Smart Shoulders

Improve every lift, boost your gains, look better and stay healthier for longer
By Drew Price BSc Masc ACSM Cert RNutr, MuscleTalk Moderator and Nutrition & Exercise Consultant

May 2008

Drew is available for tailored nutrition and exercise advice – for details see Healthy Action

Due to the amount of questions that get raised on the subject, I thought I would pen an article to give a bit more detail than is possible on forum posts. This article is not a complete view of the topic but rather what most people will need to know to improve health and functions.

Your shoulders are one of the biggest players when it comes to having a strong body. Improving shoulder functions will allow you to get the most out of your other lifts be it benching, rows or pull ups and of course when training the shoulders for strength and mass, it will also help with movements such as deadlifts and the like.

Here we're going to cover a little bit about:

  1. Why people may get problems with shoulder size and health
  2. Factors affecting shoulder function
  3. Things you can factor into your warm ups and cool downs to improve strength and health of the shoulder

Many people complain of problems developing their shoulder and of course we all know how common shoulder injury and pain is. Why are so many so unhappy in the shoulder department?

First you have to look at how the shoulder works and then at what we do to it. The shoulder joint is an unstable one, like a ball in a shallow cup with a very large range of motion rotating in many directions with many associated muscles and other tissue. It is very complex and the muscle firing patterns that move the associated muscles are also complicated. There are lots of issues surrounding:

  • power
  • control
  • stability
  • strength and endurance
  • flexibility and useful range of motion

This all means there is a lot of things which could go wrong with the shoulder. When you have a system like this the body will play to its weakest link to avoid injury. Your brain will actually switch off bigger muscles to defend the smaller ones. In this way small muscle groups (like the rotator cuff) will be a bottle neck to strength and performance, and thus growth. As they are associated with bigger muscle groups which you train with big heavy movements like pressing, if stability and control, etc are off then the risk of injury is greater.

Pile on top of all this the problems associated with poor posture where our shoulders gradually slump forwards (remember 99% of what we do is with our arms in front of us) and that we like to train muscles we can see; what's higher on the wish list, bigger pecs or bigger lower traps? … and you lay the foundation of problems.

However, and this is very important, you have to remember that problems associated with the shoulder can have their routes in many other issues. Sometimes, just sometimes, your sore shoulder isn't down to weak rotators cuffs but another problem all together...

Physiotherapists have the legendary story of the baseball pitcher who kept breaking down, he repeatedly strained his shoulder and, as the pattern of injury mounted up, his form slipped and he was transferred to lower and lower ranking teams. All this despite the intervention of experienced physios.

Stay with me...

One day his new neighbour who was a physio came around his house to ask to use his lawn mower; previously he had explained to him about his shoulder and the problems with the pitching. As he was giving him the lawn mower he commented that he best watch out for all the piles of junk dotted around as this was when he dropped the paint tin on his foot; when he questioned him some more it transpired that this had coincided with the start of his shoulder problems.

Still reading? Good...

What had happened was this; he had hurt his big toe more badly than he had thought, he left it undiagnosed and unable to use the toe in the same way for the pivot he had to use more shoulder to generate the power, these changes caused his shoulder to get injured.

So why am I telling you all this? Problems with his toe messed up his shoulder; something occurred at one end of his body and affected the other. The moral of the story is your body is a unit, what happens in one place can affect a change in another part of the body. Meaning that when you have a shoulder problem you have to look beyond the rotator cuff.

Things that can impact upon your shoulder function include:

  • Rotator cuff function
  • The function of the muscles controlling the shoulder blade
  • Health, function and range of motion in the Glenohumeral joint
  • Balance of internal and external rotator muscle (as distinct from the ones above)
  • Thoracic spine range of motion
  • Neck tightness and posture
  • Health range of motion and functioning of the hips, knees, legs, ankles and feet
  • Breathing

So what does this all mean? Well, it means you have to keep the shoulder healthy by training sensibly and including lots of different movements, lots of work to stabilize the shoulder, strengthen the external rotators and keep the soft tissues nice and limber; in short we're talking 'prehab' not 'rehab'.

Prehab V Rehab
Rehab is all very well and good but wouldn't it be smarter to bullet proof the shoulders before you get the injury? Obviously staying injury free is a bonus but anything that helps you lift a few kg more in a matter of days has got to be a good thing, no? Doing drills like the ones below may seem a waste of time but these are the tools powerlifters use to help them lift ridiculous weight - though they're much too tough to admit it! So, slip these into you warm up and cool down and reap the rewards.

