How to Assess the Scapula

The latest Inner Circle webinar recording on How to Assess the Scapula is now available.

How to Assess the Scapula

How to assess scapular dyskinesisThis month’s Inner Circle webinar is a live demonstration of How to Assess the Scapula.  In this recording of a live student inservice from Champion, I overview everything you should (and shouldn’t) be looking for when assessing the scapula.  When someone has a big nerve injury with significant winging or scapular dyskinesis, the assessment of the scapula is pretty easy.  But how do you detect the subtle alterations in posture, position, and dynamic movement?  By being able to identify a few subtle findings, you can really enhance how you write a rehab or training program.

In this webinar, I’ll cover:

  • What to look for in regard to static posture and scapular position
  • How to check to see if static postural asymmetries really have an impact on dynamic scapular movement
  • What really is normal scapulothoracic rhythm (if there really is a such thing as normal!)?
  • How to reliably assess for scapular dyskinesis
  • How winging during the concentric and eccentric phases of movement changes my thought process
  • How to see if scapular position or movement is increasing shoulder pain
  • How to see if scapular position or movement is decreasing shoulder strength

To access this webinar:




A Simple Test for Scapular Dyskinesis You Must Use

A common part of my examinations includes assessing for abnormal scapular position and movement, which can simply be defined as scapular dyskinesis.  Scapular dyskinesis has long been theorized to predispose people to shoulder injuries, although the evidence has been conflicting.

Whenever data is conflicting in research articles, you need to closely scrutinize the methodology.  One particular flaw that I have noticed in some studies looking at the role of scapular dyskinesis in shoulder dysfunction has involved how the assess and define scapular dyskinesis.

Like anything else, when someone has a significant issue with scapular dyskinesis it is very apparent and obvious on examination.  But being able to detect subtle alterations in the movement of the scapula may be more clinically relevant.  There’s a big difference between someone that has a large amount of winging while concentrically elevating their arm versus someone that has a mild issues with control of the scapula while eccentrically lowering their arm.

Most people will not have a large winging of their scapula while elevating their arm.  This represents a more significant issue, such as a nerve injury.  However, a mild amount of scapular muscle weakness can change the way the scapula moves and make it difficult to control while lowering.


A Simple Test for Scapular Dyskinesis

One of the simplest assessments you can perform for scapular dyskinesis is watching the scapula move during shoulder flexion.  Performing visual assessment of the scapula during shoulder flexion has been shown to be a reliable and valid way to assess for abnormal scapular movement.

That’s it.  Crazy, right?  That simple!  Yet, I’m still amazed at how many times people tell me no one has ever looked at how well their scapula moves with their shirt off.

However, there is one little tweak you MUST do when performing this assessment…

You have to use a weight in their hand!

Here is a great example of someone’s scapular dyskinesis when performing shoulder flexion with and without an external load.  The photo on the left uses no weight, while the photo on the right uses a 4 pound dumbbell:

scapular dyskinesis

As you can see, the image on the right shows a striking increase in scapular dyskinesis.  I was skeptical after watching him lift his arm without weight in the photo on the left, however, everything became very clear when adding a light weight to the shoulder flexion movement.  With just a light load, the ability to prevent the scapula from winging while eccentrically lowering the arm becomes much more challenging.

I should also note that there was really no significant difference in scapular control or movement during the concentric portion of the motion raising his arms overhead:

scapular winging concentric

This person doesn’t have a significant issue or nerve damage, he simply just needs some strengthening of his scapular muscles.  But if you didn’t observe his scapula with his shirt off or with a dumbbell in his hand, you may have missed it!


How to Assess for Scapular Dyskinesis

In this month’s Inner Circle webinar, I am going to show you a live demonstration of how I assess scapular position and movement.  I’ve had past talks on how to assess scapular position and how to treat scapular dyskinesis, however I want to put it all together with a demonstration of exactly how I perform a full scapular movement assessment and go over things I am looking for during the examination.

I’ll be filming the video and posting later this month.  Inner Circle members will get an email when it is posted.




How to Assess Shoulder Capsular Mobility

The latest Inner Circle webinar recording on Assessing Shoulder Capsular Mobility is now available.


Assessing Shoulder Capsular Mobility

Assessing Shoulder Capsular Mobility - Social MediaThis month’s Inner Circle webinar is on Assessing Shoulder Capsular Mobility.  This is a recording of an actual inservice we performed with the students and interns at Champion this week.  I’m super excited to be able to record and share things like this with my Inner Circle.  It’s like having a front row seat at our inservices!  I think this offers many benefits over the traditional webinar/lecture format, as you can watch the interaction and also see some of the clinical techniques better.

