(This article was originally written on Dec. 9, 2013 but has been revised on Mar. 10, 2016 to reflect a more accurate understanding of the topic.)
Online over the past few years, there has been some debate over what is the best “shoulder position” to have while performing overhead motions – namely, during the pull-up and overhead press. This discussion is known as the active shoulders vs. packed shoulders debate.
If you want to skip all the details and get straight to the answers, scroll down this article to the section titled “To Sum It All Up”.
The Active Shoulders vs. Packed Shoulders Camps Defined
On one side, the packed-shoulders camp, a trainee is told to consciously pull the shoulder blades down and back, using the lats and traps, typically during pull-ups and presses. A commonly used coaching cue for this is known as “keep your shoulders DOWN and BACK”.
In the other camp, the active-shoulders camp, a trainee is told to fluidly move the shoulder blades according to the movement. At the bottom of a pull-up, the shoulders are shrugged and relaxed, and at the top, they are pulled down. At the bottom of the overhead press, the shoulder blades are down, and at the top of the press, they are shrugged.
Just a point of clarification: pull-ups performed relaxed at the bottom are sometimes called relaxed hang pull-ups and those performed with the lats activated in the bottom are sometimes called active hang pull-ups. A little confusing, but just wanted to clear the air. Anyway…
Which Shoulder Movement is “Safer” and “More Efficient”?
Safety, Part 1 (Shoulder Impingement)
Preventing shoulder injuries is a huge deal to many people because, well, injuries suck. That’s why we’ll first look at both active and packed shoulders techniques from a perspective of safety.
Shoulder impingement is a catch-all phrase for shoulder injuries. There are various types of this condition. One type when the soft-tissues found near the humeral head (such as the tendons of the rotator cuff) get “pinched” between the humerus and the acromion. Let’s focus on this type of impingement.
Overhead movements, requiring a few things to occur around the shoulders, are sometimes a source of impingement.
Two things occur when the arms go overhead. First, the humerus travels through a large range-of-motion, moving from the sides to above the head. Second, the scapula rotates upward. (Bear with me if this doesn’t make sense – use the pictures below for reference.)
Now, if the scapula weren’t to upwardly rotate, the humerus would jam right into the acromion early on, potentially mashing anything that runs between the two (rotator cuff tendons, bursa, proximal biceps tendon, etc.)
It has been advocated that one should “shrug” the shoulders actively when pressing overhead. Reason being , in order for the scapula to upwardly rotate, the upper traps need to fire, along with the lower traps and serratus anterior. The upper traps “shrug” the shoulders as well as upwardly rotate the scapula, so doing everything you can to activate them should theoretically allow for the greatest upward rotation of the scapula.
See how those black lines do not come in contact in the first two figures above. See how they do come in contact in the 3rd figure? Supposedly, this is what happens when you pack your shoulders when lifting overhead: your humerus and acromion jam. Supposedly.
Is upward rotation really not possible without shrugging, though? See what happens when I move my arms overhead with shoulders active and shoulders packed…
As seen in the photo above. I have the ability to upwardly rotate, both with active shoulders AND with packed shoulders. To say that active shoulders are 100% absolutely needed to prevent impingement during overhead movements is a bit far-fetched.
Can everyone do this? I’m going to say no. Loss of movement and the inability to activate muscles does occur. Additionally, some people are simply predisposed to shoulder impingement (due to bony changes – check out this article for more info).
Another thing worth noting… Despite being able to upwardly rotate my scapulae, I do feel a bit of pressure in my shoulders when I pack them down and raise my arms overhead. This might be indicative of various thingsgetting pressed against each other in my shoulder. I’m guessing that active shoulders may provide a little more clearance, both literally and figuratively.
Conclusion: There’s no clear answer. However, active shoulders are probably safer for the shoulder.
Safety, Part 2 (Stressing the Rotator Cuff and Joint Capsule)
Now that we have shoulder impingement addressed, there is another safety concern to look at.
