Get those wings down, Icarus. Nothing good comes from a winged scapula.
This term, winging scapula, AKA scapula alata, is used to describe a situation where the muscles or nerves around our shoulder blades are too weak or “paralyzed,” which decreases the body’s ability to keep the shoulder blade stable.
And thus, it pops off of our body a little bit (or a lot), making it look like our shoulder blade is coming off of our back.
Don’t worry, your shoulder blade isn’t actually going to just fly away or fall off your body.
But it can cause pain and give you a tough time with certain movements.
We’ll get into all that, and more importantly, how to fix it.
First, we need to go over what muscles and nerves are actually involved in winging scapula.
Shoulder Blade Anatomy 101
Don’t be concerned about knowing the big fancy names of muscles and nerves — Latin is a dead language anyway, and there’s many short names that make naming bodily structures much less intimidating (and less annoying).
The body has a lot going on, so we’re only going to focus on the main muscles and nerves that the shoulder blade is controlled by.
Let me walk you through it.
This muscle is also called the boxer’s muscle. It attaches under your shoulder blade and wraps around your ribs, attaching to the first 8 or 9 ribs on the outside of your body.
It is a key shoulder blade stabilizer, helping the shoulder blade protract, AKA “wrap around” your body.
Basically, if you were to reach your arm out in front of you, and then push your arm forward even more, you are firing up that serratus anterior — kind of like a punch, hence the nickname boxer’s muscle.
Seriously, check out a boxer sometime. They have this muscle crazy developed.
The nerve that works with this muscle is the long thoracic nerve — all you have to know is that it’s a long (who would’ve thought) nerve that starts at your neck and travels downwards toward the serratus anterior.
If this nerve gets irritated or compromised for whatever reason, the muscle has a really hard time communicating with the brain, and therefore could “turn off” to a degree.
This is the most common cause of scapular winging.
Ever done shrugs at the gym, or raised your shoulders up in the classic “I don’t know” pose? That’s your trapezius muscle, AKA “traps.”
Your traps have 3 specific parts: The upper fibres, the middle fibres, and the lower fibres.
Your upper traps connect from your shoulders to your neck, and work to “shrug” your shoulders up, including your shoulder blade.
The middle fibres work to squeeze the shoulder blades together, attaching from the inside of your shoulder blade to your spine.
And finally, your lower fibres. They attach from your mid to lower spine and connect to the bottom-inside corner of the shoulder blade. It works to depress the shoulder blade, or lower it down.
As you can probably tell, this is a big muscle, with a big purpose.
The traps, along with its nerve, the accessory nerve, plays a major part in the movement and stabilization of the shoulder blade.
Issues in this muscle/nerve can quickly cause problems with your shoulder blade, from movement, pain, and winging perspectives.
Now, there’s two parts to the rhomboids — the minor and the major parts.
They attach from your mid-spine to the inside of your shoulder blade, and work together to squeeze your shoulder blades together and raise them up.
Basically, if someone asked you to squeeze a pencil in-between your shoulder blades, your rhomboids will get that job done.
These muscles sit underneath the middle fibres of the trapezius that we just covered, and are often underdeveloped — so much of our time as humans is spent in front of us, and our back muscles don’t often get a good workout.
This is kind-of the “opposite” muscle to the serratus anterior.
Both the minor and major parts are partners with the dorsal scapular nerve, which runs down from your neck to your mid-back, deep underneath layers of muscle and tissue.
If this nerve is compromised, or these muscles are weak, your shoulder blade may show signs of “winging.”
How To Fix It
Time for the fun stuff: let’s fix that shoulder blade, get rid of the pain, and get back to dancing like no one’s watching.
The main thing that we need to do is — and this may sound too simple — is to build up strength in those muscles that we just talked about.
Also, check out our article on shoulder injury exercises to learn calisthenic exercises that can help you further prevent shoulder injuries.
Strengthening is one of the most under-utilized tools in medicine when it comes to pain management and improving your movement. I see it in the clinic everyday: the majority of people who are in pain have some sort of weakness going on.
