Is The Cue "Pull Your Shoulders Back" Helpful?

One of the most common instructions we tend to hear in yoga class is “pull your shoulders back”. This cue is often offered as a universal guideline for how we should position our shoulders throughout our entire practice, and it has its roots in a broader cultural idea that “shoulders back” is inherently good posture. In fact, this belief is so ubiquitous that we often don’t think to question the anatomical reasoning behind it. But as we now know, many of yoga’s traditional alignment rules could benefit from the insight of a more modern movement-science perspective. It turns out that as well-intentioned as the “shoulders back” cue is, on an anatomical level this instruction does not solve postural issues, nor does it help our body function better.

 

THE ANATOMY OF “SHOULDERS BACK”

For many of us, the extent of our anatomy knowledge is that our shoulders are the general, vague area located underneath the prominent shoulder pads of our mom’s awesome 80’s blazer. :)

This seemingly-simple part of the body is quite complex, however, consisting of three separate interlocking bones and four individual moving joints. At the bony level, our shoulder (often referred to anatomically as the “shoulder joint complex” or the “shoulder girdle”) actually looks something more like this under those eye-catching shoulder pads:

The shoulder girdle can move in a myriad of different ways. One pertinent pair of shoulder movements for our discussion today is protraction and retraction. When we protract our shoulders, our scapulae (shoulder blades) move away from one another on our back, and when we retract, they move toward each other. One of today’s postural realities is that many of our yoga students present with “rounded-forward shoulders” and the corresponding appearance of a caved-in chest. We interpret this overly-protracted position as non-optimal, and we therefore naturally conclude that in order to remedy it, our students should pull their shoulders back, or retract their scapulae, throughout their entire yoga practice.

Here is my good friend Rachel exaggerating the appearance of rounded-forward shoulders.

Here is my good friend Rachel exaggerating the appearance of rounded-forward shoulders.

But this well-intentioned notion is problematic for a few reasons. The first and possibly most fascinating has to do with a lack of awareness that many of us have about the way we move. Unless we’ve consciously worked to change this pattern, most of us aren’t actually able to pull our shoulders back without also moving our spine into a slight backbend. In anatomical language, we would say that most people aren’t able to retract their scapulae without also extending their spine.

Just to make sure we understand the clear difference between these two movements, let’s take a look at a simple visual aid. Scapular retraction is a horizontal motion performed by the muscles that lie between the shoulder blades and the spine:

Scapular retraction.

Scapular retraction.

Whereas spinal extension is a vertical movement performed by the muscles that run up and down along the spine, like this:

Spinal extension.

Spinal extension.

Although these are clearly two distinct anatomical actions, in most people they have become “lumped together” as one undiscriminated movement. Therefore, when we ask students to pull their shoulders back, they will more than likely also unconsciously extend their spine.

Now spinal extension is of course a fine movement in general, but if we’re asking our students to move their shoulders back, we’re really requesting pure scapular retraction - no unnecessary extra movements included. Aside from that, as I’ve discussed before, when many of us extend our spines, we end up unknowingly performing most of the movement at T12/L1, the very mobile vertebral segment at which the thoracic and lumbar spines meet. When this happens, our front lower ribs protrude forward, our chest lifts toward the sky, and we end up creating non-optimal compression in the lumbar spine region. This is not a favorable position for our spine, but it is the position that 95% of our students will assume if we ask them to pull their shoulders back.

Another reason that constantly pulling our shoulders back all day is undesirable is that it negatively impacts the quality of our breath. The “shoulders back, chest up” position which we so commonly equate with good posture in fact impedes our ability to take a full, nourishing breath. Give this experiment a quick try in your own body: for a moment, pretend that your yoga teacher just cued your class to pull their shoulders back, and be a dutiful student by retracting your scapulae and lifting your chest. Then place your hands on either side of your rib cage and take a full breath cycle of inhale and exhale, allowing your rib cage to swell laterally into your hands on the inhale. Notice how deeply you were able to inhale. Now stop squeezing your scapulae back - just allow your shoulders to relax forward - and find a neutral rib cage by dropping your front low ribs down until they are buried beneath your abdominal flesh. Try inhaling into your hands in this new position. Your breath capacity should be noticeably more expansive. This is a perfect example of how the way you choose to position your body in space can have a direct effect on how your body functions.