In this webinar, we discuss:

  • The anatomy of the shoulder capsule and glenohumeral ligaments
  • How different arm positions stress different aspects of the capsule
  • How to determine which ligament and aspect of the capsule is tight
  • How to assess range of motion at different positions to assess different portions of the capsule
  • How to perform range of motion and capsular mobility assessment of the shoulder
  • Clinical tips on the assessment technique

To access this webinar:



How to Improve Overhead Shoulder Mobility

The latest Inner Circle webinar recording on my How to Improve Overhead Shoulder Mobility is now available.


How to Improve Overhead Shoulder Mobility

Improving Overhead Shoulder MobilityThis month’s Inner Circle webinar is on how to improve overhead shoulder mobility.  In this webinar I’ll discuss:

  • We we are losing overhead shoulder mobility
  • Why it matters
  • The 4 main reasons why we lose overhead mobility
  • How the body compensates when we lose overhead mobility
  • How to assess for a loss of overhead shoulder mobility
  • What you MUST stop doing immediately with people that have lost overhead mobility – you are making them worse!
  • Corrective exercises to enhance overhead position
  • Manual therapy techniques to improve mobility


To access this webinar:

Scalene Hypertrophy

I recently evaluated yet another Major League baseball player with the “yips,” or what I like to call thoracic outlet syndrome.  I really don’t believe in the yips at all and feel that thoracic outlet syndrome is almost always to blame.  Telling a professional athlete it’s all in their head or some mysterious mechanical flaw is just insulting.

One of the major reasons that thoracic outlet syndrome occurs in baseball pitchers is from hypertrophy of the scalene muscles (and sternocleidomastoid).  Throwing a baseball causes many adaptations to the body, including this increase in scalene size.

Here is a video of the athlete inhaling with his head turned to each side.  Notice the significantly larger scalene and sternocleidomastoid on his right side.

scalene hypertrophy

I wish I had a magic trick to help in this situation.  I will perform manual therapy on the scalene muscles, surround musculature, 1st rib, and thoracic cage, however, it’s hard to combat the hypertrophy associated with throwing.

Understanding what to look for is the first step, though.  Scalene hypertrophy is a subtle finding to detect on examination.



Anterior Pelvic Tilt Influences Hip Range of Motion and Impingement

One of the most common postural adaptations that I see on a day to day basis is anterior pelvic tilt.  In fact, it’s getting more rare to find someone that isn’t in a large amount of anterior pelvic tilt.

I blame it on our seated culture.  The human body is excellent at adapting, and the seated posture produces an anterior pelvic tilt.


Anterior Pelvic Tilt Influences Hip Range of Motion and Impingement

Anterior Pelvic Tilt Hip Range of Motion ImpingementA recent research study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine looked at the effect of changes in pelvic tilt on range of motion and impingement of the hip.

The authors looked at CT scans of the hips of  50 subjects with femoroacetabular impingement and simulated range of motion using 3D-generated models.

A 10 degree increase in anterior pelvic tilt, which I would say is something we see clinically, resulted in a significant loss of 6-9 degrees of hip internal rotation and increase in FAI.  This increase in anterior pelvic also resulted in a loss of 10 degrees of hip flexion.  Subsequently, an increase in posterior pelvic tilt resulted in greater hip internal rotation, less impingement, and more hip flexion.


Clinical Implications

The results of the study have several implications

  • Assessment of hip ROM should take pelvic position into consideration.
  • FAI symptoms may be reduced by decreasing anterior pelvic tilt.
  • People with limited hip internal rotation or hip flexion may have too much anterior pelvic tilt.  Focus on alignment before starting to torque the joint.  This is a fundamental principle I talk about in Functional Stability Training of the Lower Body.
  • People with poor squat mechanics, especially in the deeper positions, may have an underlying pelvic position issue.  People with excessibve anterior pelvic tilt that are squatting deep maybe impinging and beating up their hips.


I talk a lot about reverse posturing, my terminology for focusing on reversing the posture that you assume for the majority of your day.  But there is a big difference between reducing static anterior pelvic tilt posture and dynamic anterior pelvic tilt control.  You have to emphasize both with dynamic control being arguably more important.

Keep these findings in mind next time you see someone with a large amount of anterior pelvic tilt.

If you are interested in learning more about how I work with anterior pelvic tilt, I recently outlining my integrated system of manual therapy and corrective exercise in my Inner Circle webinar on Strategies to Reduce Anterior Pelvic Tilt.



