Shoulders can be particularly tricky for the athletic population. A history of overhead sports and hand dominance can set us up for difficulty later down the line, especially if we choose to move to a mode of exercise that is very symmetrical (rowing, barbell movements). Also, repetitive overhead movements with poor form or overuse during overhead sports can lead us to shoulder pain.
The shoulders hold a particularly difficult role because they have a demand for stability and mobility at the same time. This is a fine balance that can result in pain and dysfunction, if not optimal. Fun fact: the shoulder complex, or the shoulder blade and arm, connect to the body only by attachment of muscles. It is unlike the hip or knee joint that articulates bone to bone with some cartilage in between. So the muscles need extra attention!
To work on both stability and mobility, a few items need to be checked off before we go snatching a weighted barbell over our heads or swinging away at a tennis ball. We must make sure the tissues are warm and the neurological system is primed for overhead movements. Pain in this area may be caused by muscular tension, shoving the shoulder into poor positions due to lack of mobility and/or lack of control of the shoulder. The best way to attack this area is a proper warm-up, mobility or soft tissue work and movement preparation. Of course, all of this is worthless without making sure that you are moving properly.
#1 Inch Worm- this exercise prepares the shoulder complex by adding a weight bearing component. With the push up, the scapular and pec muscles will be prepped for the following mobility drills. 10 repetitions would be a good place to start.
#2 Banded wall slides- these closely resemble an overhead squat or overhead sports movement (but both sides involved!) The band provides constant tension to engage the scapular muscles and the movement overhead allows them to work to stabilize the joint. At the top, the pulling away from the wall engages the lower trap and mimics the position of the barbell in an overhead lift. Try 10 slow slides then 5 lift-offs per arm, keeping tension the entire time.
If you need mobility work, the green band at the gym is a great place to start. If you tend to be more mobile but still have some tissue tension, the lacrosse ball should be your buddy.
#3 Overhead shoulder distraction- using the green band for this mobility exercise allows distraction at the shoulder joint as well as a stretch to the lats and pecs, depending on angle of pull. Two minutes minimum each side!
#4 Subscap smash- The subscapularis muscle can limit external rotation if tight and this can impact overhead lifts, front racks or the throwing/hitting motion. Whether flexible or not, the subscap generally has a good but of tension in weightlifters and overhead athletes. Pressure based techniques are best done for about 2 minutes each side.
A specific shoulder warm-up is important depending on the task for the day. Say the workout is snatches or overhead squats—behind the neck presses and snatch balance will be ideal for adding speed and change of direction. If you are warming up for an overhead sport, start slow and short with the movements the slowly add speed and distance.
#5 Snatch Balance- weightlifters/CrossFitters: this can be a difficult warmup for many, as it can expose your deepest, darkest mobility secrets! The idea is to quickly push your body under the barbell without allowing it to raise at all. If you have never done this, try it with a PVC pipe and a coach nearby. Athletes: choose a task specific warm up or drill and begin to add the speed.
#6 Change how you move- as always, appropriate biomechanics can “cure” many athletes’ pains. Video yourself during a movement that is painful for your shoulder and then watch it in slow motion. You may be surprised! Ask a coach or experienced athlete to give you a few pointers. There are ways to smash with lacrosse balls for a temporary fix, but to make a lasting change and prevent the reoccurrence--move better. If you don’t have the ideal positions yet, then chip away with mobility.
We always encourage self-maintenance for athletes but if you find yourself stuck or with a nagging pain, contact us. We would gladly speak with you about your training and dysfunction/pain. At Athletes’ Potential, we specialize in keeping athletes of all levels functioning and pain free in their active lifestyles. What better way to start the New Year than pain free?
Thanks for reading,
Dr. Danny and Dr. Jackie's views on performance improvement, injury prevention and sometimes other random thoughts.