More than perhaps any other joint in our bodies, the shoulders demand close and careful attention. We use them on a daily basis and they travel a wide-ranging path; it’s in our best interest to assure that the path is the one of least resistance.
The tricky thing about maintaining good shoulder function is that it doesn’t just require strong deltoids or big traps. Those are important for moving big weight and being strong enough to handle anything life throws at you, but real shoulder function – pain-free, unimpeded shoulder function – depends on certain supporting muscles and joints of which most people are simply unaware. I mean, did you realize just how integral the scapular are? And because the shoulders’ function seems relatively straightforward and because we can work out for years without lending serious thought to how our joints move and work, now’s the time to start thinking about proper joint function before it’s too late.
What I’m trying to say is this: you may be neglecting your shoulders and putting them at risk, even if you focus on only the classic multi-joint, compound exercises, like overhead presses and pull-ups, and even if you’re using good form. It’s difficult to admit this to ourselves, but doing the right things the right way may not be enough if we’ve lived regular lives hunched over keyboards, sitting in chairs, wearing shoes, and emulating incorrect posture (masquerading as good posture). Modern nutrition and fitness advice, coupled with the mundane realities of everyday life (chairs, shoes, eight hour workdays, etc) (unwittingly) has the effect of undoing millions of years of evolutionary pressures. It’s true that we’re born with predispositions – toward certain foods, movement patterns, joint articulations – but a few dozen years of doing precisely the opposite sets us on a different path. Deviating from that path is difficult, but it must be done.
I’m of the opinion that everyone should be doing shoulder mobility and stability work, even if you’re otherwise totally healthy and pain-free. Shoulder issues have the nasty tendency to develop gradually due to a deficiency. They don’t always happen immediately (unless we’re talking acute trauma like dislocations or sudden tears); as you read this, shoulder pain could be welling up beneath the surface, growing strength and gearing up to burst through and manifest as a conscious debilitating sidelining injury. Get on the prehab now, not after it happens. You know how it goes: better safe than sorry, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and any other bit of folk wisdom elevating careful prudence and preparedness over convenient short sightedness. And if you’re suffering from shoulder pain or poor mobility and stability, by all means, get on the rehab!
First, evaluate yourself. Stand up straight and relaxed – just assume your normal stance and posture. Grab two long, straight items to hold in each hand. Pencils, pens, rulers, sticks will all work. It’s got to be straight is all. Hold them in your fists and let your hands drop by your sides. Again, relax.
Your items should be pointing straight ahead. They should form an angle perpendicular to your body. If they’re angling inward, your shoulders are slumping forward, and you probably need to work on your scapular retraction.
Next, raise both arms as if you were waving goodbye. Your hands should be about ear height, and your elbow should be bent around 90 degrees. Maintaining that arm position, push your arms and elbows back by retracting your scapula. Ideally, both arms should go back equal distances. If one arm lags behind, you probably need extra work on that side.
I’m going to do drill recommendations a little differently than I have in past mobility posts. Before, I listed various exercises one could do to help with joint mobility, but there exists a totally free, public domain shoulder rehab program that gets rave reviews from pretty much everyone: the Diesel Crew Shoulder Rehab Protocol (Video).
This is the essential program for anyone currently suffering from, worrying about, or speculating on the development of shoulder issues. It’s free, it’s easy, and it’s all laid out for the user. It follows a seven day schedule. If you’re injured and taking time off, do what you can without causing pain. If you’re otherwise healthy and looking to shore up your shoulders, do the drills after your workouts. Once your shoulders are feeling better, don’t stop the drills altogether. Keep doing them, perhaps on a truncated schedule, but make sure you maintain your shoulder health.
Of course, not everyone requires the DC protocol. I would advise everyone to at least sample the routine, and even go through the full seven day cycle once in awhile to keep things fresh and fluid. I do like some other shoulder drills. The DC protocol can be a bit time-consuming, and I’m pretty pleased with my shoulder function, so I’m okay with basic maintenance. A few good ones:
Stand with your back to the wall and your feet about eight inches away from it. Lean back into the wall and maintain contact between the wall and your head, hips, and back. With your hands over your head, press your forearms against the wall, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Slide your arms up the wall. Maintain contact the entire time.
Get in the “up” push-up position: straight arms, tight core, straight legs. Retract your scapula, then protract it. (Tighten your shoulder blades, then spread them apart.) Keep your arms straight the whole time. Range of motion will be extremely short in this exercise.
Using a flexible band, a broomstick, a piece of rope, a ribbon, a sedate pet snake, or even a dog leash, hold both ends with straight, locked arms. Starting at your hips, bring the band (or whatever you’re using) behind your head until you reach your hips on the other side while keeping those arms straight. At this point, you can go back the way you came, but I find going forward hurts the shoulders, so I just bring it back over with bent arms and go backwards again with straight arms. Your choice. Just avoid pain. Do shoulder dislocates as part of a rehab program or as a dynamic warm-up to loosen up your shoulders.
This is essential. You’ve got to create the shelf when you press. Tighten your shoulder blades, have a buddy help lift the bar off the supports, and maintain the tight shoulder blades for the duration of the set. Too many people neglect this essential portion of the bench press. It helps to arch your lower back a bit (which is why you see the experts arching during the bench).
Same goes for rows. If you’re doing bent over barbell rows, keep your scapular retraction going during both the concentric and eccentric motions of the lift. Everyone retracts the scapula during the concentric portion, but most protract the scapula at the end of the eccentric. Don’t. Instead, maintain those tight shoulder blades at the bottom. Straighten your arms, but do not let your shoulder blades drift forward, too.
Avoid upright rows. They are almost universally bad for your rotator cuffs, and they don’t work anything you can’t reach with better lifts. Besides, hoisting heavy weights up to your shoulders while standing by using just your upper body is ridiculous and inefficient; the hips are far better at propelling weights up to the clean position.
Another common mistake is doing lateral raises with your arms directly at the sides. I doubt most of us are even doing lateral raises (I find them unnecessary, but bodybuilding types will find them useful). This is unnatural and can pinch your rotator cuff. Instead, move your arms forward about 30 degrees and lift them that way.
You might also avoid the bench press altogether if you can’t seem to avoid shoulder pain. You could do floor presses or weighted push-ups instead.
Soreness is okay. Pain is not. Avoid the movements that cause pain in your shoulders.
Oh, and you’ll want to maintain good thoracic mobility, too.
Eric Cressey has a fantastic series called “Shoulder Savers”. Here are parts 1, 2, and 3. Between his recommendations for avoiding shoulder injury, the DC Rehab Protocol, my advice, and remembering to be conscious of your scapular function, you have everything you need to take care of those relatively minor, nagging, persistent shoulder issues that almost everyone seems to have these days. For more serious, acute injuries, consult with a professional.