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Proper Form & Shoulder Engagement

Pole and aerial, like any sport, entails learning technique and form. Proper form can make champions, but the less discussed point is that proper form determines longevity in a sport by preventing injury. Rotator cuff injuries can be an indicator of engagement issues, but neck tension, tightness in the shoulders, and knots by the shoulder blades are also signs of a problem.


Pole and aerial, like any sport, entails learning technique and form. Proper form can make champions, but the less discussed point is that proper form determines longevity in a sport by preventing injury. Rotator cuff injuries can be an indicator of engagement issues, but neck tension, tightness in the shoulders, and knots by the shoulder blades are also signs of a problem.The shoulder joint is the most mobile joint in the human body and the chance for shoulder injury is great in pole and aerial as rigorous gymnastic movements are executed employing the shoulders. Learning how to engage the shoulders correctly prevents injury, maintains muscular balance and improves performance in this sport. Complex muscle movement patterns take practice and creating first-rate shoulder engagement habits requires practice.

The gymnastic movements most frequently transpiring in pole are pull-ups, inversions and body holds that necessitate total body activation. This pattern of movement activates nearly the entire body; however let’s focus on the muscles in the upper back, chest and arms. The prime movers for any pull-up or upper body lift are the latissimus dorsi and pectorals. Most polers and aerialists are skilled at activating the pecs and lats, as they are the chief muscles firing in the upper body during most pole movement. The gymnastic body movements found in pole entail multiple muscle groups working together, it’s beneficial to recognize the synergist muscles: biceps, rhomboids middle and lower trapezius, deltoids, teres major and minor, infraspinatus, levator scapulae,brachialis, brachioradialis. The core muscles are also part of the equation, but that’s a topic for another day.


Correct back engagement solves two concerns: reducing the burden on dominant muscle groups and shielding the secondary muscles from strain at the shoulder joint. If proper engagement is not occurring, because of poor form or exhaustion, the body will fall back on exploiting the prime movers. Over time this will overdevelop and over strengthen the pecs and lats and strain the synergist muscles, due to lack of activation and strengthening.

Shoulder Engagement: Scapular Retraction

Proper engagement means scapular retraction and shoulder depression, think of clutching an apple between the shoulder blades and rolling the shoulders down the back. Instructors will often cue “shoulders away from the ears”. Scapular retraction is the inward squeeze of the shoulder blades toward the spine; this action triggers the rhomboids, middle and lower traps and smaller shoulder muscles. The absence of scapular retraction places additional responsibility on the deltoids and attachment muscles of the rotator cuff. These muscles not designed to take on the full load of work associated with pole and aerial. Watch for the rounding of the back, this is protraction the opposite of retraction, and protraction does not contract the muscles of the back to work.


Shoulder Engagement: Shoulder Depression

Accurate shoulder depression can trigger activation of the lower traps, usually the most problematical area to unite to the upper back. Shoulder depression engages the upper back and middle back, including the lower traps. Also when the shoulders elevate, meaning come up toward the ears in a lift opposite of depression, the upper traps overwork. Knotted upper traps or a stiff neck following pole or aerial, can point to shoulder elevation during. Many aerialists and polers have tension in the lavator scapulae and scalenes in the neck and it’s wise to pay close attention to engagement of the traps during training and class.

Overdeveloping the lats and pecs in pole and aerial is extremely easy. Training equates to hours of controlled pull-ups, lifts and demanding moves. The body wants to naturally be in balance and overdevelopment in one muscle group often leads to reactionary compensation in other muscle groups with pain, strain, knots and stuck muscles that are actually no longer firing properly. At the next class or training session think before getting into each move and focus on scapular retraction and shoulder depression. Slowing down and reconnecting to proper form can keep one enjoying pole and aerial injury free for many years.


For more blog posts on pole and aerial check out Totally Stoked Fitness.

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