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Health problems

Many modern people have unhealthy shoulders. Frequently the shoulders are rounded forward, frozen, suffer a rotator cuff injury or shortened trapezius muscles (gym shoulders).
Sometimes one shoulder is lifted higher than the other. Most of these problems are the outcome of lifestyle choices and bad habits.

Wrong muscle use

The muscles supporting the shoulder are not very strong when you compare them to the enormous muscles of the legs and buttocks.
Poor use of scapula and limited core strength lead to misuse of the shoulder.

So, people's shoulders being up like this (lifted) it doesn't just affect their shoulders. It pushes their neck vertebrae out - which is why they get sore necks. It actually makes their chest lift a lot. It puts pressure on your heart. It does a whole lot of things that are not good for you.

(Bruce Frantzis)

Postural muscles are stronger

Often the 'postural' scapula muscles are neglected in favour of weaker 'phasic' (movement) muscles.
Postural muscles tire more slowly and can sustain power for long periods of time whereas phasic muscles are for short tasks such as brushing teeth.


People often lift out of the glenoid socket and significantly weaken the functionality of the arm. This is caused by over-stretching and rounding the shoulders.

Hollow chest?

Students often misunderstand 'hugging a tree' in qigong and pull their scapula strongly forwards; rounding the shoulders. This prevents free movement of both the scapula and the shoulder joint.
It is an 'external' habit. Martially it is foolish because the body can no longer change spontaneously and easily.

Closing the shoulders

Taking the arms far away from the body is fine when stretching. But not when strength is required.
If the arms are fully outstretched and the fingers brought towards one another, the shoulders suffer immediate discomfort.

Buffalo hump

Many adults develop 'nerd neck' - a pronounced forward leaning of the head - akin to a turtle. It comes from watching too much TV, use of mobile phones, video games, driving and the internet.
The bones are misaligned by this habit, eventually resulting in an unwanted fatty lump forming on both sides of the 7th vertebrae.
The lump acts as a counterweight for the head and actively prevents the spine from aligning correctly (and naturally). This is very unhealthy indeed. It is a lifestyle habit induced deformity.

Be natural

Emulate walking... Where do the arms 'naturally' hang? This is where the shoulders are strongest.
When you have found the correct 'open' position for the shoulders, the back automatically connects and the front of the shoulders feel 'expansive'.

Closing the centre

People often emulate boxers or wing chun students by 'closing' the centre. This is incorrect in tai chi and strains the shoulders.
The centre is deliberately 'open' - inviting/luring an attack. To protect it, turn the waist; don't move the arm independently of the torso.


The left arm protects the left side of the body and the right arm protects the right. Don't cross the centreline.
Each movement in the Long Yang form involves turning the waist to 'cover' (protect) the centre as we move.

Move the centre

Tai chi teaches the individual to perform as many actions as possible emphasising postural muscles.
To accomplish this, the student must use the arm/shoulder less and move the lower body more by stepping. Instead of being arm-oriented, the exponent becomes torso-oriented.

Sinking of the shoulders and elbows

Relaxed elbows enable 'sung' and 'folding' to occur readily. The elbows cannot relax when the arms are too far away from the centre.
Dropped elbows serve to anchor the arms and protect the body from attack. They also enable the tai chi exponent to switch range rapidly and unpredictably.

Use the mind

When the arms are less extended - they may feel weaker, looser and more fluid. This is fine. Power comes from concentration, composure and connection.
Instead of daydreaming, summon all of your focus and energy at the point of impact and drive it into the target using the lower body. This need only be a brief moment but your mind is the key to success.


Many people who have no experience with weights go the gym and execute movements that they are simply not strong enough to handle.
Or they undertake exercises that are widely regarded as being unsafe. The shoulders tend to get damaged first. Build up the weight over many months; don't be macho or impatient.


In order to maintain continual, healthy use of the shoulders and benefit from the entirety of the arm, the arm position relative to the shoulders is a crucial factor. This is taught via standing qigong.

In addition to clumsy shoulder hunching when lifting, almost universally there is a lack of variety in what we do. You can become tethered one way and develop a degree of forward stoop of the upper back.

(Sarah Key)

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Page created 8 April 1997
Last updated 16 June 2023