There is a debate that is still raging on about whether to push your shoulders up or pull them down. This is in reference to the overhead position seen in handstands and some weightlifting moves. Many schools of thought say the shoulder, or more specifically the scapula, should be depressed when overhead because that is more stable. However, gymnastics and weightlifting coaches often cue “push the shoulders up into your ears.”
What is the correct answer? It depends. I will examine this from several perspectives.
As an initial point of reference, I refer the reader to Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. Khan was defeated in the end, because he suffered from two-dimension thinking. Kirk was able to get the jump on Khan by using three-dimensional maneuvers. In order to understand the shoulder we must think in three-dimensions.
Overhead we seek to create stability. The body has two basic ways to create stability: active and passive. Our body defaults to a passive stability all the time: when we lean our hip over when standing in line; when we rest our chin on our chest while texting; or when the arch of our foot collapses and rests on the ground. A passive stability is where a joint moves into some end range where, because of bone-on-bone restrictions, it can no longer move and is therefore “stable.” An active stability is created with muscles and bones working together to create position that is strong yet also has movement options. For example, externally rotating the hips to create stability in the hips that also allows for strong stable hip movement. See squatting.
The shoulder, much like the hip benefits from active stability through external rotation. That’s why our rotator cuff is so important: the Teres Minor and Infraspinatus externally rotate the humerus to create stability. That is not the only mechanism for stability. The shoulder is a complex system made up of the humerus, scapula and clavicle. The scapula and clavicle anchor themselves on the axial skeleton (spine and ribs) and, therefore, the core musculature must stabilize the axial skeleton for the scapula and clavicle to be secure and stable. A weak core leads to a weak shoulder.
A cue is just a cue. When you hear the cue “shoulders up”, you shouldn’t mistake that for complex anatomical discourse. It’s merely a direction designed to elicit as certain action from the athlete. For example, if I cue someone to lift their chest up during a squat, I don’t care about their chest. I care about their back and that I see it rounding. Asking the athlete to lift their chest can create a series of events by which they engage their spinal erectors and bring their spine back to neutral or at least stop the flexion fault that is occurring. It is a very quick shorthand to fix a fault. Cues can create other faults. I might cue an athlete to lift their chest and a series of events might unfold where the athlete goes into over extension of the spine and rocks their weight forward onto their toes. That is a cue misapplied. it’s not the cue’s fault, it was merely the wrong cue for that athlete.
When I cue “shoulders up” what do I want and what do I not want? I want my athletes to actively push against gravity. Always. I am strength and conditioning coach and overcoming gravity is the means by which people get stronger. In a plank position, I want my athletes to push down on the ground until the scapula protract and their upper back starts to look slightly rounded (kyphotic). I also want them to externally rotate so that the pits of their elbows face forward. So I verbally cue “push the ground down.” I also might give them a tactile cue of putting my hand on their upper back and tell them to push their upper back into my hand. I would also tell them to screw their hands into the ground to create external rotation.
When the athlete goes into a handstand the same holds true. I want the athlete to push the ground down. I want them to externally rotate. This is optimal. What we see is that shoulder flexion and external rotation are both necessary components but there is a tension that exists between them, however they are not at odds. If I cue “shoulders up” it is because I see an athlete that is not pushing down into the ground and is lazy through the shoulders. However, I do not want to see my athlete push their shoulders so far up that they internally rotate and lose stability. As is always the case when working with humans, they are fallible and they can misinterpret directions.
What we see can be misinterpreted. The eye is fallible. We need to embody these techniques and it is impossible to understand lifting heavy without lifting heavy. We can get away with a lot of things that seem right in theory but if that theory does not work when applied to maximal loads then the theory was wrong.
Here is what I see: when I drive my shoulder all the way up to my ear, my humerus internal rotates. When I actively externally rotate, the humerus screws itself back in and the shoulder appears to drop slightly. When doing this in the mirror, it looks like I am depressing my scapula. Under load we might end up in essentially in the same place but the muscular action is quite different and important. Under heavy load the need to tell an athlete to depress is obviated by the fact that A HEAVY FUCKING LOAD IS PUSHING DOWN ON THE ATHLETE! The athlete’s job is to PUSH AGAINST THE HEAVY LOAD. This action of pushing is tempered by the act of also having to externally rotate. Thus the cue would be to “break the bar.” The best analogy I can give is to that of a screw vs. a nail. We do not merely hammer our shoulders up into position, we push up and screw in to create stability. It’s important that we remember that we are working in three dimensions and there is not one simple cue that will fix everything.