So lets talk about those pits……..! The armpits or what is called the axillar region is riddled with difficulties – by nature the anatomy of the shoulder and the surrounding region is tenuous – on one hand we are thankful; it’s extremely mobile and capable of a multitude of planes of movement. Not so thankfully it’s the nature of this tenuous joint to become the culprit of poor posture, muscle strains, and often a ever-growing decrease in strength as we age. I could go on and on about the shoulder joint but tonight I want to talk about those armpits! Commonly I see people trying to harness more strength in the upper body by literally squeezing their shoulders into their armpit reegion. I think it’s an attempt to access the scapulae and the area between the scapulae; a way of “engaging” that ever-so-hard- to- reach region. We’ve all heard it or said it: “gently press your shoulders down, feel those shoulder blades coming together, gently try to push those shoulder blades down.” So it isn’t surprising that the outcome is people trying too hard to “feel” what we suggest and literally squeeze into their armpit region to “hold” on. The consequence of this is potentially very limiting if not interesting to observe. Suddenly the arms are somewhat limited in their freedom of movement and if one attempts an exercise that requires true upper body strength, it isn’t there! Without compensating by squeezing into their armpits the exercise can’t be done. It becomes a habit and ultimately develops a malalignment in the bony structure and a possible accompanying tight mid back. More holding, less breathing, and certainly a stress on that region of the spine.
So lets try this: sit on the floor/mat and have your legs long out in front of you or slightly bent if those good ‘ol hamstrings are too tight – don’t stress out your lower back! Now place your hands along your sides to the back portion of your hips. Hands on the floor with the fingers facing forward. Air out those pits! That means take a moment and open up the axilla and feel a sense of air and lightness in them. Now, while keeping this sense of lightness and freedom in the axilla, gently (there’s that word again :), lift your sternum, and think about broadening the length across your upper chest. Sense how the shoulders gently drop down and back. Sense how the scapulae rotate downward and inward. Hold this position for about 5 seconds and then let it go and relax. Try it again and this time after you find the position take five more seconds to engage your lower abdominals. Relax. Try it again and the third time, if your legs are long out in front of you, try gently squeezing them together sensing how the lower body engagement can support the upper body work. Keep the chin down, jaw relaxed and a sense of length behind the neck.
Working on this daily has an a huge effect on how one learns to “wake up” that lower upper back without tensing up the shoulders and lats. Fun! Well actually its hard work but the results are quite immediate in a neuromuscular sense – the habits here can be unlearned quite quickly. Awareness of this armpit tension is almost immediate.
Later on try performing various upper body exercises (pull backs with the straps on the reformer, bicep curls, the roll down with the bar — and be aware of this habit. (you may wonder why I mention the roll down but watch: see how when folks are halfway down or up from performing the roll down how many literally squeeze their shoulders into their trunk for stability – ask them not to do this and watch how they realize they haven’t really been using their mid to upper abs…………..) Wow! You will feel new muscles working and not too soon after that you should start to feel that mid-back easing up its hold and tension. The scapulae start to settle back into their proper position (further down the back and more closely approximated to each other). It is here that all upper body work should be done and if done correctly puts no stress or strain on the actual shoulder joint. It is an “aha” moment for many of us and I challenge you to try it! “Air out” those armpits and feel a new sense of strength and ease in the upper body.
One last point: remember that when sitting or standing with “proper” bony alignment, the sternum is higher than the base of the scapulae. Notice when people have a more forward shoulder posture you see scapulae that are riding too high and suddenly the mid aspect of the sternum (or really the sternal angle) is literally at the same height of the base of the scapulae! Whoa! This is not anatomically correct and puts unusal strain on the mid back – increasing the kyphosis in the mid-back. Take two minutes and look at a picture of the human skeleton (preferably a side-view) and see what I am suggesting. Sometimes thinking about the bones is very helpful and a nice change of perspective from always working from the images of our soft tissues.