The number of times I've heard the cue 'pull your shoulders down' with arms reaching overhead in my ballet, Pilates, yoga and aerial classes over the years are countless. It's likely you've heard it a fair share as well.
It's so common that I never really thought twice about it ... that is until I began to understand how the shoulders work.
See below for a video breakdown.
The shoulder joint complex has undoubtedly earned its name, it is complex! Not only is it the most mobile joint in the body, but it also requires 4 joints to work together in order for it to function in a supportive manner. No wonder why shoulder injuries among aerialists are so common!
In addition to the joints, there are a group of four muscles known as the 'rotator cuff' that support the shoulder. They are the subscapularis, teres minor, supraspinatus and infraspinatus. When we reach arms overhead our shoulder blades naturally move into upward rotation. If you fight against this and excessively pull them down when you're instructed to 'pull shoulders away from ears', it's possible that damage can be done to your supraspinatus tendon, especially when doing weight-bearing skills/exercises (hanging with straight arms on your aerial apparatus, handstands, etc.). The job of the supraspinatus is to hold your humerus (arm bone between your shoulder and your elbow) in place, keep it stable and helps lift your arm away from the body. Trying to stabilize the scapula by pulling it down can lead to muscular imbalances and instability along with shoulder impingement injuries. Allowing upward shoulder rotation is the best way to protect the supraspinatus tendon from getting pinched when we lift our arms overhead. When working from straight arms in the air aim to find your 'midway' point. Not pulling down, not disengaged and shrugging by your ears, but rather an upward wrapping around of the shoulder blade. You can find this placement by giving yourself a big bear hug and feel what your shoulder blades do (see video for reference). You'll want to keep the subtle widening of your scapula as your arms reach overhead. Shoulder shrugs on your apparatus are also a helpful way to find your midway point. With that being said, when you're working in the air from a bent arm position, 'drawing your shoulders down your back' or 'pulling shoulders away from ears' is correct. Just be mindful not to go to the absolute extreme. Our shoulders are rather vulnerable due to the large range of motion they are capable of. When we move them too far away from 'neutral' we can injure the muscles that connect the shoulder blades to the rib cage and spine.
My hope is this tip helps you to be proactive about your shoulders and how they’re supporting you in the air.