Shoulder Stability in Pilates Exercises

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Intro to Shoulder Stability

Pilates girl
Vicki Reid/E+/Getty Images

Shoulder stability is critical to doing Pilates exercises or any exercise safely and effectively. Beyond the studio or gym, once you train yourself to stabilize the shoulder area through well-aligned exercise, you take that knowledge into everyday movement, thereby protecting your back and neck, and increasing movement efficiency. Shoulder stability is one of the many functional fitness aspects of Pilates.

When we talk about shoulder stability, the term scapular stability is often used. Your scapula are the wing-like bones on your upper back, popularly known as shoulder blades. Their placement on the back is often a visual key as to how stable the whole shoulder area is. When our scapula ride up (along with the shoulders) or wing out to the sides, our shoulder area is less stable than if the scapula were settled on the back in a neutral position. Similarly, sometimes we draw the scapula together on the back and this too is a less stable position than when the scapula are flat on the back with the shoulders down. In honor of shoulder stability, you will hear: "settle your scapula on your back", "draw your shoulder blades down" and "relax your shoulders" (bring them down from around your ears) all the time in Pilates classes.

This demonstration of the exercise, arms reach and pull as seen from the back, gives you a visual on what the scapula look like when they are settled on the back, the stronger position; when they are moved away from midline (abducted), less stable; and when they are pulled in toward midline (adducted), also less stable.

We're not saying that the scapula can't move, they will, but increasing your awareness of the placement of your scapula will help you stabilize movement and promote balanced strength and support in the upper body.

In the image above, the scapula are settled on the back in a neutral and strong position.

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Scapula are Close Together (adducted)

shoulder blades together
Scapula Together (adducted). Photo © 2008, Marguerite Ogle

In this picture, the scapula are pulled together, toward the midline. Many people habitually exercise with their scapula in this position. This is sometimes a hold-over from the old military, "chest out, shoulders back" attitude. However, it is better to have enough body awareness to make choices and use a more neutral position where it is appropriate.

There are times in exercise -- certain weight lifting and yoga moves come to mind -- when there is such an expansive opening of the chest that the shoulder blades are brought closer together in the back. This is a little more integrative and supported than independently sliding the scapula together.

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Scapula Away from Midline (abducted)

shouler blades apart
Scapula Apart (abducted). Photo © 2008, Marguerite Ogle

In this image, the scapula have moved apart from each other, away from the midline of the body. In practice, this move often accompanies an exaggerated rounding of the back.

It can be useful to reach your arms away so far that the scapula travel outward, but be aware that this position is not as integrated, in terms of shoulder stability, as when the scapula are settled on the back.

Our model was doing the exercise, arms reach and pull for this demonstration. You may want to try that next. Some other exercises that will help you explore scapular movement and stability are:

As you become more familiar with the basics shoulder stability you will find that even side-lying exercises challenge the placement of the scapula. You might want to try the side kick series with scapular placement in mind.

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