Whole Body Work

Soft tissue work
Stretching is all very well and good but this is the first step you never hear about, rolling on foam rollers and tennis balls is probably one of the simplest most cost effective ways to increase your performance. Foam rollers are available easily on line and come with instructions but regardless of what implement you use, the advice is always the same:

  • Use it on the 'meat' of the muscle avoiding bony regions
  • Be very careful around the neck and where veins reach the surface
  • Roll in small sweeps and back and forth
  • Always work away from the core

It will be painful at first but the results are fantastic! Places to target include:

  • Pecs (rolling on front)
  • Lats (rolling on your side)
  • Traps (rolling on your back)
  • Lower back (careful here)
  • IT band (side of thigh)
  • Hip flexors (top of the front of the thigh)

Range of motion development
There's a range of exercises you can do just to free up the joint motion, using shoulder rolls, shoulder dislocates, deep unweighted squats, etc. Only after this would you start to increase the amount of static stretching. I say 'increase' because you are already doing quite a bit, right?

The Lower Traps
The movements below will train the lower traps to hopefully switch on a bit more easily; however there's no need to hammer the movements, so just do a few reps on each one.

Wall slides
In order to lift heavy you have to have all your muscle switched on, the lower traps (the ones you don't train by doing shrugs) are one of the main stabilizers in your shoulder but most peoples just aren't firing on all cylinders (or even one or two cylinders), you need to switch them on. Wall slides can be seen here. Be sure to squeeze a little at the bottom of the movement.

Traps reverse rows
Using a Smith machine get into a reverse row type position and only using your shoulders. Move your torso up and down keeping the shoulder down away from your ears, you should have the feeling of squeezing you shoulders blades back and down.

Traps pull-ups
Hang from a pull-up bar and again keeping you arms straight just pull your torso up using shoulder movement.

The Serratus
You know those strange diamond shaped muscles below the armpit that all pro sportsmen seem to have but no one down Fitness First has? They're the serratus, a small but important group. They move and stabilize the scapular. These exercises are in addition to your training but they are muscular training so include them regularly

Serratus push-ups
This is the opposite to the reverse row above. Adopt a standard push up position but keeping the arms straight move the torso up and down using the movement through the shoulder girdle.

Serratus dumbell press
On a flat and/or incline bench press two dumbbells as you did for the movements above. Use various inclines at different times; no need to go through lots of different angles is one session.

Isometric & Stability Type Movements

Overhead squats figure eights
When I get athletes with tired shoulders in need of training, boxers for example, or trainees who just can't seem to improve their shoulder width no matter what they do, I teach them how to snatch then their shoulders blow up, why? Stability. A muscle doesn't have to be moving to be working, the act of putting something above your head and moving underneath it trains the nervous system to work better and the improves the function of the stabilizers. It also hits the muscle in an isometric fashion; did you know that you can get more fibers firing with this type of contraction than you can with concentric contractions?

With overhead squats it's important to get the form right from the off so use an empty bar and practice before you start adding the weight. You will need an Olympic bar for when you start adding these weights but you can even start off practicing these with a broom stick.

Adopt a snatch-type grip, keep the torso as upright as possible and have the feeling of pulling the bar apart.

Figure eights involve, unsurprisingly, facing forward but walking front, back and side to side around in a figure of eight with weights above your head. Again start with an empty bar or if needed a broom stick and then progress. Dumbbells can also be used and are great as they reduce the stability, making you work harder but with lower weight.

Not only will both of these train the shoulders but they also improve mobility through the thoracic spine and chest.

External rotation
No shoulder article would be complete without external rotations. Use dumbbells, cables and bands – all will give different stimulus at different points along the range of motion of the exercises. Also many trainees just do these in one position (say with the upper arm at 90º to the spine); the shoulders work in many ways, train the external rotations at different angles.

You can write whole books about the shoulders, their function and health, but this is just a few pointers singling out the type of things that work to bullet proof the joint and increase your performance that is not often covered on message boards. Remember that the body is one unit and that to ensure shoulder health you have to pay attention to other parts of your body as well. Also keep in mind the many different angles and positions that the arm and shoulder girdle can work through. Increasing the health of your shoulders means training it in lots of different ways; varying angles and movements, loads and reps.

Lastly remember the old adage: 'an ounce of prevention is worth more that a pound of cure', do a little work that will improve your lifts and gains before you have to do a lot of work in order to be able to train heavy again!

Drew can be contacted for on-line personal training plans through www.healthyaction.co.uk