Simplifying Shoulder Health for Strength Athletes
Basic Shoulder Anatomy
- The glenohumeral (GH) joint - where your upper arm meets your shoulder blade
- The scapulothoracic joint - where the shoulder blade moves on your ribcage
- The acromioclavicular joint - where your shoulder blade meets your collarbone
- The sternoclavicular joint - where your collarbone meets your sternum
Rotator Cuff Real Talk
- Proper strength in the required direction. Seeing as the goal is to keep the humerus stuck into the joint, the cuff needs to be good at resisting distraction.
- Proprioception. Proprioception is the ability of little nervous organs in your tendons to keep your brain informed of your joint positions. It’s hard to maintain optimal alignment when your nervous system is working with faulty data.
Many people exhibit passive internal rotation of their shoulders, but this is not usually a rotator cuff issue. Both the latissimus dorsi and the pectoralis major can internally rotate the humerus, and in addition to poor scapular position, these two tend to be the primary culprits of passive internal rotation. Instead of focusing on stretching your tight lats and pecs, work on obtaining a neutral position of the thoracic spine and scapulae to clear up your passive internal rotation issues.
Exercises for Rotator Cuff Health
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet resting flat on the floor. This is called a hook lying position.
- Place a light kettlebell in one hand.
- While keeping your shoulder blade neutral, raise your arm straight up into the air (basically the bottom position of a Turkish get up).
- Rotate your arm clockwise and counterclockwise. Maintain your scapular position, and make sure your upper arm is rotating, not just your forearm.
- Do this 10-15 times per side.
- Stand with good posture and raise your arms in front of you 90 degrees.
- Thinking of your middle fingers as a pen, draw small circles and slowly expand them until they’re roughly the size of a dinner plate.
- Change directions and repeat.
- Do this 3-4x in each direction. Keep your arms dead straight the entire time and focus on feeling the motion at the shoulder.
Deadlifts can be great for improving rotator cuff traction strength, provided the load isn't so heavy it pulls your shoulder out of position.
Scapulae – The Foundation of Shoulder Stability
Neutral Resting Position
- Assume a hook lying position as described earlier.
- Rest one hand on your stomach and the other on your sternum.
- Take deep breaths, drawing the breath down and into your belly.
- Exhale forcefully and feel your core muscles contract to help push the air out.
- Continue for 2-3 minutes, or until you feel some of the tension in your upper back start to dissipate.
- Assume a standing position and take a deep breath.
- As you exhale, roll your shoulders back and feel them relax downwards. This is your starting position.
- Bend your elbows 90 degrees, so your palms face each other.
- Tighten the muscles in your mid back and pull the scapulae together. Your hands should start to move outwards.
- Once you’ve squeezed your shoulder blades as far as you can, move your hands backward while maintaining the 90 degree bend at the elbow. You should feel additional tension in the upper back.
- Now relax to the starting position.
- Repeat this sequence (starting with the scapular squeeze) for 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps, or until you can feel your scapulae in a better position.
- Place the pinky side of your hand on a wall like you’re trying to karate chop it.
- Apply a bit of pressure forwards like you’re trying to push the wall over.
- While maintaining pressure, slide your hand upward in a slight outward diagonal.
- Reach as far overhead as possible without shrugging.
Putting It All Together
- Diaphragmatic breathing: 2-3min
- Arm circles: 15 reps each direction
- KB screwdriver: 15 reps each side
- Banded retraction with external rotation: 10-15 reps
- Y-wall slide with liftoff: 15 reps
- Overhead press: 10-15 reps with an empty bar, or bottoms up press with light kettlebell
Complex Joints, Simple Maintenance
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