THIS LITTLE MUSCLE MIGHT BE SABOTAGING YOUR #CIRCUSSHOULDER
Aerialists: Daniel Stern (www.acrodan.com) and Shannon McKenna (www.circusshannon.com). Photographer: Juan Luis Gonzales
Your pectoralis minor might just be the evil villain to your circus fairytale….dramatic, perhaps, but true. You could have the perfect injury prevention routine, but if your pec minor is too tight, it will all go to waste. In this post, I’ll start off with relevant anatomy of the pec minor, how to tell if its tight, and discuss how dysfunction in this muscle can negatively impact your circus training and lead to injury and pain. I’ll also show a few different stretches and exercises that I find the most effective in avoiding issues and injuries caused by a tight pec minor.
PEC MINOR: FUNCTIONAL ANATOMY
The pec minor is a relatively small muscle that lies underneath the pec major. It attaches to the upper ribs (ribs 3-5) and to the front of the shoulder blade (on the coracoid process). Because of this, it has functions in a few different realms: in breathing (specifically, deep breathing, and “chest” breathing), and it also anteriorly tilts and protracts the shoulder blade (see photos below).
When this muscle is tight, this manifests as a constantly protracted and anteriorly tilted shoulder blade: in normal terms, this looks like rounded/hunched shoulders…basically, bad posture. Underneath the pec minor, running between the muscle and your ribs, are a bunch of nerves and blood vessels, that travel from your neck down to your arm.
WHAT IF IT’S TOO TIGHT?
In past posts, I’ve discussed the mechanics of what happens with overhead movement of the shoulder. The rotator cuff keeps the humeral head (ball) centered in the glenoid fossa of the shoulder blade (socket) as the big mover muscles bring your arm overhead. Here’s where the pec minor can be a real issue: if its too tight, it will pull the shoulder blade forward, which means that as you bring your arm overhead, your humeral head will hit the “roof” of your shoulder blade (the acromion) MUCH sooner in the range of motion. Pec minor basically pulls your shoulder blade towards your ribs, out of alignment, and messes up the rotator cuff’s ability to keep the humeral head centered happily away from any impingement. In the tight pec scenario, your rotator cuff could get pinched between your humeral head and your shoulder blade. This manifests as sharp pain in the front of your shoulder. It could also show up as very diffuse, achey pain around the front and side of your shoulder, even down your deltoid…when the rotator cuff is irritated, it can refer pain anywhere from the front of your shoulder, down your deltoid and sometimes even to your elbow. BUT that’s not the only thing a tight pec minor can do. Because it lies on top of nerves and blood vessels, when it is tight, it can also cause nerve irritation or compression of other vasculature. Symptoms here most often include numbness and tingling down your arm and into your fingers. But wait, I’m not done yet. Research shows that, in addition to irritating rotator cuff tendons and nerves, tight pec minors INHIBIT many important parascapular muscles that are vital for controlling end range shoulder flexibility (see last post on LATS!)
THE RECIPE FOR A TIGHT PEC MINOR
Ok, now that you’re sufficiently fired up about your pec minor, what is it that causes and contributes to tightness in this muscle? SO MANY THINGS. If you have a desk job or spend a lot of time in front of a computer, this lends itself towards tight pecs in general. Sitting, traveling, reading, spending lots of time on your phone or iPad…all of these activities put your pec minor in a shortened position. Circus wise, here are a few things that also can contribute to your probably already tight pec minors: training meathooks, reverse meathooks/side planche, back lever, skin the cats, and most climbs on any vertical apparatus. ALSO: training chin stands in contortion, straight-arm handstand presses, or tumbling/trampoline/flying trapeze involving twisting flips. Oh, and also being a side-sleeper. If you didn’t identify with any of these things, congratulations! You’re a circus unicorn.
