A happy, healthy shoulder can only be a good thing. a pair would truly be a blessing! However, they are something of a rarity amongst those who workout regularly.
Most of the time the body gets the blame. If a problem has not been self-diagnosed then some guru, bro healer or shoulder whisperer will be more than happy to pathologise every twinge or anomaly as a dysfunction, impingement, muscular inhibition or some sort of mobility issue.
No one works out intending to hurt themselves (although occasionally I see someone training and I think to myself that’s what I’d do if i really hated my shoulder). Excluding those masochists we generally pick exercises because of the benefits they bring, whilst ignoring their downsides. After all we can always do another exercise that will fix whatever the first one caused right? This leaves us performing a slew of corrective exercises that are weaved in to training plans as though they are expected to be needed. Most of the time they provide little relief, so why do we continue with them? Clearly the most desperate have the most faith and will continue to diligently mobilise and activate whatever joint or muscle has been affected regardless, even if a happy ending never materialises and the shoulder gods are never appeased.
We are forced to be performance driven or health focused but probably unable to have both. We need to select the exercises and methods that provide the most benefit with the least drawbacks. We must stop placing excessive demands on the body that cannot be met and then trying to repair the damage caused. Cure is a poor relation to prevention.
Most of us know exercises that are considered inherently bad for shoulders and whether you can get away with them or not. These lists are obvious, cliched and old hat. I want to concentrate on exercises that the more enlightened lifter will be doing right now and how to make them work with the body instead of against the body. Needing to perpetually mobilise your shoulders and T-spine is not normal; remedial work is a sign something is wrong and more often than not it is the tasks we undertake, not the body. When we workout, we should expect to endure some hardship but not actively encourage it or seek it out.
Maybe one of these exercises, not your shoulder is the real reason for the problems that keep occurring or never really go away.
1: The shoulder press
There’s something noble, primal and kind of gritty about loading up a heavy barbell and pressing it over your head. We think of those old time strongmen with the grand moustaches and mutter about how lifting has got too fancy nowadays. Going back to basics is good, but sadly I feel this ‘test of strength’ is not performed for any better reason or higher purpose, than the shallow ambition of someone just dabbling in the strength game who has not yet become the serious lifter they think they are. You know the type, baseball cap on backwards, shorts over leggings and a gym bag so big it looks like they’re immigrating. The thing is, for at least the last hundred years or so, lifters have known the worst way to get a barbell overhead has been to press it, we seem to have forgotten this nowadays. The Olympics removed the standing press back in 1972, one of the reasons for this was it was deemed too dangerous. If elite lifters were struggling what chance do we all have?
Of course it is the lift, not the lifter to blame. There is no way to stand bolt upright and press a barbell overhead in a strict manner as your face and the bar both want to occupy the same space.
This means you either need to arch your back, which under load is a bad idea. Nor should you crank your head back. Even though the neck isn’t under any direct load, your head position will affect the amount of stress on your neck whilst holding objects at shoulder height.
This is only exacerbated further by an almost obligatory and inexplicable need for the culprit to then shove their head forward under the bar as it reaches its the finish position. Deliberately placing your head under a precariously positioned load is, to put it mildly, silly. Furthermore, pushing your head forward in the finish position can needlessly increase the chance of a neck injury.
A neutral head position should be maintained during lifting tasks in order to reduce the excessive demands that would otherwise be placed on the neck.
This is where dumbbells are useful. Standing is possible but a steeply inclined bench is preferable. Don’t struggle to get huge dumbbells into position; we want to use moderate weight that allows 8-12 repetitions. This is by no means a new idea, it is the same advice you can find as far back as Alan Calvert’s 1924 classic ‘Super-Strength’. The author said this is the best option to develop strength and no-one should go anywhere near their limit of strength’. He also rightly points out this is a developmental exercise and not really a lift you should demonstrate strength with. If you want to test upper body strength then the bench press would be a better choice and offers a stronger correlation.
2: Low bar squatting
Often when we embark on a new activity or exercise, we know any benefits will take time to materialise whilst at the same time we expect any damaging effects to instantly reveal themselves. In my experience both the good and the bad take time and usually someone has to work hard, be consistent and build enough strength in order to finally injure themselves properly with an exercise.