 

A third reason that chronic scapular retraction is problematic is that this action creates unnecessary tension in our upper- and mid-back. In fact, if you happen to be familiar with massage therapy, you might know that the rhomboids and middle trapezius - the muscles that lie in between the shoulder blades - are a classic place in which clients love to receive massage. One main reason that this area so commonly craves the therapeutic touch of massage is that many of us spend the majority of our day using muscular effort to pull our shoulders back. Massage helps to relieve the chronic tension created by this habit, but its effects are usually only temporary.

 

WHAT SHOULD WE DO WITH OUR SHOULDERS INSTEAD?

As radical as it might seem, instead of pulling your shoulders back, try simply allowing them to relax. Let go of any retracting effort and just let your shoulders naturally fall where they will. Although this might “feel” to you like your shoulders are too rounded forward, the truth for most people is that if they were look at themselves in a mirror, they would discover that their shoulders are not nearly as far forward as they thought they were (although some rounding is quite normal). Allow your default alignment to be a shoulder girdle that is relaxed and free from effort. And then in the longer term, begin to proactively target the tension that is pulling your shoulders forward in the first place with smart stretches and conscious movement exercises designed for the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor muscles of the front of the chest.

 

In conclusion, the idea that we should pull our shoulders back throughout our whole yoga practice (and all day long in general) is a universal alignment cue that does not serve our body well. Let’s instead learn to only offer this cue during yoga asanas in which scapular retraction enhances the specific anatomical purpose of the pose. The more that we strive to teach intentional movement versus scripted alignment cues, the more our students will benefit from the insightful quality of our classes!
 

Related Post: Common Movement Blind Spot #2: The Shoulder Blade & Spine Connection

Related Online Class: Shoulders-Focused Practice

The Easiest Mistake to Make in Backbends

I am sooo thankful to have published a second article in Yoga International! It's all too easy to do backbends in a way that will make your spine mad at you :), and I hope this article will provide lots of helpful info for how to approach these poses in a way that will offer true positive change in your body. Thanks so much for reading, guys!

https://yogainternational.com/article/view/the-easiest-mistake-to-make-in-backbends

In other news, I'm working on a new series of posts for my blog on shoulder mechanics in yoga. I haven't written specifically about the shoulders here yet, so I'm hoping that these posts will help fill in some missing info on this important area of the body. Stay tuned for this and more great movement info to come!

A Biomechanics-Informed Response to Yoga Journal: We Do Not Need to Tuck Our Tail In Every Yoga Pose

A Yoga Journal article entitled “Alignment Cues Decoded: ‘Soften Your Front Ribs’” by YogaWorks teacher Alexandria Crow came through my Facebook feed yesterday and I decided to write a response to it. As you might know, I am very interested in seeing our wonderful yoga world update its traditional alignment cuing with the intelligence of biomechanics and modern movement science. I've found that the yoga community can be a surprisngly insular environment in which aspiring yoga teachers learn asana alignment from other yoga teachers who learned their alignment from teachers before them, etc., and at no point in this handing down of information do yogis tend to step outside of the tradition of yoga to learn about anatomy and biomechanics from objective movement professionals who base their teachings in the science of the body.

So when I saw this article come through my feed, I was excited to read it because I was hopeful that it would contribute some new and interesting information to the greater yoga alignment dialog. The magazine Yoga Journal and the large yoga studio chain YogaWorks are both very established entities in the yoga world, so the articles they publish about yoga alignment are considered authoritative by many yogis.

But as I made my way through the article I became progressively disheartened because rather than introduce new and intriguing alignment insights, I found instead a reiteration of some standard old-school yoga cues that biomechanics has long ago proven to be unhelpful and which many movement professionals retired from their teaching years ago.

