Updated: Aug 18, 2021
Coaching cues and the language we use to direct movement has received a lot of attention in recent years and for good reason.
What we say to clients and athletes is important. When I was coming up through my strength and conditioning education, the instruction; 'set your shoulder' was the go to cue.
Although ambiguous, through positional coaching and correction, athletes would come to know what I meant, which at the time I believed to be a 'good position'.
This cue and thought process however, creates a problem.
Firstly, the word 'set' is generally used to describe something that doesn't move and that is not what we want for the scapula. Its job is to respond to movements of the arm and maintain structural integrity of the joint by keeping the socket on the ball. Think of a seal balancing a ball on its nose.
If you want to move your hand around in space as we do in training, sport and life, then you need your scapula to move.
[RE]THINK THE RATIONALE
There was logic in this 'fixing' approach. It creates a level of joint stability which can increase upper body force output by 24% (Tate 2008). The issue is, 'setting the scapula' often leads people to clamp into a 'back and down' position. The athlete will often try and hold this position regardless of what the arm is doing even when it goes overhead.
Take a simple push up for example. Does it not make sense that each rep should finish with the scapula moving around the rib cage and therefore permitting scapula mobility in response to the position of the arm? Perhaps the word 'protraction' has such a negative connotation due to its association with upper limb postural dysfunction that we don't want anything to do with it.
This however, significantly limits our application of proper scapula mechanics. In a rehab setting this 'push up plus' movement is used all the time to activate serratus anterior. In an S + C environment this pattern is largely forgotten, and it is certainly not scaled with the same attention that pecs, lats and deltoids enjoy.
Relative to upper body strength, a weak or 'under-powered' serratus is a major contributor to many shoulder issues.
There are times when we want the scapula to stay in one position and be stable. But equally there are many occasions when the scapula needs to move. It is therefore logical that we think carefully about exercise selection and how we can facilitate it under progressive loads.
This becomes especially relevant when we consider transfer of training into more chaotic environments. Take rugby as an example, if a player wants to fend-off someone running towards them, they're going to want the scapula to protract as they push the player away. If you're not convinced, ask a large person to run towards you and try to push them off with a straight arm whilst your scapula remains pinned back and down. One person is likely to fair better than the other.
Based on this I encourage you to have an honest look at your exercise selection alongside a consideration of the task and environment you're looking to apply the desired adaptation in. I don't see a many people allowing the scapula to move much at all on a bench press, which, if all you want to do is heavy bench then crack on. But if you plan on trying to take that strength into the real world, you might want to think about backing it up with some more dynamic stability.
Just to be clear, in this situation bench press is not the problem. It's important to use the right tool for the right job. The question however is whether you are in possession of all the tools you need.
A FINAL THOUGHT ON COACHING CUES
With all this in mind it is also important that we think about the language and coaching cues we use.
What difference might we see if the instruction is to 'position' the scapula? Furthermore, how do upper body push based movements look and feel if they are initiated by 'pushing the shoulder with scapula'? Now we find ourselves in the realm of internal vs external cues and this is a conversation for another day.
For now, don't be afraid to [re]think, experiment and then let me know what you find.
Credit: Thanks to Dr Ian Horsley @backinactionphysio for opening my eyes on cueing scapula movement.
Tate AR, Mcclure P, Kareha S, Irwin D. Effect of the scapula reposition test on shoulder impingement symptoms and elevation strength in overhead athletes, Journal of orthopaedic & sports physical therapy, 2008;