Warning: This post contains work for you to do.
Hi all. There is a healthy amount of evidence out there regarding the effect that poor shoulder movement has on pain. Instead of dropping a couple of references into this article, here is a link for those of you who are inclined to take a look at some scholarly work on the subject. The first three articles on this list ought to keep you busy for a while.
There is no one prescription that will work for everybody’s shoulder problems, but people tend to have similar postural issues to varying degrees, and those patterns can cause discomfort to develop. As many of you already know, that sucks. What is certain is that the shoulders, neck and upper back are tied in together, and the following exercises should help pain and dysfunction in all three of these areas, and might even ease headaches that have a muscular or postural source.
Let’s start with the goings on, and then we will get to the fixes. If you don’t care about the anatomy, skip down to the exercises and start working. I would suggest that you take a quick glance, though.
Each scapula, or shoulder blade, has somewhere in the neighborhood of 17 muscles attached to it (yes, yes, I was once able to rattle off all of these over coffee with my PT school friends, but I have since recovered from that part of my life, and can now routinely only name 15, one of which is sometimes wrong, but at least still in the general area). These muscles range from halfway down the front of the torso, all the way down the back, all the way up both sides of the neck, and they work in concert to allow neck, upper back and shoulder movement. That is a lot of coordination, and if something is out of whack it will cause you issues.
There are larger muscles that tend to be prime movers, but there are also smaller muscles that provide shoulder stabilization and subtler movements.
A good way to look at it is that these muscles need to work as a team. Some pull, some allow themselves to be pulled, and the more they are trained to work together, the more of a team effort results. If they work poorly together the shoulder joint gets beaten up, your neck and upper back get sore, or you get certain types of headaches.
Poor Mobility: If muscles are shorter (tighter) than they ought to be, you start shoulder movements with the scapula in a bad position.
Poor movement patterns: If you have trained your shoulder blades to move poorly (so many reasons this could happen, and it happens often) you cause stresses to the joints, and if you add weight that stress is increased greatly.
Poor strength: If muscles are weak (this is usually the stabilizers, unfortunately) the shoulder undergoes even further stresses. The trick is to gain strength without beating up on your shoulders, and until we get mobility and movement patterns under control we are likely to cause issues if we pile on the weight, reps or explosiveness.
Stretches for tight shoulder muscles
First, let’s tackle a couple of common postural problems. Most people have at least one arm that is harder to get behind their back. This can have many sources, but tight muscles are very likely the culprit. Added to that, many have shoulders that sit forward, some call it “rounded,” and muscle tightness, usually pectoralis minor, is also the likely cause. You need to make those tight muscles your bitch! The video below shows two stretches (the sleeper stretch and the standing doorway stretch) that should help with this. If you are very tight, perform them 5 times per day for 30 seconds at a shot. Once you loosen up you can do them here and there, but frequency is the key in the beginning.
Control your shoulder blades
Second, let’s talk about learning to control your scapula (well, hopefully both of them). A simple warm up -see the first video below- can be of use in a couple of ways. It is a controlled way to prepare you for more challenging movements. By simply moving the shoulder blades up and down and forward and back, you activate many of the muscles that stabilize the shoulder. This is simple and powerful. Progress to slow, controlled arm motions, and you set the stage for further movement. Do these as your first moves in the gym. When you are at work, stand up from your desk every so often and use them as a tension killer. Make some robot noises while doing them.
Movement control progression
Below are the money exercises (again, this is part one, so these may be simple for some folks) and this is how I would apply them: They should not be painful, and I am especially concerned with the pain of the sharp, catching or nasty (that’s accepted medical terminology) type. Try them all, starting with the first video and progressing to the next until you find one that is slightly challenging if you do 5 of each exercise (example 5 T, 5 Y, 5W after another. It’ll make sense after the video). This set of 5 should be followed by a break, and the cycle repeated 3 times (5T/5Y/5W, rest one minute, repeat twice more. Again, watch the video). If that rep scheme is confusing, drop me a line in the comments, but no abusive language, as I am very sensitive.
Movement control progression – standing up
Movement control progression – lying down
Movement control progression – TRX
The last video uses a TRX. This is a great device for anybody who feels like getting full body workouts, but doesn’t want to buy weights or go to the gym. I will post in the near future about how to use the TRX, but usually if you buy one a DVD comes with it.
For anybody who does not want to spring for a TRX, you can easily substitute a piece of rope. A 20 foot length like this one should do the trick. You could hang the rope over a tree limb, around a tree trunk, tie a knot in the middle and shut it in the door, etc. Just make sure it is secure.
These should be enough to get you started down the path to stronger, healthier shoulders. Enjoy.