Keep in mind, strength takes time and consistency — there is no pill for exercise, you actually have to do the work.
At the very worst case scenario, and I’ve never seen a need for this in my 7+ years of experience, a surgical procedure could help.
Again, I’ve never seen someone need that.
Now, you may feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, especially after going through a lesson in anatomy.
Don’t worry, that’s my job.
We’re going to go through several specific exercises, things to watch out for, and an example of a training program that takes 10 minutes a day.
Let’s get to it.
Strengthening and Pain
Muscles around a winging shoulder blade are often tight and either in a shortened or lengthened position.
A tight muscle often indicates that there is some weakness going on — the body compensates by tightening the weak muscle, as that muscle is not able to handle the daily load we put on it by itself.
This constant tightening can cause pain and discomfort around the shoulder blade, either constantly or with certain movements.
Strengthening exercises help that muscle, well, get stronger, which in turn will help that muscle relax and ease off the pain.
That being said, we don’t want to force strength; we want to encourage it.
With the following exercises, start at a rep and set range that is mainly painfree — some discomfort is ok, as long as it is tolerable.
Exercise 1: Protraction/Retraction on an Incline
For this first one, get into a pushup position on something higher up — a table, couch, or chair works great.
From here, keep your arms straight and “push” the surface your hands are on away from you, trying to think about wrapping your shoulder blades around your body.
Hold this for 1-2 seconds.
Now, keeping your arms straight again, squeeze your shoulder blades together, holding this position for another 1-2 seconds.
Your movements should be slow and controlled.
The lower the surface that your hands are on, the harder this gets. Eventually, we want to do this from the floor.
Try this for 2-3 sets of 5-12 reps — start on the lower end of this range, and work your way up as you tolerate more and more volume.
Now, I’m all about progression. If you’ve been doing this one for a while and are feeling strong and comfortable with it, check out our article on learning how to perform the “planche” exercise if you really want to take it up a level.
Exercise 2: Band Pull-Apart
For this exercise, grab a resistance band. You want to start with one that’s longer than your shoulder width.
Grab it palms-up, a little wider than shoulder width, and hold it straight out in front of you at eye level.
Spread your arms apart, bringing the band down across your chest. Squeeze your back and hold for 1-2 seconds.
Control the movement back to the starting position.
Repeat 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps.
Exercise 3: Band Shrugs
This third exercise is nice and simple. Stand on a band, holding one end in your hand by your side.
Shrug your shoulder up and back, hold for 1-2 seconds, and lower slowly.
2-3 sets, 10-15 reps.
Boom. That’s it.
These exercises may be painful for some of you. The key is to find a range of motion in each of the exercises that feels comfortable to do — this may mean that you are starting with a tiny range, but that’s ok. Everyone has to start somewhere.
On that same note, work in a rep range that’s painfree — start low if you have to! Your body will let you do more as time goes on and it continues to adapt.
Another thing I want to point out is to differentiate between pain and discomfort. Some discomfort is ok. I like to say that on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being no pain at all and 10 being the worst pain you can imagine, you don’t want to go past a 3 or 4.
If these exercises feel good to do, and you want to take it up a notch, check out our article on exercising your upper back to further develop these muscles.
So, let’s summarize:
- Winged scapula is when your shoulder blade “comes off” your body
- It is caused by nerve compromise and muscular weakness
- It may cause pain and movement issues
- Strengthening is key to both pain management and bringing that shoulder blade back down to where it belongs
Take your time, work in a painfree range, slowly build up your range of motion, reps, sets, and resistance band levels, and you are well on the road to recovery.
As always, keep things simple.
I’m Pat Chadwick, a qualified Level 2 and Level 3 calisthenics coach and athlete from London, England, with six years of experience. I’ve competed in various UK competitions, including the Kalos Stenos Championships, where I achieved third place in the lightweight category. My passion is highlighting the beauty of calisthenics as an authentic and pure form of body expression. I believe that everyone has the potential to become a champion of their body and mind, and that calisthenics opens the door to personal empowerment.