There has been an increased awareness around the need to be more physically active in our society. Because of the low-cost barrier to entry, high energy, and community environment, increasing numbers of people are turning to group exercise to fulfill their activity needs. Unfortunately there has been a correlative increasing frequency of complaints in shoulder and neck tightness as a direct result of many of the exercises and cues these individuals are given during these classes.

This article will address two cues commonly used during upper body exercises and demonstrate how they can directly contribute to shoulder and neck tightness. I will provide you with two alternative cues so that your clients leave your class feeling that their shoulders are more aligned and less tight.

As a group exercise instructor, you have the most challenging job in the industry. You not only have to keep your energy high during multiple classes, your job requires you to provide a great workout for many individuals -- often of varying experience levels -- and keep them both inspired and moving correctly. Consequently group exercise instructors have adopted many verbal cuing options that are easy to teach to the masses and that address common postural issues such as forward or rounded shoulders. Unfortunately, many of the cues we have been taught to address these issues are directly contributing to increasing frequency of shoulder and even neck dysfunction.

For example, most of us have been taught to cue our clients to pull their shoulder blades 'down and back' as they perform upper body exercise and as a way to improve posture and prevent the dreaded elevated shoulder position. The cue 'squeeze your shoulder blades together' is another common cue to help develop the scapular retractors in an attempt to avoid the forward shoulder position. While they may provide optimal alignment for some individuals, I would like for you to try an experiment so that you can experience what effect these cues are having on many of your clients.

Sit at the edge of your chair with your arms positioned at your sides. Begin by depressing and retracting your shoulders as we instruct our clients. Now keeping them depressed and retracted raise your arms overhead. How did that feel and how easy was it to raise your arms up? It was incredibly challenging and possibly uncomfortable because you had over-recruited your scapular depressors -- primarily latissimus dorsi and lower trapezius -- as well as your retractors, the rhomboids and mid trapezius.

Now repeat this experiment however this time I want you to imagine you have balloons under your arms that are causing your shoulder blades to float upon your rib cage. Relax your shoulders and take a couple of deep breathes into your diaphragm. Now raise your arms overhead and visualize your scapula wrapping or sliding around your rib cage. How did that feel compared to the previous time? It should feel lighter and easier to get your arms forward and you should notice a lot less tension in your neck and shoulders.

To properly support your arms in the overhead position normal and optimal shoulder mechanics requires that the scapula abduct (move away from the spine), posteriorly tilt (tilt back so they are flush to the rib cage), and upwardly rotate (turn up towards the ceiling). In simpler terms, the scapula should 'wrap' or slide around the rib cage and face upwards when the arms are lifted overhead and/or forward. Note the scapula 'wrapping' around the rib cage as the client raises her arm overhead.

At no time as the arm moves into an overhead or forward position should the shoulder complex be depressing and/or retracting. If we are repetitively cuing our clients to pull or squeeze their scapula down and/or back then we are disrupting normal shoulder mechanics. Over time this strategy will lead to chronic neck tension and shoulder problems because as these individuals are actively pulling their shoulders down and back, the brain is telling them that their scapula should be moving up and wide so they constantly have to keep pulling the scapula into this position. This is one of the most common causes of chronic neck tension because the scapular depressors and retractors win this virtual tug-of-war and the more these individuals depress and retract their shoulders the more it perpetuates this movement stereotype.

One question that I will often be asked by clients is why do they feel like their shoulders are in their ears if in actuality in many of these clients their shoulders are too depressed and/or retracted. The shoulders can tend to feel like their ears are in their shoulders because the levator scapula muscle running from the superior angle of the scapula and into the upper neck is usually over-active and it is working hard to try and pull the shoulder blades back up to their normal resting position upon the thorax. This muscle becomes especially prominent when the individual has been chronically over-depressing and/or over-retracting their shoulder blades due to improper cuing.

Note the depressed (and downward rotated) right scapula and the resultant hypertonicity near the base of this client's neck due to over-activity of the levator scapula. This client's complaint was she had forward shoulders and increasing neck tension and was cued by her previous trainer to depress and retract her shoulder blades both throughout her exercise patterns as well as during the day. These common industry cues have been directly contributing to her neck and shoulder tightness.

Our goal with clients experiencing chronic neck and shoulder tightness is to help them adopt an improved strategy which includes the proper postural cuing so they can develop optimal alignment and control of their scapula. By simply altering how you cue your clients you can be extremely effective at improving your clients chronic shoulder and neck tension.

Listed below are two common cues and alternatives we have found to be effective at helping our clients achieve more optimal shoulder alignment and mechanics. Begin working with these cues on yourself before instituting them with your clients.

Common cue:

'Squeeze your shoulder blades down and back' or 'Pull your shoulder blades together'

Instead use a corrective cue:
'Allow your shoulder blades to wrap around your rib cage' or 'Let your shoulder blades float upon your rib cage'

By adjusting just a few of the words you use and adopting these corrective cues you will be helping your clients restore more optimal alignment and mechanics which will translate into them being able to work harder and more consistently during your classes because they haven't developed chronic shoulder or neck tension. That is how you continue being the leader your clients need and will seek out.


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