It is typically not seen this way. Exercise is, on the whole, very safe. This can give a false sense of security. The chance that no one will ever get injured is highly unlikely, and those that do get hurt are occasionally unlucky but this is normally far from random.
These soon to be afflicted lifters do not realise the insidious way most injuries occur. Every time the exercise does not cause an injury, it is taken as further proof it can’t be the source of the problem. This is no different to a turkey convinced that the farmer has the best interests in the birds welfare – doesn’t he always provided food, shelter and protection from foxes and predators has anything but the best interests in the birds welfare. Confidence in this belief peak’s just before Christmas, Thanksgiving or until that one rep too many comes along. in other words the assurance and danger peak almost simultaneously.
This is very much the case with too much low bar squatting. This bar placement leaves the shoulders and elbows in a compressed and truly compromised position.
This can lead to injuries and niggles that are seldom felt at the time but get noticed on other exercises which are then wrongly blamed. If you do not wish to completely abandon the low bar squat, it is good advice for anyone to only use this bar position for 30-40% of all the squats performed. Regular squats carry over to low bar much better than the other way round so there is little to lose by following this rough rule of thumb.
3: Strengthening the rotator cuff
You will never strengthen your rotator cuff to any discernible level, any more than you could strengthen your eyelids. The rotator cuffs are happiest preempting movement and acting as stabilisers rather than being the main event. It does this by sucking the ball of the arm towards the socket in anticipation of movement from a bigger better placed muscle. This is sometimes called ‘concavity compression’.
This must happen before all the bigger muscles jump in, as otherwise the mechanical advantage is lost and if these stabilisers don’t fire first then they do not contract at all. Usually when someone has damaged their rotator cuff it is the slow victim, not the weak culprit. This means those heavy, violent, jerky face pulls may not be helping, nor will you reduce the chance of injury by forgetting which way gravity points by doing them internal/ external dumbbell rotations before you bench reduce the chance of an injury.
If you really want to help the rotator cuff and are not recovering from some major trauma, you will do well to remember that stability is challenged, not strengthened. Taking sets beyond failure of good form will only serve to diminish it. Let the quality of your movement be the shoulders’ saviour rather than the conditioning effects of the exercise.
4: Pulling the shoulders back and down
This is also sometimes called packing or pinning the shoulders. Perhaps one of the most cued and overcorrected teaching point we hear during most upper body exercises is to pin the shoulders back and down. At certain points of the lift this is often the place to be but rarely for the entire movement.
The shoulder joint is our most mobile, and least stable joint, hence some of the eagerness to keep things reined in. By keeping the shoulder blade pinned back and down we reduce range of motion considerably but unfortunately this does not get repaid with increased stability. Quite the opposite. When the shoulder blade can move with the upper arm the range of motion can be increased by 2:1. This coordinated movement is called scapulohumeral rhythm and contributes greatly to the overall movement of the arm.
This also helps to transfer forces, increases dynamic stability and allows for better length-tension relationships in the muscles crossing the shoulder joint.
This doesn’t mean you should let the shoulders have a carnival samba party, but instead of jamming the shoulders into one spot, we should allow the shoulder blades to glide over the ribs and into the position that is best at any given point during an exercise.
Many people today include some sort of row in their plan because they have been shamed into ‘balancing out’ the routine from all the benching they do.
This gets misunderstood in two ways. First, we do not need to train the exact equal and opposite motion. Opposing muscles do not need to be equal in size or strength for balance to be obtained. By leaning over and rowing in the same plane it makes the assumption our lats are some kind of ‘back pecs’. Rowing at this angle and with the elbows out at 90 degrees is called ‘horizontal extension’. The lats do nothing in this motion and the poor, weedy rear delta will never, ever, ever become as strong as your chest. We don’t need to mimic exercises in reverse to create balance – thank goodness, because I have no idea what we’d do about training the opposite of a squat.
The second rowing error is taking the row through too bigger range of motion. Sometimes less is more: there are cases when a bigger range of motion is not always better. If you were to follow the seam of your t shirt that starts under your armpit and goes down to your hip, you’ve more or less found how far back you want to take your elbow. Going beyond this point means the elbow goes further back but the shoulder switches and starts tilting forward. The shoulder is then hyperextended, which is a very precarious position.
Although I think this is the cause of many a shoulder injury, it is usually not felt during the row and becomes more noticeable during pressing movements similar to the low bar squat.