 

 

A SUMMARY OF THE YOGA JOURNAL ARTICLE

If you don’t have time to read the original article, I’ll give you a summary. The gist of “Alignment Cues Decoded: ‘Soften Your Front Ribs’” is that most people tend to overarch in their lumbar spine/low back area, which results in a forward jutting of their rib cage. In order to fix this misalignment, yoga teachers instruct their students to “soften your front ribs”, but what they really should be cueing (according to the article) is “pull the front of your pelvis up, by lifting your hip points and dropping your tailbone until your lower back is in a natural - not overly arched - curve.” Here's more of an excerpt:
 

“The ribcage puffing forward is what most teachers’ eyes see first, so they say, ‘soften your front ribs’ in an attempt to get students to drop the front of the ribcage toward the pelvis. But the change actually comes from the front of the pelvis, the hips. To fix overarched lower backs and pointy, puffy lower ribs, students have to posteriorly tilt their pelvis at the hip joint bringing their pelvis and lower back into neutral alignment. That reduces the lower back’s arch and shortens the front body, dropping the ribs down.”


Does that make sense? In order to fix the common issue of jutting-forward ribs, yogis need to tuck their pelves. Alexandria’s advice is well-intentioned and is certainly a commonly-held belief in the yoga world, but this perspective has been outdated by modern movement science for years now.

Here is the biomechanics to explain why tucking our pelvis does not fix our ribs-forward issue. Alexandria implies in her article that most people have a forward-tilted pelvis (also called an anterior pelvic tilt), which needs to be brought back to neutral with a posterior tilt, or tuck. But the anatomical truth is that the overwhelming majority of us present with pelves which are actually tucked under (also called posteriorly-tilted), which is the opposite of forward-tilted. We sit in so many chairs with rounded spines and tucked-under hips for the majority of our time that our body can’t help but adapt to this shape.

(As a side note, I must point out that no postural rules apply to everyone and there are of course some people who don’t have chronically tucked pelves. But when we’re discussing general yoga cues, we’re talking about common movement patterns and postural imbalances that apply to the majority of the students we tend to see. We’re trying to be as helpful as we can teaching in a group class setting.)

But then why would Alexandria and so many other yoga teachers and yoga teacher training programs like the ones at YogaWorks teach that most people have forward-tilted pelves that need tucking? Great question - I’m so glad you asked! It’s because in addition to having a tucked pelvis, most people also present with a forward translation of their rib cage, also called rib thrust or rib shear.

Here's me with my ribs forward - do you see that my lumbar curve looks exaggerated here?

Here's me with my ribs forward - do you see that my lumbar curve looks exaggerated here?

This is the same image, but with a rib cage overlayed because rib cages are cool. :)

This is the same image, but with a rib cage overlayed because rib cages are cool. :)

When one’s rib cage has moved forward, it creates the overly-arched spine that Alexandria correctly sees in her students, but the mistake that too many yoga teachers make is in assuming that this excessive arch (also called hyperlordosis) is coming from below - from of the pelvis. Yes it’s true, as Alexandria points out in her article, that when your pelvis moves, your lumbar spine moves along with it. But it’s also true that when your rib cage moves, your lumbar spine moves too. The hyperlordosis that we all-too-often see in our students isn’t the result of a pelvis that is anteriorly-tilted from below - it’s the result of a rib cage that has sheared forward from above. The fix is therefore not to tuck your pelvis under, or to do any of these other cues that the YJ article suggest that mean the same thing, like:

-pull the front of your pelvis up
-lift your hip points
-drop your tailbone

I repeat, the fix is not to tuck the pelvis. Tucking the pelvis when we're already tucked leads to major body imbalances that we don't need to delve into right now - but it's not what we want to be doing. The correct fix is to return the rib cage to neutral, which you could certainly cue as “soften your front ribs” (but there are many other ways to convey this same action).

