Lack of Shoulder mobility is a common problem that many people suffer from. We see it every day, rather it be in athletes or business professional’s, that workout at their local gym after work. I hear it on a regular basis, “my shoulder hurts, is there a stretch you can give me?” When I hear this my thought is “yeah of course there are ways to stretch the muscles that surround the shoulder joint and those that make up the rotator cuff” (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, Subscapularis). But is the shoulder the real problem? Does the baseball player have shoulder pain when throwing because of something in the joint itself? Too often the joint pain is treated by looking directly at the joint and not what actually might be causing the problem.
How is your Thoracic spine or “T-Spine?” Being a society that sits down a lot, we have become generation that has awful posture. Rather it be from sitting at a desk all day, looking down at our smart phones, or simply not knowing what good posture is supposed to look like, many of us have T-spines that are in a constant state of flexion. But why does my T-spine matter to my shoulders? As you are reading this I want you to stand up, make your back look like Quasimodo’s (don’t act like you haven’t seen the movie), and try to reach overhead. Pretty hard right? Now just think about doing this with weight in your hand, or throwing 100 pitches in a baseball game, and the beating your shoulder joint takes. Your shoulders haven’t even done anything wrong, and they are the ones taking the punishment!! Be sure to assess your posture and your T-Spine if shoulder pain becomes a problem.
Scapular Mobility! This is probably one thing your high school strength coach, who read an article on Howtogethugein10days.com (not a real site), probably won’t be talking about. The scapula or commonly referred to as the shoulder blades, are very important when it comes to shoulder health. The scapula is capable of 6 actions. They can elevate, depress, retract, protract, upward and downward rotate. What do these actions have to do with my shoulder? The scapula bone connects the humerous of the shoulder joint to the clavicle. If for whatever reason the scapula is unable to perform one its 6 actions, the shoulder joint will not be able to do its job. One common issue I see in people with poor scapular mobility is the inability for the scap to depress or retract. It becomes stuck in one place, too often in an upward position. We as coaches and those who want to achieve a full and healthy body must rethink the way we train. If an athlete needs great mobility in the scapula, maybe we should prescribe exercises to help promote that. A push up in place of the barbell bench press is a good example. The push up with allow for more movement of the scap, and for athletes who go overhead a lot, this is crucial to their long term success.
Are you training correctly? I have touched on this a little bit above but I think this point deserves is own time in the spot light. I use to work for a guy who no matter what, he was bench pressing, overhead pressing, back squatting his clients. When I mean bench press, I mean flat bench, incline, and decline all right in a row. Yes, people actually paid for this. First let me say this, there is not lift you should be doing with your shoulders internally rotated! I have never heard a coach (at least a good one) que a lift by saying internally rotate your shoulders. If you want a quick and blunt way to hurt your shoulders do a heavy lift, or pull up or muscle up with your shoulders falling forward and let me know what you think. But back to my point. If we lack the ability to stand up straight, should we really continue to press? The pec muscles and anterior deltoids are getting pulled tighter and tighter, and our shoulders are falling more and more forward. We all know that guy at the gym! Ok, ok, we all know at least 10 guys at the gym like that. I am sure most of you who are reading have at some point heard, “if you want a big chest get a big back.” While this sounds like a meat head thing to say, it has merit. Think about your back as a foundation, and if your chest is sitting on a weak foundation it’s going to lean forward more. While I love the bench press, I am at the point in my life where my athletic career is over, even though my adult league soccer team has won the league championship 4 years in a row, in case you cared. So you have to ask yourself for you own athletic development, is the bench press the best exercise for me to do? While it does have more benefits then just building chest strength, for most of us there is probably a better alternative. An easy way to program your lifting is to go with a 3:1 pull to push method. If you do 10 pushing exercises, be sure to do 30 pulls. One final point I will make that I heard Mike Boyle mention, if you want to bench ok, but make sure you can pull as much or more weight. In other words, if you weigh 200 lbs and can bench press 300 lbs, you should be able to do a pull with your body weight+100lbs of external weight.
Summary: Look there could be many reasons you are having shoulder pain; these are some that I commonly see. Remember, just because the pain is in the shoulder does not mean that the shoulder is the issue. Whenever a joint hurts, take a top down approach. Look at things above and below that joint, and see if they are up to par, if they aren’t I suggest fixing those before you begin to dissect your injured joint.
Brett Cummins- CSCS, USAW, CSAC, CFSC
Trainer at Forge-Rx