Is Perfect Squat Form a Myth?

Over the years I have helped 1000’s of people squat better.  As a physical therapist, my career has evolved over the years from working with injured people to working with healthy people looking to optimize their body and maximize their performance.  In fact, I’m starting to refer to it more as “performance therapy” than “physical therapy.”

Lately, I’ve seen more and more people come to me to learn how to improve their squat.  Often times it’s one of two reasons why they can’t quite get find perfect squat form:

  • Something hurts when I squat
  • I can’t squat with perfect form

After going through a full body assessment, I always assess their squat form.  I don’t mean a rigid deep squat test, such as the one within the FMS of SFMA assessments, but an actual loaded squat.  I don’t say a word, I just observe.  Well, I actually record a video of it, but the point is I don’t want to cue the squat at all so I can see how the set up and how they perform their squat without my coaching.

What I often find is that many people are trying to squat with perfect form, or least what they believe is “perfect form.”  Perhaps they just picked up a copy of Starting Strength, or just attended their level 1 weekend certification, or just went through a foundations course at their box.  The quest for “perfect squat form” probably isn’t that simple.

I’m starting to wonder if there really is a such thing as perfect squat form.


Is Perfect Squat Form a Myth?

Don’t get me wrong, you have to start somewhere.  I personally recommend people read Mike Robertson’s article on How to Squat and the book Starting Strength is worth every penny.  My point isn’t that you should throw away any attempt to squat with perfect form, there are good ways and bad ways to squat, you have to start somewhere.

But I almost feel like we are over-coaching and using the same coaching cues during the squat with everyone.  Yes, there are many faults the can occur during squatting that should be avoided.  Bret Contreras has a nice article about solving 7 squat dilemmas.    But there is a big difference between correcting faults and overcorrecting people without faults.

Here is a good example, imagine you are squatting with your knees caving in towards each other, or tracking medially into a valgus knee position.  This would be a great time to cue someone to force their knees out.  However, it is possible to force your knees out too far and I’m not sure I want to cue someone that is squatting with decent form to aggressively force their knees out.  It’s a good thought to prevent knee cave in, but don’t go too far in the opposite direction.

But more importantly, I’m not sure there is a textbook way to squat, simply because we are all built different and have different daily habits.  There is a textbook perfect squat form for YOUR body, but it may be different for the person next to you.

This is why proper coaching and an individualized program built for you is the best way to succeed at perfecting your squat form.  There are several limitations that we all have that may be limiting our ability to achieve a perfect squat form.


Anatomical Limitations

The first thing we need to understand is that everyone’s anatomy is unique.  Bret Contreras does a nice job discussing our how our anatomical differences impact our squat mechanics and Ryan DeBall has a great article as well.  In fact, our pelvis and femurs are completely and vastly unique.

Look at these photos of several different pelvis and femur bones by Paul Grilley:

Femur neck variations

Femur Torsion Variations

Acetabular pelvic bone variations

Looking at these photos, it is striking how different we all really are on the inside.  The angles of how the femur bone forms as well as how it sits in the socket can be dramatically different between people.

This is what I find to be the biggest factor impacting why people can’t perform a squat with perfect form.  How can you say there is one way to squat when you look at these photos?  The spectrum of variation is so wide.

Unfortunately there isn’t a quick fix for anatomical limitations.  Rather, a detailed biomechanical assessment can be used to determine what may be the best squat mechanics based on your anatomy.  Sometimes this means that you will need to limit depth.  People never want to hear this, but sometimes you just simple run out of anatomy and can’t physically flex your hips enough to achieve deep squat form, at least without significant low back compensation.


Mobility Limitations

Luckily, not everyone has significant underlying anatomical variations.  Some just have mobility restrictions of their joint capsules and muscle tissue.  This is common in the person that assumes a frequent postural position over several years, such as sitting.  Most adults will have postural and mobility limitations that can be improved and subsequently improve their squat performance.

So, keep this in mind if you are a coach at a gym with adult fitness clients that are looking to start squatting.  Chances are they won’t be immediately able to perform a squat well until you clean up some of their movement patterns.  Rushing this process is how newbie adult fitness clients tend to hurt themselves while squatting.  They don’t have the mobility to squat with proper mechanics, and without this mobility, you are just going to compensate and put extra stress somewhere else, like this guy, who probably doesn’t have the mobility to be squatting:

YouTube Preview Image


A detailed assessment process can accurately determine if you have an anatomical or simple mobility limitation.

