The Overhead Position

The Shoulders Down Debate has raged on for years. Let me weigh in on it. I got dragged into a conversation about this video from the American Yoga School which I mostly agree with.

Here is my response.

The overhead position is entirely misunderstood by yogis and fitness people and really everyone. The reason for this is that yogis and most other people have never used their shoulders as they were designed. Evolutionarily we were designed to brachiate as well as support heavy loads with the shoulders. The best test for proper position is not what can you do one time with light weight but what can you do many times with very large weight. i.e. Does your shoulders down theory work with a hand balancing circus performer, a gymnast throwing a vault or a weightlifter clean and jerking twice their bodyweight? A 100lb vegan talking about shoulder strength is about as useless as a pig looking at a wristwatch.

Looking at examples from athletes that push their shoulders to the limits we can see what gymnasts and Olympic weightlifters do to support large amounts of weight overhead. A gymnast vaulting will put up to 6 times their bodyweight into their shoulders dynamically and Olympic weightlifters consistently lift and support 1.5 to 2 times their bodyweight overhead. Those athletes will tell you that you absolutely must shrug your shoulders to your ears anything less will be disastrous when trying to vault or lift. A simple youtube search of hand balancers at Cirque du Soleil will confirm that these performers shrug up creating both elevation as well as upward rotation of the scapula.

However, the conversation does not stop there. That would be simple two dimensional thinking. Our shoulders work in three dimensions. In order to stabilize the shoulder adequately you need to create an external rotation torque while in flexion. That is what creates a tightening of the joint and the ligaments and stabilizes the humorous in the glenoid. It will also pull the scapulas around the rib cage. You can refer to countless Kelly Starrett videos confirming this fact.

What is lost on the yoga practitioner and many other fitness people is the disambiguation of external rotation and depression. If you take your right shoulder into flexion and shrug up (elevation and upward rotation) and then externally rotate (screw in the lightbulb) your shoulder will move down away from your ear. That is due to the humerous being tightened and stabilized into the glenoid cavity but it is not the same as depression. However, from mere outward appearance someone might mistakenly cue it as “shoulders down”.

f you don’t believe me, try a one-armed handstand with my way and your way and you will see which way is stronger and more stable. Even better, try doing front or back handsprings with your scapulas depressed.

So this guy is half right. The part he is missing is the external rotation.

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