As I wrote about in my Core Strength Fiction & Facts article, it’s time to retire the indiscriminate use of the “tuck your tail” cue. Yes, there are specific times when we do want to work a posterior tilt of our pelvis - absolutely! But as yoga teachers who integrate anatomy and body intelligence into our teaching, it’s our responsibility to learn when these specific times are and to use this cue only at those times. In the YJ article, we are recommended to tuck our pelvis in all of these poses:

-tadasana (mountain pose)
-utkatasana (chair pose)
-adho mukha svanasana (down dog)
-adho mukha vrksasana (handstand)
-high crescent lunge
-warrior 1
-warrior 2
-trikonasana (triangle pose)
-”and so many more!”

However, the only poses from that long list in which most of us would be well-advised to work a tuck of our pelvis are high crescent lunge and warrior 1 - and that’s it!
 

IN CONCLUSION...

I feel thankful to have realized at a certain point in my yoga path that I had only learned about the body from people within the yoga tradition, and that it might be a good idea to seek some broader, more objective knowledge from movement professionals from outside the yoga world as well. The knowledge I’ve gained (and continue to gain!) from years of studying have given me a profoundly different perspective on the way that yoga approaches the body. Armed with these new understandings, I’m actively working toward helping yogis understand biomechanical alignment and how we can apply this modern-day movement science to our yoga practice to keep our beloved tradition of yoga evolving and current.

I understand that traditions don’t change overnight and that people tend to have ingrained notions about the way the body moves or which alignment cues are optimal that can be challenging to dislodge. But one great first step toward embracing positive change is to not accept at face value something that was written in an article just because the article was published in an established entity like Yoga Journal. Yoga Journal is not the authority on how the body moves- biomechanics and science are the authority.


Related Post: Pelvic-Tucking and Lumbar Flexion: Movements We Shouldn't Be Doing in Yoga?

Related Post: Common Movement Blind Spot #1: The Rib Cage and Pelvis Connection

What Does Your Twist Tell You About The Strength Of Your Core?

We know it’s important to have a strong, functioning core. But did you know that working our core muscles is only one half of the core strength equation? In order for our core to be truly strong, it must also be flexible and supple. As counterintuitive as it may seem, mobilizing our waist area with poses like twists has just as much to do with core strength as “core work” does. However, the traditional alignment we use for our twists in yoga often misses this important core strengthening benefit. In this article, we’ll use biomechanics to uncover some common twisting “cheats” so we can turn our twists into the awesome core-focused poses they should be!


A TIGHT CORE IS A WEAK CORE

(Update, February 2016: I really appreciate the sentiment of this section of this post, but since the time that I wrote it I have learned more and shifted my perspective. The term "tight" does not have an objective, scientific meaning, and there is also currently no evidence that I know of that suggests that strengthening a muscle will cause it to become 'short and tight', even though this a very commonly-held belief. I still love this blog post in general (especially the great photos of twisting alignment below), but this specific section right here is a tad outdated now.)

The first time I heard the statement that tight muscles are weak muscles, I was certainly dubious. Everyone knows that short, tight muscles are strong while long, loose muscles are weak, right? Isn’t that the way the body works? But it turns out that this common belief is actually an anatomy myth that doesn’t hold true once we examine the science of musculoskeletal function. It is correct that in order to be strong, a muscle must be able to contract - but this is only half of the movement equation. For true functional strength a muscle must have the ability to both contract and release.

When we talk about whether a muscle is strong, we’re really referring to how well it can “generate force”. This takes place at the level of the sarcomere, the basic contractile unit of a muscle. When a healthy muscle contracts, its sarcomeres generate force by shortening, and afterward they release and lengthen again so that they’re ready to shorten the next time the muscle is asked to contract. But if we work our muscles so much that they become short and tight, their sarcomeres are now in an overlapped, “locked short” position and can no longer release back to the place where they can contract again. Muscles like these are not functionally strong because they have a very limited ability to generate force.

So what happens to the muscles of our core if we “strengthen” them with a bunch of core work until they become short and tight? We might end up with defined abdominal muscles like your stereotypical six-pack abs, but if at the micro level, our sarcomeres are overlapped and can’t release back to their optimal force-generating position, our core is not physiologically strong.