QUANTIFYING FLEXIBILITY (BEYOND “SUPER TIGHT” AND “KINDA TIGHT”)
In my typical nerdy physio style, I like measuring and tracking progress. Here’s my favorite way to measure tightness in the pec minor. Lie on a hard surface and have a friend take a photo of you from the top down. You can either eyeball it, or measure with a ruler or tape measurer. I look at a few different things here: first, height from the posterior acromion (marked in the photo at the top of the arrow) to the floor, and second, symmetry between right and left. Research suggests that optimal measurement here should be no more than 2 cm from the ground. There should be no more than 1cm difference between the two shoulders. As you can see in the photo, I have EMBARRASSINGLY tight pec minors…I blame too much recent air travel on ergonomically questionable Chinese airlines.
STRETCH. IT. OUT.
Now for the good part- how to stretch it! Unfortunately, its a really tricky muscle to stretch on your own. I’ve included a few different methods of attack, some of which include assistance from a friend.
Peanut pec minor active release
Use your opposite hand to press a peanut (or lacrosse ball, or tennis ball) into your pec minor, just below the top of your shoulder on the upper edge of your ribcage. First, just take a few deep breaths— because of its attachment on the ribs, even just deep breathing is a great way to actively release this muscle. Next, incorporate some arm movements. Start with your arm out to your side at 90 degrees on the floor. From here, move arm up and over towards your opposite shoulder. In addition, you can do a similar release with a “snow angel” type movement. Make sure you keep consistent pressure on the ball the whole time, taking breaks as needed…this is NOT a comfortable exercise!! I suggest 2 sets of 6-8 slow repetitions per side. For an added stretching bonus, do each rep while exhaling. Because this muscle is tightest during the end of a forceful inhale, you will get a more comprehensive stretch if you focus on movement during exhalation.
Peanut active release with parascapular muscle activation
This is the same concept as the prior exercise, but with the added bonus of activating the parascapular muscles (rhomboids, upper and middle trap, rotator cuff). These are the muscles that are inhibited when the pec minor gets too tight, so i LOVE this exercise because it both releases the pec minor while incorporating neuromuscular re-education for the parascapular muscles. Start face down with the ball on your pec minor and arm to the side, palm down. From here, first engage the muscles in your shoulder blade by bringing your shoulder blade towards your spine. Also think about bringing the front of your shoulder away from the floor. From this engaged position, you can bring your arm up overhead slowly.
Partner foam roll stretch
This is a great stretch to do after the first two releases. Lie on a foam roll (either the one thats sliced in half or a normal one, both are fine) with both your head and sacrum on the roll. Rest your arms either on the floor with palms up, or on your belly with your hands clasped. Your partner should sit behind you and apply gentle downward pressure with cupped hands on the uppermost part of your ribs, just below the front of your shoulder. DO NOT PRESS ON THE SHOULDER! X marks the spot on the photo below. Here, you can do some contract relax PNF stretching: relax for 15 seconds while your partner applies gentle downward pressure, then try to push up into their hands against their resistance- hold for 8-10 seconds, then relax for 15. Do this for a total of 2 minutes.
I recommend doing these three exercises before circus training as part of your warm up. It’s also a good idea to do one or two of these as part of your cool down, ESPECIALLY if your training session involved any of the previously mentioned activities that contribute to tight pecs.
YELLOW LIGHTS AND RED LIGHTS…
There are a few things to watch out for when doing these stretches. Because of the nerves and arteries that lie under the pec minor, you might feel numbness and tingling during these stretches, especially in the first week of incorporating them into your training program. If you feel this, stop the stretch and shake it out. Wait for the numbness and tingling to subside, then continue at a LOWER INTENSITY. The goal is to feel a stretching sensation without any numbness or tingling. Do not push through the stretch after the onset of these symptoms, doing so is counterproductive! You can also try bending your elbow during these exercises, as that may alleviate the tingling by putting the nerves on slack. If you can’t do these without feeling numbness and tingling after making these modifications, RED LIGHT…do not pass go…call a physio and make an appointment.
Another word of caution: I started out this post by talking about symptoms that you may feel if you have a tight pec minor: pain in the front of the shoulder, diffuse pain down your deltoid, or numbness and tingling during stretching. There are a LOT of different structures and injuries that can cause these same symptoms, and some of them are very serious. If you’re experiencing any of these, and they stick around for longer than a few days, thats another red light. CALL A PT! Constant pain should not be a staple in your circus training.
As always, feel free to comment below with questions or concerns! Happy stretching!