Don't Forget to Pack! (Your Shoulders, That Is)

You wouldn't leave town without packing your toothbrush, your change of underwear, and your smart phone, right? Here's another essential for your packing list: your shoulders.

Don't worry about the dimensions of your suitcase. Packing your shoulders means using the muscles of your upper back and shoulders to secure your arms before you use them. It involves activating your "Rotator Cuff", an oft misunderstood and ignored body part. Baseball pitchers and quarterbacks think about their Rotator Cuffs, and you should too.

Packing your shoulders is vital for safe movement, ESPECIALLY important before you plan to push, pull, lift, shove, stir, carry or hold anything that requires some strenuous effort. Carrying your grocery bags into the house? Pack your shoulders. Whisking some eggs for brunch? Pack your shoulders. Putting your luggage into the overhead compartment? Pack your shoulders. Cuddling your baby? Pack your shoulders. Bench pressing, deadlifting, bicep curling, or doing jumping jacks? You'd better believe you should pack your shoulders!

In short, no matter your fitness goals, learn how to do this.

Some Science:

Whenever you exert force through your arm -- whether to move it and/or to move something with it -- it's a darn good idea to have your shoulder in a "packed" position. Your upper arm bone, the humerus, meets up with your shoulder as part of a very flexible ball-and-socket joint. Think of all the directions you can move your arm at the shoulder, compared to say, all the directions you can move your leg at the knee. Your shoulder has a HUGE range of motion, which means that it's one of the most vulnerable joints in your body.

If you DO exert force through your arm WITHOUT first engaging the muscles of your upper back to secure the head of the humerus bone inside the joint, your arm is unstable. While instability does not guarantee injury, it makes it much more probable. Bad shoulder position in life risks all manner of acute (meaning "of the moment" -- like, Ouch, I just yoinked my shoulder!) and chronic (meaning "ugh, my shoulder always hurts) injuries. Most people wind up at a doctor's office, where they're prescribed pain meds and rest, and then they go right back to their bad shoulder habits...a vicious cycle.

Again, while it's possible to go through life with your shoulders in a bad position and remain injury-free, it's unlikely, and it's highly unlikely that you'll get very far in a resistance training program. And for you runners out there, guess what? Packing your shoulders is vital too. Ever hear of "Runner's Shoulder"?

Any personal trainer who knows her stuff will have you work on packing your shoulders at your very first session. It's bread and butter body awareness and it's not possible to safely strengthen your body if your shoulders are always in a cruddy position.

Squeeze It, Baby:

So what exactly does a "packed shoulder" look like? What does it feel like?

Take a second, whether you're sitting down or standing up, and try this brief exercise. Sit or stand with your arms by your sides. Close your eyes and focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together behind you. Hold the squeeze there for 5 seconds. Next, without letting go of that squeeze, pretend that someone has tucked a rolled up newspaper under each of your armpits and you have to hold onto them. THAT, my friend, is a packed shoulder position. We like the term "packed" because it implies tension (the good kind of tension). Think sardines packed in oil, or commuters packed into a train. It takes effort to pack your shoulders, but it's worth it.

[Left photos: shoulders UNpacked; Right photos: shoulders packed]

Another experiment -- stand or sit with your arm by your side in a totally relaxed state and raise your right arm up in front of you 90 degrees, elbow straight. Now take your left hand and try to pull your right arm forward. You can jostle it, right? Okay, now start the exercise over but this time pack that right shoulder before you raise it. NOW try to pull your right arm forward using your left hand. Can't do it, can you? That's because you've secured (packed) the head of your humerus bone using the muscles of your upper back, especially your rotator cuff.

What's a Rotator Cuff Anyway?

Yes, more science! The muscles that you're activating when you pack your shoulders are muscles that are too often waaaaaay underutilized. In most people, they're weak, mostly because folks don't consciously use them. While there are other upper back muscles at play in shoulder packing, the most important ones are the four muscles of your Rotator Cuff. The drawing below shows the back of someone's left shoulder blade on the left, and the front of his chest on the right. You can see the rotator cuff muscles through the spooky transparent ribcage. While one of these four muscles is actually responsible for pushing your shoulder FORWARD, all four of them play roles securing your shoulder in a packed position. That sensation of squeezing your shoulders together in the back and then pulling them downward is what you want to practice (remember the rolled up newspapers?).

These Rotator Cuff muscles -- Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Teres Minor, and Subscapularis -- are small and not capable of tremendous force production. Compared to the muscles of the chest, which basically do the opposite actions, they are puny, even on bodybuilders! That's why everyday life (or resistance training that is not guided by a qualified trainer) that doesn't take shoulder packing into account results in tight chest muscles, and overly stretched, weak upper back muscles. Which leads me to another pressing point...

A Strong Upper Back is an Upright Upper Back:

Still not convinced that shoulder packing is necessary? Perhaps you've progressed through life so far and never given this one iota of thought. I hear you. Let's address the role of shoulder packing when it comes to your posture.