To review, when one performs a pull-up, his or her shoulder blades can be active (in a “relaxed hang” at the bottom) or packed (in an “active hang”). During an active hang, the muscles of the upper back and shoulder are engaged, bearing some of the load. Whereas, when one is in a relaxed hang, the muscles are hardly stressed. The definition of “active shoulders vs. packed shoulders” is a bit counter-intuitive in this case, but bear with me!
Now, the “shoulder socket” of the body is essentially a bunch of connective tissue that holds the head of the humerus against the glenoid of the scapula. This “socket” is formally known as the joint capsule. The joint capsule, like any other connective tissue in the body, can become damaged if it experiences excessive stress.
That’s where relaxed hanging comes in. In it, the muscles are relaxed, just as the name says. So, what do you think will prevent your arm from ripping out of your shoulder as you hang?
… the joint capsule, of course. (The four tiny rotator cuff muscles help out a bit, too.)
People with rotator cuff tears, shoulder instability, etc. will most likely find relaxed hangs / active shoulders during pull-ups painful. This movement acts as yet another damaging stressor for people with already-damaged shoulders.
Now, if the joint capsule and rotator cuff are still healthy enough, relaxed hangs aren’t necessarily bad (especially if they’re painless). In these situations, relaxed hangs can actually strengthen the joint capsule and rotator cuff.
With physical stress, the dose determines its “lethality”: too much and it’ll damage you, but start out small and you’ll develop a resistance to it over time.
A damaged joint capsule or rotator cuff may feel better with active hanging / packed shoulders during the pull-up. But the ability to hang relaxed without pain is a nice goal to shoot for, whether it requires progressive strengthening or surgical repair.
It is now actually be advocated that dead hangs be a panacea for a number of shoulder issues, including the shoulder impingement issue we just talked about. I’ll talk about this more in just a sec…
Conclusion: Relaxed hanging / active shoulders are more stressful to the shoulder joint than active hanging / packed shoulders are. Choosing one over the other is specific to one’s situation and injury-status.
What’s easier, doing back squats only 1/4th of the way down or doing them until your butt is an inch away from the ground? Of course, the quarter squat is easier.
With any kind of movement, less distance traveled means less work performed. Active shoulders involve greater distances to be traveled, whereas packed shoulders involve less.
For those who are strength training for the sake of health and fitness, there’s no reason to short-change efforts by reducing the range of motion. You stand to gain nothing by making an exercise easier by shortening the range of motion. Nothing.
But if you’re doing it for competition – let’s say, powerlifting – then reducing your range of motion will only help lift more weight. Take the bench press for example – all powerlifters perform it with the shoulder blades squeezed back (packed shoulders -style). While there are a number of reasons why they do this, one benefit is that it reduces the distance the barbell travels by a few inches.
If reducing your range of motion gives you a legitimate competitive advantage, have at it.
Conclusion: packed shoulders can help you lift with more ease – this is useful if you’re in it for competition.
To Sum It All Up
So here’s the gist of the entire active shoulders vs. packed shoulders debate.
- “Active shoulders” means to allow the shoulder girdle to move in the direction the arms are moving, such as shrugging during an overhead press. “Packed shoulders” means to keep the shoulder blades down and back, no matter what movement is performed.
- It’s possible that active shoulders will less likely cause impingement in the shoulder.
- Active shoulders in the pull-up (AKA, “relaxed hang” pull-ups) stress the soft tissues of the shoulder more-so than packed shoulders will.
- Packed shoulders reduce the distances traveled during movement, making lifts/exercises easier to perform. If you lift for competition, packed shoulders will help.
Hopefully this clears up any misunderstandings about packed shoulders vs. active shoulders.
If you came here looking for more info to solve shoulder issues or injuries, there’s one book worth checking out. That’s Dr. John Kirsch’s Shoulder Pain? The Solution & Prevention. Dr. Kirsch is one of the few doctors out there that claims a majority of chronic shoulder issues can be lessened or even resolved with one simple tool: hanging.
And this ain’t no Joe Schmoe – Dr. Kirsch is a board certified orthopedic surgeon with decades of experience. If you’re interested, make sure to click here and check out his book.