It sure seems like I'm focused on the shoulder joint as of late. My last blog dove head first into a funky press variation and why it needs to be in program. (HINT: Add it in now). I've gotten a lot of positive feedback from other trainers and exercise lovers, so that is pretty awesome.
As a person who's dealt with shoulder injuries on both sides at a variety of times in my life - there is a certain level of connection I feel to the joint. Add in my die-hard love of throwing things, pressing things, and moving the way I want to move, and soon you'll realize that the shoulder joint is my jam.
For good reason too...
The shoulder joint is amazing because of its massive range of motion that makes living life, and doing cool shit, much easier. It is also capable of being strong if trained correctly. High mobility with a high potential for force output - sign me up.
It is sort of a miracle joint too. With all of the muscle tissue, fascia, bones, tendons and cartilage, nerves, blood vessels, and fat cells - it is incredible that the shoulder joint works as well as it does. There are so much potential for inflammation and injury that when things are working right we should thank our lucky stars...
Or our preparation habits...
Which is what leads us here to today's post -
With many of my clients I find there is a case of what I like to call "pissy shoulder". There is nothing scientific about that name - its just my not-so-professional name for an inflamed shoulder - one that causes discomfort but doesn't have an actual injury - per se'.
Usually, this inflammation comes from poor mechanics in the glenohumeral joint (the ball and socket), poor scapular tracking, and generally inadequate use of thoracic extension and core activation. Proper coaching, tactical muscle-building, and unique exercise selections are necessary to change course.
Again, I feel obligated to mention that I'm not talking about clients who possess specific issues such as "frozen shoulder", legitimate rotator cuff or labrum tears, or skeletal issues that cause pain or dysfunction. These sort of situations are outside of the scope of most fitness professionals - instead they fall into the skill-sets possessed by physical therapists and medical professionals.
It is imperative for anyone interested in having healthier shoulders to understand that the cure for most issues are one, or all, of the follow four points:
1. More external rotation of the humerus
The modern human existence puts us in way too much forward prolapse (of the scapula) and internal rotation of the humerus. This condition, when made really bad, is known as upper cross syndrome. Tight pecs and traps, and lengthened upper back muscles. The sort of imbalance causes a ton of problems - most notably - pain in the shoulders.
Thus, training additional external rotation of the humerus, which involves getting the arms rotated back in the shoulder socket and having your palms supinated, or turned upwards. Doing so can help undo much of the stress of life, poor posture, and doing too much pressing in your workouts.
But wait, there is more...
2. More pulling exercises
Thankfully the world is catching on to the fact that we shouldn't be spending so much of our workouts doing pressing movements. It isn't just the meathead guys trying to emulate the bodybuilding magazines either. In fact, in my experience as a coach - it is my female, non-lifting clients that need the most pulling work.
In reference to the point above - we live far too much of our lives in a rounded forward posture. This stress shortens the pecs and lengthens (read: weakens) the muscles of the upper back. Without enough pulling exercises in your training routine you'll struggle mightily to overcome poor posture caused by life and training.
Any set of healthy shoulders utilizes a training routine where someone is pulling at least twice as often as they are pressing. In fact, a lot of stud coaches like Dr. John Rusin have demonstrated that we should be pulling horizontally more than we pull vertically too. All of this to protect that miracle joint - the shoulders.
3. Proper tracking
This is a detail that most trainees overlook and most corrective exercise "specialist" swoon over.
There is an optimal rhythm to how the shoulders should move. There should be pain-free motion at the shoulder socket when you move your arms through flexion and extension. You don't need crazy contortionist mobility though, so don't be convince that you need to be able to take your arms in a perfect circle or something.
Going further into the back we see the need for all 6 motions of the scapula to be present. Those motions are depression and elevation, protraction and retraction, and upwards and downwards rotation. There are specific ways to train all of these patterns uniquely and ways to train them in unison. Any program should consider training all six motions each week with the greatest emphasis on experiencing the greatest end range possible while honoring each phase of the movement.
*Big Key* - This is not claiming that we should train the shit out of all motions or load them with heavy weights. Protraction and Elevation can cause a lot of problems for people if we go too bonkers with them. Don't confuse the idea that the scapula should be able to track through all ranges with the idea that we should throw poundage at them.
4. Stronger "no-show" muscles
Our obsession with vanity can't be understated. It's why guys are bench pressing so damn much in the first place. The desire to have an chest like Arnold and Ronnie pushes guys to train pressing movements two, three, and even four times a week.
In fact, the desire to have noticeable hypertrophy (muscle growth) or attractive definition (fat loss) is what drives the large majority of people to the gym. And honestly, that's perfectly fine. I'm not here to rewire your motivational drive or convince that there is a "higher calling" in fitness.
I am here though, to say that we need to pay a bit more attention to the muscles we can't quite see. This blog discusses the muscles of the rotator cuff (Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Teres Minor, and Subscapularis). Other "invisible" muscles include the pelvic floor, the transverse abdominals, the muscles of the feet and ankles, and the muscles that aid in abduction and adduction of the hip joint.
But let's not get caught up in the latin names or the details of the anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology fields.
These lesser targeted muscle groups are paramount to optimal function of the human body. With optimal function comes a canvas for which we can paint our optimal performance and optimal physique. Function must be in place.
With the rotator cuff specifically, training up these smaller muscles allows for the shoulder joint to remain stable in a variety of positions. Moreover, these muscles serve to enhance your movement quality - limiting the shitty side of exercise (overuse injuries and the aches and pains). Think of them as the steel rods that are driven deep into the bedrock of Manhattan - no one sees them once the skyscraper is erected; however, without them we don't have a safe building.
That's what your rotator cuff grouping is to your shoulder joint. When you look at a successful trainee with healthy shoulders all you see is the skyscraper...
Everyone sees the big pecs, the wide back, the developed shoulders. You watch them press a barbell with more plates than a Denny's buffet. They make it look effortless.
But you probably aren't taking the time to watch them do the little exercises that keep their shoulders running well. You are missing the part where they do the right things in-between sets of presses. And that's OK. You won't miss it anymore.
So why the hell are we learning all of this?
Because I needed to set you up to understand what we're going to accomplish with this exercise. Enter the three-piece suit of shoulder exercises. The stand-up triple of rotator cuff issues...
From the side:
From the back:
So, a short explanation of the three parts*:
1. A rear-flye executed to enhance retraction and depression of the scapula, two major movements of this region. I could have supinated my hands with this cable unit and added external rotation to the mix, but I wanted to keep it simple for this video series. Just know...it is a valid option.
2. The low-to-high face pull. Once again emphasizing retraction, coming out of protraction, with a touch of upward rotation and elevation. All of these scapular movements should be done in a program (see the point on tracking). This movement is critical.
3. The unloaded cable press is interesting. There is hardly any load against gravity (really just the weigh of your arms), but there is a ton of tension trying to pull you forward. The load of the cable wants to pull your arms into internal rotation and protraction. Yet, bracing your core and owning a level of thoracic extension will brace you enough to press vertically. The dropping of the elbows brings a level of external rotation into the equation.
*Posture is a major element of this movement series. Don't slouch. Keep your chest up and core engaged throughout all three patterns.
This article is aimed at helping you overcome the annoying "pissy-shoulder" or bulletproof your shoulders from future injuries. We should always aim to complete diagnostic work like this to balance out the stress of everything else in a program.
Use this move today and enhance your shoulders. Please check out my latest book, available now on Amazon.com, and let me know if I can ever be here to help you. Keep an eye over here too...2019 is the year I launch the product that will make your shoulders as tough as Luke Cage.
You'll want to check it out. I promise.