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Why You Shouldn't "Draw Your Shoulders Away From Your Ears"

“Lift your arms overhead, and aggressively pinch your rotator cuff between your humerus bone and acromion process.” That’s what I hear every time I hear, “Lift your arms overhead and draw your shoulders away from your ears.”

Before I wax passionately as to why I think this cue needs to die and be reincarnated as something that actually makes sense, I want you to try an experiment:

Reach your arm as high as you can, as fast as you can - now keep it there. Now, with your arm raised, push your shoulder down away from your ear. Notice how it feels. Does it feel good? If you’re not sure, push harder. Really pull that puppy away from your ear and relax your back and neck already! Okay now stop trying! Let your arm and shoulder rest, and please don’t ever do that again. Here’s why:

As you may have noticed, pulling your shoulder down and away from your ear with your arm overhead doesn’t actually help you relax your back or neck. In fact, it makes it harder. This is because the muscles that are pulling your shoulders down are - wait for it - in your neck and back! It’s rather difficult to relax a muscle while you’re actively using it. Sure, we can soften, we can work less hard, but it just doesn’t make sense to “relax!” a muscle at the same time you’re using it to do something.

You may have also noticed an uncomfortable compressing, or, dare I say, pinching sensation right around the top of your shoulder. You might have noticed it get notably worse when you pressed your shoulder away from your ear. This is because when the arm lifts, so does the whole shoulder! What do I mean by shoulder? Your whole joint. We’re talking upper arm bone (humerus), we’re talking collarbone (clavicle), and yes, we’re even talking shoulder blade (scapula)! And we’re talking all the muscles around it - mainly, your rotator cuff muscles (subscapularis, infraspinatus, supraspinatus, and teres minor). And here’s a fun thing about the shoulder blade: it has a goofy little knob on top (actually two, but we’ll talk about one for now) that sticks out and forms a joint with your collarbone! Isn’t that wild?! This cute little knob is called the acromion process - but who cares what it’s called when you can feel it! To feel your cute little goofy knob, take your left finger tips to the top of your right shoulder. Find the knobby part - voila! The thing about this knob is that there are muscles right underneath it, specifically your the top of your rotator cuff (i.e., your supraspinatus). That pinching you might have felt while raising your arm but pressing your shoulder down was your acromion process compressing your supraspinatus. But again, you don’t need to know what it’s called when you can feel it.

Now I’d like you to do another experiment:

Once again, raise your arm as high as you can, as fast as you can, and keep it there! Now, lift your whole shoulder up toward your ear; as you reach up with your fingertips, breathe wide into your side ribs. Maybe even take a few breaths there. Then let your arm relax down by your side. My hope is that you felt more space around your shoulder that time, even if your arm was closer to your neck. If you did feel uncomfortably tight in your neck, I would encourage you to try again and focus on breathing wider. This will naturally encourage your shoulder blades to move away from each other, which will allow your armpits to turn toward each other, which will allow for more space around not one but two of your shoulder joints: the joint where the “ball” of the upper arm meets the “socket” of the shoulder blade (the glenohumeral joint), and the joint where the goofy little knob meets the elegant wand of your collarbone (the acromioclavicular joint). But once again, you don’t need to know what it’s called… Just let yourself feel it. Play around with it, breathe with it, and if you still hate it, well, I’d give you your money back, but I don’t think you paid me in the first place? But if you want to, you sure can. My Venmo is @abby-kraai.

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