I also want to briefly comment on squatting like a baby.  I know many people have commented that if babies can squat perfectly, why can’t adults?  Dean Somerset wrote about this recently, but this concept is really ridiculous.  There are many factors that make babies able to squat well, including their head to body size ratio, femur height, acetabular position, but most importantly the simple fact that their bones aren’t fused!  Adults will never have the mobility of a baby, this has nothing to do with motor control.


Motor Control Limitations

perfect squat formAnother possible area of limitation that can be negatively impacting your squat performance is poor motor control.  I again tend to see this in adults that have been sitting for the majority of the day the last 10-30 years.  When you sit all day, you don’t need abdominal control, lumbopelvic control, or posterior chain activity.  The chair simply does all of this for you.  You essentially learn how to turn all of these off!

This can be seen in someone that has poor movement patterns, however during my clinical assessment have no real mobility restrictions of their joints or muscles.

Sadly, however, I also see this often in my younger athletes.  I’m amazed at how poor our high school students move.  I blame it on sitting and staring at the TV, Xbox, or iPhone all day, but kids can’t even touch their toes anymore!

We have close to 100 high school athletes training with us at Champion Physical Therapy and Performance, and a large portion of them are performing corrective exercises and goblet squats until their motor control improves!


Your Perfect Squat Form

It’s always going to be in your best interest to work on your mobility and motor control limitations to improve your squat form.  However, realize that we all have different anatomical factors that may also be limiting your squat form.  This is why getting a proper assessment and individualized program is important if you are serious about enhancing your squat performance and reducing your chance for beating yourself up.

A custom program of mobility drills, corrective exercises, and individualized squat mechanics can really help you.   Sometimes you have to work within your own unique anatomical limitations.  Perhaps you just need to toe out a little more or widen your stance by an inch.  That may mean that you don’t perform the textbook perfect squat mechanics, but that may be OK, it’s your perfect squat form.


The Influence of Pain on Shoulder Biomechanics

The influence of pain on how well the shoulder moves and functions has been researched several times in the past.  It is often though that impaired movement patterns may lead to pain the shoulder.

A recent two part study published in JOSPT analyzed the biomechanics of the shoulder, scapula, and clavicle in people with and without shoulder pain to determine in differences existed between the groups.  Part one assessed the scapula and clavicle.  Part two assess the shoulder.

The subjects with pain were not in acute pain, but rather had chronic issues with their shoulders for an average of 10 years.  The authors used electromagnetic sensors that were rigidly fixed to transcortical bone screws and inserted into each of the bones to accurately track motion analysis.

The studies were interesting and worth a full read, but I wanted to discuss some of the highlights.


The Influence of Pain on Shoulder Biomechanics

In regard to the scapula, the authors found:

  • Upward rotation of the scapula less in subjects with pain
  • This decrease in upward rotation was present at lower angles of elevation, not in the overhead position

It is important to assess scapular upward rotation in people with shoulder pain, particularly emphasizing the beginning of motion.  Realize that no differences were observed in upward rotation past 60 degrees of elevation, implying that the symptomatic group’s upward rotation caught up to the asymptomatic group.  This may imply that there is a timing issue, more than a true lack of scapular upward elevation issue.  They are upwardly rotating, but perhaps just too late?

The study also found the following in regard to shoulder motion:

  • Shoulder elevation was greater in subjects with pain
  • This increase in shoulder elevation was present at lower angles of elevation, not in the overhead position

Noticed how I intentionally presented it similar to the scapula findings?  if you put the two finings together, it appears that people with shoulder pain have a higher ratio of shoulder movement in comparison to scapular movement at the beginning of arm elevation.  The shoulder caught up again overhead, so it appears that the timing between shoulder and scapular movement may have an impact.

The Influence of Pain on Shoulder Mechanics

As you can see, it is important to assess both shoulder and scapular movement together, and not in isolation, as movement impairments at one join likely influence the other.  The brain is exceptionally good at getting from point A to point B and finding the path of least resistance to get there.

I should note that in studies like this, it is impossible to tell if the pain caused the movement changes or the movement changes caused the pain.  So keep that in mind.  Regardless of causation, our treatment programs should be designed with these findings in mind.

There are so many other great findings in the study that I encourage everyone to explore these further, but I thought these findings were worth discussing.  Based on these findings, it appears worthwhile to assess the relative contribution of scapular and shoulder movement during the initial phases of shoulder elevation.

Interested in advancing your understanding of the shoulder?  My extensive online program teaching you exactly how I evaluate and treat the shoulder at is on sale now for $150 off!  That is a huge discount that you don’t want to miss!  Click here to enroll in the program today, the sale ends at the end of the month!




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