Shoulder Stability in Pilates Exercises

Knowing When Your Scapulae Are Settled on Your Back

Shoulder stability is critical when doing Pilates exercises or any exercise safely and effectively. Beyond the studio or gym, once you train yourself to stabilize the shoulder area through well-aligned exercise, you take that knowledge into everyday movement, thereby protecting your back and neck and increasing movement efficiency. Shoulder stability is one of the many functional fitness aspects of Pilates.

The term scapular stability is often used when discussing shoulder stability. Your scapulae are the wing-like bones on your upper back, popularly known as shoulder blades. Their placement on the back is often a visual key as to how stable the whole shoulder area is. When your scapulae ride up (along with the shoulders) or wing out to the sides, your shoulder area is less stable than if the scapulae were settled on the back in a neutral position. Similarly, sometimes you draw the scapulae together on the back and this is also a less stable position than when the scapulae are flat on the back with the shoulders down. Your instructor will cue you on shoulder stability with comments such as "settle your scapulae on your back," "draw your shoulder blades down," and "relax your shoulders" (bring them down from around your ears) in Pilates classes.


Scapula Position in Arm Reach and Pull

A demonstration of the exercise arms reach and pull, as seen from the back, gives you a visual on what the scapulae look like when they are settled on the back, the stronger position.

It's not that the scapulae can't move, they will, but increasing your awareness of the placement of your scapulae will help you stabilize movement and promote balanced strength and support in the upper body.

The shoulder blades are less stable when they​ move away from the midline (abducted) or pulled toward the midline (adducted).


Scapulae Are Close Together (Adducted)

shoulder blades together
Scapula Together (adducted). Photo © 2008, Marguerite Ogle

Many people habitually exercise with their scapulae pulled together toward the midline. This is sometimes a hold-over from the old military, "chest out, shoulders back" attitude. However, it is better to have enough body awareness to make choices and use a more neutral position where it is appropriate.

There are times in exercise—certain weight lifting and yoga moves come to mind—when there is such an expansive opening of the chest that the shoulder blades are brought closer together in the back. There is more integration and support in those particular exercises than when you independently slide the scapulae together.


Scapulae Away From Midline (Abducted)

shouler blades apart
Scapula Apart (abducted). Photo © 2008, Marguerite Ogle

Abducted scapulae have moved apart from each other, away from the midline of the body. In practice, this move often accompanies an exaggerated rounding of the back.

It can be useful to reach your arms away so far that the scapulae travel outward, but be aware that this position is not as integrated, in terms of shoulder stability, as when the scapulae are settled on the back.

You may want to try other exercises that will help you explore scapular movement and stability including:

As you become more familiar with basic shoulder stability you will find that even side-lying exercises challenge the placement of the scapulae. You might want to try the side kick series with scapular placement in mind.

By Marguerite Ogle MS, RYT
Marguerite Ogle is a freelance writer and experienced natural wellness and life coach, who has been teaching Pilates for more than 35 years.