Difficulty Lifting Your Arm? Check Your Teres Major.

Jessica John holding her scapula

The teres major is an internal rotator and adductor of the arm. Guess which motions put you into internal rotation and adduction when we’re talking about aerial?

  • back flag
  • back lever
  • skin the cat
  • arm crochets

The teres major is sometimes called the “lat’s little helper” because of its synergistic action with the latissimus dorsi. While the pec and the lat also contribute to the same motions, the teres major has a closer relationship with the scapula and humerus.


When the teres major gets tight from overuse, you will begin to see changes in scapulohumeral rhythm. That’s the upward rotation of the scapula as the arm lifts overhead. The scapula will upwardly rotate MORE on the tight side, because the teres major will glue the arm closer to the scapula and drag it up with the arm.

It will look like you’re getting good arm elevation but you’re just compensating with more scapular upward rotation. This is probably going to cause some impingement and irritation to the shoulder. Ouch.

In the elevated position, the teres major muscle belly also surrounds the humeral head and can prevent its inferior displacement. In fact, the teres major is believed to be more active in unstable shoulders, working to pull down the humeral head.

What does this mean for aerialists or handbalancers?

The circus population is more likely to be hypermobile AND more likely to have suffered previous shoulder injury leading to shoulder instability. That means the teres major is working HARDER in many circus artists to simply provide stability. That means when it is put under load, it is going to be quicker to fatigue, and that it is going to hold greater resting tone (stiffness).

What is the solution?

1. Target the teres major specifically in your warm ups. Rolling the lats are unlikely to get to the teres, so you’ll want to use a lacrosse ball to get at it specifically.

2. Watch your back. Check in with how your scapulae move on your back when lifting the arms overhead. Although most overhead athletes will have some asymmetries, notice differences from YOUR norm.

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