ahead or inwards? If they’re pointing in towards your body, I’m sorry to say you probably have far from optimal scapular function.
Our modern lives of sitting in chairs and hunching over keyboards has weakened the muscles in this area causing poor shoulder mobility and stability, which can spell disaster if you’re an active CrossFitter. But not to worry because in this article we are going to show you how you can strengthen the surrounding muscles so you can hit new PRs and stay injury free.
WHY ARE THEY IMPORTANT?
Of your overhead reach, the muscles around your scapulae are responsible for roughly the final 60 degrees. Everybody knows that a strong overhead pressing or jerking position involves having your upper arm behind your ear, your glutes switched on, your abs tight and your ribcage pinned down. So if you struggle to get the bar directly overhead without having to break good form and flare out your ribcage – compromising safety as well as strength – your scapulae could be the problem.
Scapular strength is also fundamental for the snatch and overhead squat. When you’ve got the bar overhead in that wide grip, scapular and lat activation help to put your shoulders in a strong position and stop them rolling forward. As well as being an incredibly dangerous position for your shoulders to be in, inwardly rolled shoulders will shift your centre of gravity forward, bringing you onto your toes and often resulting in a failed lift.
You may be surprised to learn that even for a mostly lower body movement like the back squat good scapula function can help. If you can’t squeeze them tight to stabilise your back when you’re high bar back squatting, your torso is less likely to remain upright and the weight could pull you forwards onto your toes into a weaker and potentially dangerous position.
FOR INJURY PREVENTION
There is no way around it, Crossfit requires strong shoulders and good scapular health. From overhead squats to toes to bar, weak shoulders will lead to sub-par performances and possibly injury.
Poor shoulder position caused by weak or inactive muscles around the scapulae can stress tendons and ligaments around your shoulder girdle. This stress accumulates slowly, over weeks, months and even years. You may not notice these little micro injuries as they occur, but eventually that one final overhead squat with poor form could be the final straw that broke the camel’s shoulder.
If your scaps can’t move properly to get into strong positions, other parts of your shoulder such as the rotator cuff will have to try and compensate and move in ways that they are not designed to do so. This can result in rotator cuff tears, impingement, bursitis rotator cuff tendonitis/tendinosis and labrum injuries to name a few.
But don’t worry it’s not all doom and gloom, we’re here to show you how you can get scaps of steel!
HOW CAN I STRENGTHEN THEM?
Resistance bands are a useful tool to achieve this aim. Here are some examples of great scap strengthening exercises that you can use them for:
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Use a band that provides a moderate resistance and perform 3 sets of 12-15 reps.
Named after the shape your body and arms make when you perform the exercise. Use a light resistance band for this and perform 10 reps in each position I,T, and Y before resting, do 3 sets in total. Its also worth noting that these can be done with light dumbbells while lying face down on an elevated bench.
BAND PULL APARTS
Excellent for strengthening scapular retraction, aim for 3 sets of 8-12 reps.
Don’t be put off by the gruesome name, these can be really beneficial for shoulder health and mobility.
Crossfit doesn’t feature a lot of heavy rowing movements (the rowing machine is mostly quad dominant) so athletes tend to develop weaker lower and mid traps around the scapula compared to their dominant upper trapezius muscles which are constantly worked from exercises like cleans and deadlifts. To balance out your back strength, include barbell or dumbell rows in your training. Rowing movements are great for your shoulder and scapular health as well as having a strong carryover to weightlifting.
Also, always being mindful of the position of your scaps during a WOD can go a long way to improving their function and save you from injury.
When doing pull-ups, toes to bar, push ups, ring dips, bench press or almost any upper body exercise, make sure you are actively pulling your scaps down and back and soon this stronger position will become second nature.
SCAPULAR HEALTH: MASSAGE AND RECOVERY
Finally, it’s important to mention that massage can really help to unglue tissues around your scapula. Spending years in bad shoulder positions can cause the muscles to stiffen and knot, so to help them activate properly use a lacrosse ball, tennis ball or ‘peanut’ and place it in the area between your scapulae and spine. Apply some gentle pressure by leaning against a wall or lying on the floor and move the ball up and down this area and wherever you feel a few lumps or knots, keep the ball in there until you feel it start to loosen. Spend five minutes on the left and right side and after you’ll feel like you’ve got a brand-new set of shoulders.
Incorporating these exercises into your training, either as a warm up or post-WOD accessory work will only take about 30 minutes a week but will go a long way to making you a stronger athlete and keep you Crossfitting for years to come.