 

MOBILIZING FOR CORE STRENGTH

For today’s purposes, let’s define the “core” as the area between the rib cage and the pelvis. We now understand that in order for this area to be strong, the muscles and fascia that live there must also be supple. One of the best ways to mobilize these tissues is through twisting. A twist takes place when we rotate our rib cage relative to our pelvis, our pelvis relative to our rib cage, or both at the same time.

Here’s a great visual that demonstrates this movement. My top hand represents a rib cage, my bottom hand is the pelvis, and the blue fabric in between is the muscles and fascia of the core:

No twist has taken place here because the rib cage and pelvis are facing the same direction.

No twist has taken place here because the rib cage and pelvis are facing the same direction.

Successful twist! The rib cage and pelvis have rotated relative to each other (see how the hands have turned?) and there's clearly a twist in the blue fabric.

Successful twist! The rib cage and pelvis have rotated relative to each other (see how the hands have turned?) and there's clearly a twist in the blue fabric.

Ideally a twist in our body would mobilize the muscles of our waist in the same way that these hands mobilized the blue fabric. Most of us are actually much stiffer through the waist than we realize, though, meaning that our true twisting range of motion is relatively small. But because of a prevailing idea in yoga that going "deeper" in a pose is better, we tend to bypass placing a load on the tight tissues of our waist in favor of moving where it's already easy for us to move, ending up in a shape that creates the illusion of a twist without mobilizing our core muscles much at all. Let me show you what I mean.

Here’s a wonderful yoga student named Craig (who also just happens to be my husband!)


Here are a few places where Craig can move really well in his body:

He can move nicely at his neck - see how he can turn his head all the way to the side?

He can move nicely at his neck - see how he can turn his head all the way to the side?

He can also move his arms relative to his torso with ease.

He can also move his arms relative to his torso with ease.

In fact, Craig can combine these two movements to create a quite aesthetically-pleasing twist, wouldn’t you say?

But wait... is this a twist? Or does it just appear on the surface to be a twist? Well, if you use your anatomically-informed eyes to look at the Ganesha print on the front of Craig’s shirt, you’ll see that Ganesha is facing straight forward - he didn’t move through space at all. If Ganesha didn’t move, then Craig’s rib cage didn’t move, which means that his core didn’t receive a stretch at all, and this shape was, in fact, a twist “illusion”.

Another easy way to miss your best twist is to lift your chest instead. If we arch our spine when we twist, we’ll feel like we’re deeper in our twist because we moved more, but we’re simply mobilizing a place that wasn’t the target area of our pose - with the added drawback of creating compression in our lumbar spine. This kind of twist looks something like this:

Do you see how Craig has lifted his chest and tilted his rib cage backward in this example? He has also let his head rotate much further around than his rib cage, and if you look closely, you’ll see that his eyes have moved even further around than his head (!), all of which makes Craig feel like he moved deeper into his twist, when in reality his core didn’t rotate much at all.

In this final example, Craig is demonstrating a true core-mobilizing (and therefore core-strengthening!) twist:

He hasn’t arched his spine to create excessive movement in non-optimal places, and the change in angle of Ganesha shows us that he successfully turned his rib cage relative to his pelvis. An aligned twist like this is the essential ingredient to core strength that many of us have been missing. Your body will love it when you find it!

 

IN CONCLUSION...

In our continuing pursuit of an updated yoga practice that’s informed by biomechanics and anatomy, it’s helpful for us to look beyond the oversimplified categories we’ve been taught for our poses. “Spinal twists” and “core work” are actually intimately connected when it comes to core function. And as has become a central theme of my blog posts, in order for our twists to have a beneficial impact on our core, we need to let go of the idea that “deeper is better” and learn to work within our body’s true limits. The path of seeing ourselves accurately and clearly is an essential key to the transformative effects that yoga has to offer!

 

Related Online Class: Twisting-Focused Flow

Related Online Workshop: Anatomy of the Spine for Increased Core Connection