When the muscles of your upper back and rotator cuffs are weak, they are guaranteed to be imbalanced counterparts to your chest. In fact, most people have radically lopsided strength between the front of the upper torso and the back of it. This is true even for most people who "lift weights" in the gym! It's no coincidence that the muscles someone sees in the mirror are the ones that get the most attention.

Whether you strength train or not, your pecs and your front shoulders (anterior deltoids) get used a lot in life, just by default. In most people, they are chronically tight, and they pull the upper spine forward into an exaggerated curve. If your upper back muscles are not strong enough to counteract this constant rounding, you develop a common postural woe called kyphotic spine. "Postural Kyphosis" is rampant among the young, the old, and everyone between. It's your classic slouched position and jutted forward neck that, let's face it, looks BAD and is also bad for you. 

[notice that the "youngest" version of the woman isn't packing her shoulders...over time, an exaggerated kyphotic spine develops]

There are varying degrees of kyphotic spine, but if you glance around the grocery store, metro car, or shopping mall tomorrow and survey your fellow humans, you'll notice it happening at least slightly to everyone. The person who DOESN'T round her shoulders and upper back will stand out. She looks confident, poised, and she "carries herself well". The man who walks with an upright upper back looks tall, strong, and youthful. Why are people with great posture so striking? Because they are rare.

People of every age exhibit postural kyphosis. But a slouching teenager can more easily right his posture. As you age, decades of postural kyphosis contribute to loss of height, and that rounded upper back seems to feel more permanent. Bone density and other soft tissue quality play roles as well, but so much of height loss and the dreaded "dowager's hump" can be prevented and even counteracted. The great news is that strengthening your upper back starts with one simple exercise. You guessed it -- Packing your shoulders. Packing your shoulders is a key portion of your proper posture puzzle. Say that 5 times fast and you'll never forget. The more you consciously do this, the stronger your upper back will become, making you more capable, less injury-prone, and (let's be real with each other) nicer to look at!

Women, Their Shoulders, and Their Purses:

Lastly, a special note for women about purses and pocketbooks. In order for your purse strap to rest on your shoulder and not fall right off, there has to be a divot where it can hang out. When a woman's shoulder is in a pushed-forward and upward position (in other words, definitely NOT packed), a perfect divot is available for her purse strap. Even if the purse isn't heavy, merely holding it there is an act of treason against your body. Grab your purse right now and try to rest it on your shoulder in your usual position. Now pack your shoulder. Your purse doesn't like that, does it? For a healthier shoulder position whilst toting your cute bag, pack your shoulder, and then try resting your purse in the crook of your bent elbow or carry it by your side like a suitcase. It's convenient to hold your bag in the usual hands-free fashion, but it's murder on your shoulder.

Just Ask!

Thanks for taking some time with me to learn about packing your shoulders. I hope you'll give it a shot. If you can't quite get the hang of it or have more questions, please contact me or any of my colleagues at True Fitness and Nutrition for some tailored guidance. It's our mission to help you live a better life, moving through the world with strength and confidence. There's no better place to begin than packing your shoulders.

Jenn Stofferahn, Certified Personal Trainer, True Fitness and Nutrition, 703-402-1144

About the author:

A trained dancer, runner, and swimmer, Jenn Stofferahn discovered weight lifting in her 30s -- and with it, the physique and athleticism she'd been seeking. Now she shares these tools with others as a Certified Personal Trainer at True Fitness and Nutrition in McLean. Jenn graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and spent over 12 years working closely with passionate people as a nonprofit fundraiser. Along the way, she was introduced to heavy resistance training and conditioning by the top-notch personal trainers who founded True Fitness and Nutrition. It didn't take long for Jenn to develop lean muscle, strength and stability, while enhancing the flexibility and posture she cultivated as a dancer. Jenn has since attended the National Personal Training Institute, a 600-hour classroom diploma and unparalleled certification that focuses on anatomy, movement mechanics, fitness programming for strength, endurance, muscular development and flexibility, and the chemistry of nutrition.

Jenn is a competitive "raw" powerlifter in the drug-free USA Powerlifting Federation. She also still dances and is a longtime blues and rock musician. As a personal trainer, Jenn specializes in teaching women of all ages to use resistance training to safely build shapely muscle, enhance neuromuscular coordination (make muscles smarter), strengthen the heart and lungs, and reduce body fat. Jenn lives in Northern Virginia with her genius husband and colleague, Elliott, and their awesome pets.

Jenn's Fitness Philosophy:

Everyone should resistance train with things that feel heavy. Here's why: Your body responds to stimulus, so if you give your muscles, bones, organs and brain reasons to be stronger, they will be. If you don't, your body will automatically take the easy path and go downhill from there. We live in a world now that doesn't demand much of us physically, so we have to exercise intelligently to build the muscle we're meant to have. And muscle is great! It's very useful (think lawn mowing and grocery bag hauling), it looks good -- with or without clothing on top, and strong muscles mean strong bones too. Lifting weights is perfect for everybody because it's scalable to your individual starting point. Work with me at any age and you WILL have the best body of your lifetime.