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Stiff Neck & Shoulders? Make them Strong with These 5 Exercises

We learned in my previous article how the positioning of our arms in our shoulder girdle affects muscle use and overuse in our upper back, neck and shoulders. To ease the resulting pain and tension, we did some exercises that engaged the latissimus dorsi instead. 


Today, I am bringing you a fabulous concept: the armpits of power. The exercises that follow will help you make progress on gaining the strength you need to allow your overly helpful traps to go on holiday.


The Problem


For most of us, when we lift our arms overhead, our shoulders will shrug, or the ribcage will flare upwards.


Both of these compensations place you in a precarious position, especially when you’re holding a weighted object. (Think lifting a jug of water out of the refrigerator or putting luggage in an overhead bin.) 


With either compensation pattern, the lats are not turned on, and you already know that lazy lats cause your neck and shoulder girdle to work too hard, resulting in neck and shoulder tension. After gaining awareness of how to release your traps, you still may not feel much going on in the lats.


Armpits of power is your next step. It will help you really wake up your muscles.


The Solution


We want to wake up the armpits of power, which include your lats. Did you know that the lats attach at your armpit?


These 5 exercises are my go-to steps when helping clients get acquainted with the armpits of power.


Find Your Armpits of Power


Lift your arms to shoulder height, straight in front of you as if you were a zombie. Notice how your armpits feel. Now, externally rotate your arms so that your palms and elbow pits are facing up.


Can you feel the muscle engagement in your armpits? Can you feel your back near your armpits awaken?


Feel this directly by taking your left hand to your right armpit while holding your right arm out in this zombie arm position. Externally rotate your right arm so that your elbow pit is facing the ceiling. Feel the muscles turn on in your armpit, making it bigger and stronger. This is your ARMPIT of POWER!


Now, go back to two zombie arms and externally rotate to find your armpit of power. Hold the armpit of power for 10 to 15 seconds. Be careful to keep the muscle engagement in your armpits and your mid back, not up near your neck. This is definitely work! Repeat 3 times.


Super Charge Your Armpit of Power


Shake out your arms and wiggle around a bit. Come back to standing with your zombie arms. Put a little bend in your elbows. Imagine you have ice cream scoops on your elbows and use that image to scoop the elbow as you externally rotate your arms. Now your elbow pits are facing the ceiling.


Can you feel the scooping and a simultaneous wrapping of your shoulder blades around from the back to the front of your armpit? Now that is a BIG armpit of power.


Add onto this with the image of holding a clutch purse in the armpits. Can you try to lift your arms up overhead while holding onto this power and clutch purse? Find your edge or boundary where you might lose the feeling of strength in your armpit. Stop when you find your boundary.


Hold at this edge without lifting your ribcage. Your arms may shake here and that’s good. You are working hard.


Work Within Your Boundary Right to the Edge


Take a block between your forearms. Externally rotate your arms at the shoulder and create the muscle engagement by imagining grabbing a clutch purse in your underarm. Hold onto the clutch purse with your armpits of power, and slowly lift the block up toward the ceiling.


Try to keep your arms straight and long while you do this. Go only so far as you can go without losing the armpit of power engagement. Hold for a count of five and lower down. Repeat 3 to 5 times.



Baby Push-Up


Come down to your hands and knees with your hips over your knees and your hands under your shoulders. If you cannot come to the floor, you can do this standing at a wall with your hands on the wall and your arms straight.


We begin by pushing through our palms and broadening our shoulders. Keep that width on your back and take a slight bend in your elbows, allowing your elbows to wing out to the sides. (Your torso will come closer to the floor or wall.) 


Imagine you have ice cream scoops on your elbows, and you are scooping out ice cream as you bring your arms back to straight. Feel your armpits come alive as you do this. 


Hold the armpits of power and take a little push up. Do you notice how little tension there is at your neck as you hold this position? Do you feel stronger than usual?



If you are looking for more challenge, move your arms a bit further forward and try your mini pushup in this ½ plank. Remember all your boundaries for armpits of power and keep your ribs in your body!


Doorway Hang


Now, for a new movement adventure! We are going to add hanging strength to the armpits of power!


Find a pole or doorway you can hold onto. Stand with your side to the doorway (at least 12 inches away) and hold onto it with your grip.


Allow your weight to pull you away from the doorway and approach it in a lazy hanging out fashion. It is almost like a shoulder shrug. But this approach is not ideal for the ligaments in your shoulder girdle and rotator cuff.


Now, try this again but keep your armpits of power engaged. Remember, your ribs belong in line with your hips. It is not a hip move we are doing here. Feel the armpits of power giving you support in what is essentially a hanging exercise.




Stay Strong


When you engage your Armpits of Power, you are gaining both strength and stability. You may have found a smaller boundary for how high your arms can reach up while maintaining this newfound stability.


Of course, there may be times when you need to reach higher for household tasks, but you can practice this new strength and stability skill when you exercise.


Having a clear intention and boundary when you exercise will help you build strength faster and slowly increase your range of motion too (how high you can bring your arms up while respecting your armpit of power boundary).


Follow along with these exercises in this video!


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