Functional anatomy of the shoulder: The Scapula



‘Functional anatomy’ is a term that is thrown around pretty freely in the movement, fitness and athletic performance realm.


Nine times out of ten when coaches and practitioners talk about functional anatomy they are often referring to a somewhat reductionist approach to understanding the human body.


This in itself is not wrong. I personally believe that having an understanding of the shoulder bones, joints, musculature and associated function amplifies the impact any coach can have exponentially. However it is not the whole picture.


What is Functional Anatomy


Anatomy is the study of the body and how its parts are arranged.


Functional anatomy is the study of anatomy in relation to function.


Therefore, the subject area covers a lot more than any one individual muscle, its origin, insertion, innervation and function. However, it is to this that most training manuals or resources would often limit our thinking.


For me this is only one third of the full picture because how I understand and utilise ‘functional anatomy’ includes:


1. Isolated bone, muscle, and ligaments (the components of the system)

2. The kinetic chain (system wide integration of the component)

3. Neurology (everything is controlled by the brain)


In the video below, I provide an overview of the bony landmarks of the scapula. This level of detail is helpful because it facilitates our ability to develop practically useful knowledge when we layer on the musculature.




The Big(ger) Picture


Let's embrace a little more complexity. Your ability to do this that will make functional anatomy an incredibly powerful tool in your coaching locker.


The Kinetic Chain


The kinetic chain refers to ‘the task-specific sequence of activation from one body segment to another’.


From a functional or athletic movement perspective, the scapula plays an important role in transmitting force from the energy producing lower body and core to the upper limb. Research suggests that in overhead sports, 50 – 80% of total force is generated by the lower body.


If the shoulder is a weak link in the chain, the risk of injury goes up when we try to transfer high forces through an unstable joint.


Similarly, athletes with lower limb injuries can be at risk of developing shoulder pain due to the increased demand on the shoulder as it tries to compensate for the reduced efficiency of the kinetic chain.


As coaches and practitioners it is essential that we have a range of strategies and options to integrate the shoulder into scalable kinetic chain movements if we are to get greater performance outcomes.


Again, the effectiveness of these strategies is enhanced by having a deeper understanding of functional anatomy as it relates to the kinetic chain.


The Brain is in Charge


Remember how one of the first things that coaches and trainers are taught is the brain’s role in functional movement. Afferent signal to the brain, an integrative process followed by an efferent signal which manifests as movement.


What happens then is that most coaches focus too much on the output and forget that the brain holds the keys to everything they are trying to achieve with their clients and athletes.


Your brain has three priorities:


1. Survival

2. Movement

3. Prediction


The combination of these means the brain is highly task focussed. It knows you want to press a bar overhead and it will help you achieve that outcome in anyway it can, providing you don’t compromise point 1.


Consider the architecture of the glenohumeral joint, all the musculature that acts upon the scapula and the many degrees of freedom (available movement options) that come as a result.


There are many ways the brain can ‘choose’ to help you achieve the end goal of getting the bar overhead. Some are more optimal than others but if option A isn't available, the brain will go for option, B then C and so on. What we know is that repeatedly loading sub-optimal patterns increases the risk of injury.


Applied neurology is an essential part of understanding functional anatomy from assessment to exercise selection to effective coaching cues.


The takeaway

When you shift your view of functional anatomy from purely thinking about muscle and bone to including a system wide perspective that includes the brain, you elevate your coaching skills significantly.


You no longer question what, but why. You move from local reductionist thinking to embracing the complexity of the global system. That doesn’t mean you can't programme for targeted muscles, but you have a far deeper rationale as to why you may then need to integrate that muscle into a wider movement solution.



High Performing Shoulders Education Course for Coaches

Do you want to take your knowledge and understanding of the upper limb to the next level? Take a look at our High Performing Shoulders education course.


You'll learn how to analyse, coach and programme in a way that will help you to reduce shoulder pain and instability, lower injury rates and training plateaus, and enhance confidence and progression for your clients and athletes.


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