Cues Gone Wrong-“Shoulders Down and Back”

Cues Gone Wrong-“Shoulders Down and Back”

“Shoulders down and back”. This cue is practically gospel in the world of physical therapy. And it has seeped into the world of fitness as the “safest position” for the shoulders.

Unfortunately, this cue is overused and creates confusion when misapplied.

While shadowing as a PT student, I recall watching a PT cue a patient doing dumbbell overhead presses. They kept telling the patient to keep their shoulders “down and back”. The patient struggled and struggled. Over the next few weeks the patient would lament, “I just can’t seem to get it”. At the time I thought the patient just needed more practice. I’ve since learned that the patient couldn’t keep their shoulders down and back while overhead pressing, because that’s not what the shoulders do in an overhead press.  

In this article I’ll discuss the use (and misuse) of this cue in pressing exercises.

What is this cue intended to do?

This cue is intended to create scapular retraction (squeezing the shoulder blades towards the spine) and depression (bringing the shoulder blades towards the pockets, away from the ears).

When does this cue apply?

The bench press and its variants.

In the bench press creating a back arch allows the user to lift more weight. This back arch creates various mechanical efficiencies: a smaller range of motion (ROM) for the bar, improved leverage in the lift1, and “tightness” or stability that allows the user to generate more force.

Shoulders down and back can help the user to create that arch, thereby allowing them to lift more weight.

When does this cue NOT apply?

The overhead press.

Trying to keep the shoulders down and back when lifting overhead is contradictory to the motion of the scapula.

When the arm lifts overhead, the scapula rotates upwards. It is estimated that 1/3 of the range of motion lifting overhead comes from this scapular upward rotation2.

Further, this scapular upward rotation is created by the synergistic actions of the trapezius muscles and the serratus anterior2 . So using the upper trapezius is actually necessary to lift overhead with full ROM.

Figure 2: Scapular Upward Rotation
Source: https://www.zachdechant.com/the-other-shrug/

As a self-experiment, lift your arm overhead. Then pin your shoulders “down and back” and try lifting again. There will be significantly less ROM because pinning the shoulders down and back limits scapular movement, which limits full shoulder ROM.

The pushup is another exercise where the shoulders should not be held down and back. During the upward, concentric phase of the pushup, the scapula protract (move away from the spine, see figure 1 above). That protraction is accomplished mostly with the serratus anterior. Trying to cue shoulders down and back is contradictory to that “natural motion” of the pushup.

Why do the pushup and bench press have different cues?

First, the bench press is derived from the sport of powerlifting where the goal is to lift the maximum amount of weight. As discussed above, arching allows the user to lift more weight.

Second, in a bench press the support from the bench gives the scapulae a surface to brace against. In the pushup, there is no external stability, so the serratus anterior has to create the platform for pushing.

Cues have a time and place. The right cue applied to the wrong lift creates confusion and frustration. “Shoulders down and back” has its place in the bench press, but generally should not be encouraged in the overhead press or pushup.

References:

  1. Rippetoe, M., & Kilgore, L. (2011). Starting strength: basic barbell training. 3rd ed. Wichita Falls, TX: Aasgaard Co.

2. Levangie, P. K., & Norkin, C. C. (2005). Joint structure and function: A comprehensive analysis. Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis Co.

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