I know you thought this column was about health and fitness and there I go talking about wings and flying. I know you’re thinking I was cleverly talking about that loose adipose tissue that a number of people complain about under their arms and on their upper back, affectionately called the ‘bat wings’. Though that’s a great topic, it’s not our topic today, but you’re getting warm.
The wings I’m referring to today are those bony ones that appear in the middle of our back — the wings formed by the shoulder blades (also known in our smarty pants vocabulary as the scapulae) when they are too far apart and wing outward from our body. If you’re unsure if you’re affected by this here’s three ways you might discern.
1. If you get headaches, neck aches, back aches, shoulder aches more than once per year after you’ve slipped and fallen chances are you might have a malfunction at the scapular junction.
2. Try performing a push-up in front of a friend or co-worker and ask them to observe your upper back. If they scream and run away in terror exclaiming “there is an alien coming out of your back” it’s quite likely you have winging scapulae.
3. If there is simply no one around or you are too shy, stand in front of a mirror and look to your side. You may notice with arms relaxed at your sides that you see this little hunch in your back just above the height of your elbow where a bone seems to be sticking out. In conjunction quite commonly you’ll also notice your ear is way forward than the bone on the tip of your shoulder. This too may be a sign that your scapulae are just not behaving they way they are supposed to.
In truth I would suspect 90% of the Red Deer population is affected by this structural problem. I know you’re sitting there thinking, “I work out I’m in the lucky 10 per cent.” In truth, probably not, unless you are exercising under the guidance of a knowledgeable professional (a number of fitness professionals are still lost at evaluating and solving this problem, just as I was early in my career) your exercise program or boot camp might even be making it worse.
The reason the scapulae begins to wing is a weakened anterior serratus muscle. This muscle originates on the underside of our scapulae, it wraps around our whole upper torso inserting on a number of the ribs in and around your sternum. Remember muscles are pretty simple in nature, they can typically only contract and relaxing moving closer to and further away from their insertion points. Because of our generally easy non-labourous lifestyles, combined with common repetitive motions in front of us our serratus anterior get’s lazy because, well we haven’t asked it to do much. The problem this creates (besides the alien back birth syndrome) is that our scapulae are not attached to the rest of our structure the way other bones are, it merely floats in place. With the help of serratus anterior the scapulae are an anchor or stabilization point for most of the movements performed by our shoulder as well as some of the neck. So kind of think of it like this, imagine driving down the highway and suddenly two tires go flat at highway speed. It’s safe to say you are heading for a wreck.
Here’s the good news, the anterior serratus is not a difficult muscle to exercise once you understand how, but it will take time. Start in a push up position, on your knees or toes is fine. Place your hands shoulder width or narrower on the floor so they reside directly underneath or slightly ahead of the shoulder with extended arms. Now instead of performing a standard push up begin by drawing your belly button in to your spine to engage the abdominals then push your chest toward the floor, while keeping the arms fully extended and squeezing the shoulder blades together. Then still keeping the arms straight pull the shoulder blades apart raising the chest through the shoulders to a rounded back position as high as possible. Don’t forget to keep those abs engaged! That’s it, the movement will likely be about four to six inches for most people. Complete three to five sets of 10-20 slow repetitions with big slow breaths, a one to two count pause at each end of the movement will be great. Complete this one to two days in a row before taking a day off with extra days off to alleviate any lasting soreness. Don’t expect there to be a dramatic change in a week or two for most people it will take three to six months of conscious effort to see noticeable improvement but hey if it saves just a few more people from degenerated discs, rotator cuff surgery or thinking that pain is going to be with them forever then I’ve done my job.
Cabel McElderry is the director of One-to-1 Fitness in Red Deer. He can be reached at 403-341-4041. Also check out www.personaltrainingreddeer.com for more information.