Targeting Common Area’s of Upper Body Movement Dysfunction
Article By Dreadnought Strength
If there’s any one area of the body that tends to take an absolute beating in strongman, it’s the shoulders. Not only do they get abused for all pressing work, but they are involved in almost all events – needing to stabilise and hold potentially hundreds of kilos for the farmers walk, reach and squeezing for atlas stones and also having to get into extreme externally rotated positions while doing a yoke walk to name a few. This is a sister article to accompany Targeting Common Area’s of Lower Body Movement Dysfunction, and can be done on your ‘off’ days to ensure you stay moving and healthy! With all that being said, the issues that I see for strongman and women with shoulder/upper body health are very similar to those across all strength sports, and I’m hoping this simple warmup will go a long way to getting your shoulders functioning better.
Why would a strength coach be that interested in shoulder health, you might ask? Two important reasons:
- if there are niggling shoulder injuries (particularly those that cause pain while pressing), the body will limit pressing strength to avoid further issues. No better is this demonstrated than with a friend of mine with a torn shoulder labrum whose bench hasn’t moved in 3 years, despite adding almost 200lbs to both his squat and deadlift. Until that’s fixed, I dare say his bench won’t move at all! While that’s an acute injury, irritation of any of the shoulder structures will result in the same issues.
- the healthier your shoulders are and the better they function, the more often you will be able to press. Pressing strength, in my opinion, is largely determined by muscle mass, and the biggest driver of increasing muscle mass is being able to handle higher volumes of training.
The much-maligned rotator cuff is often blamed for the majority of shoulder issues not caused by acute injury (ie. shoulder dislocation) or by general wear and tear (AC joint degeneration, etc), however in my experience and reviewing the diagnoses of clients with these issues it seems to stem from something entirely different – poor stabilisation of the scapula (shoulder blades). This issue is more complex than just stabilisation, as structures such as the thoracic spine and powerful muscle groups can also be involved (such as the lats, traps and biceps) in the dysfunction which can lead to everything from shoulder pain, to elbow tendinitis, to lumbar spine flexion/extension cycles while squatting. Let’s first look at the structures involved in this complex issue.
- Your scapula (shoulder blades) are a pair of triangular shaped bones that form the posterior (back) bony aspect of the shoulder joint. Rather than being a fixed structure, the scapula ‘float’ on the thoracic spine while serving as an attachment point for 3 separate groups of muscles including the rotator cuff, the muscles responsible for adduction/abduction of the arm (part of the biceps, triceps and deltoid) and also the scapula stabilisers (rhomboids, trapezius, serratus and levator scapulae). Due to it’s complexity and proximity to tendons, incorrect stabilisation or function of the scapula can lead to a whole host of problems. A common issue and tell-tale sign that the scapula aren’t correctly being stabilised while bench pressing is one elbow flaring out considerably more than the other, and on further inspection it can be seen that this is because the lifter is shrugging on one side – the body will always try to stabilise structures in whatever way it can (in this case with the upper trap), which isn’t always for the best!
- Rather than being one physical muscle or tendon, the rotator cuff comprises of 4 separate muscles (infraspinatus, supraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis) that all work together to externally or internally rotate the humerus, while keeping the head in the correct position inside the gleno-humeral joint. Due to their location, these four muscles can often become impinged (by getting compressed by other bony structures of the shoulder), develop tendinitis or tendinopathy (from overuse, or incorrect loading patterns) or develop tiny tears (either from injury, or repeated extreme loading). Quite often, these muscles themselves won’t hurt unless you’re directly prodding them, but will refer pain to other muscles. For example, bicep tendinitis is often given as a cause for shoulder issues, but the problem may actually be tendinopathy of the supraspinatus – once this is alleviated, the biceps no longer hurt!
- The thoracic spine comprises of 12 vertebrae that make up the ‘middle’ part of the spine (with the cervical above, and lumbar below). Unlike the lumbar spine that is designed to be stable (relatively immobile while loaded, braced by the ‘trunk’ musculature which you can read more about over at Ab Training for Strongman), the thoracic spine is designed to be mobile through flexion, extension and rotation. If the thoracic spine is immobile or being pulled into excessive flexion through poor posture or tight muscle groups (think lats, biceps or pecs), it is highly likely that the scapula will no longer glide over the rib cage in the way they are meant to. As an example of this, try sitting with a hunched over upper back and reaching overhead – now imagine doing this loaded with a few hundred pounds! If the thoracic spine is immobile, there’s a good chance the mobility will be gained elsewhere; generally the lumbar spine (which we do not want).
Although that is only a brief rundown of the mechanisms for dysfunction from a personal trainers limited understanding, it can be easily seen why improving these problems will go a long way to helping you deal with upper body issues. The following release, mobilisation and activation program is designed to release the muscle groups that could possibly be leading to an immobile thoracic spine, mobilise the thoracic spine directly and shoulder complex itself, as well as activate the muscles responsible for correct scapula stabilisation. It is possible to scale the movements as your proficiency increases but remember – this is patterning work, it is NOT something we are looking to max out with! Take your time and ensure that you’re performing each movement correctly; if you are unsure, find yourself a good exercise physiologist or great personal trainer to work with. A big thanks to Alesha Pimm for being my mobility model for the day.
3 minutes rockback or 90/90 breathing. Ensure complete inhale and exhale to fully inflate and deflate the lungs.
Supinated pec/bicep/forearm stretch – 2x20s each side
3 way pec PNF – 3 angles each side, 10s each
Infraspinatus Trigger – 20s each side
Overhead Lat Stretch with band – 30s each side
Thoracic Spine Foam Roll – 30s
Side-Lying Thoracic Rotation – 10 each side
Shoulder Dislocations (not allowing your shoulders to go all the way into internal rotation) – 20 reps
Banded 1st Rib Mobilisation – 10 each side
Band Pull Apart with Shoulder Protraction (reach forward and stay this way while pulling apart – big thanks to Darkside Strength for this one) – 20 reps
Overhead Barbell Shrug – 20 reps
Standing Horizontal Row w/ external rotation (make sure elbows aren’t dropping) – 10 reps
Chest Supported Rear Delt Row – 12 reps
Incline Shoulder Raise – 10 reps
As always, start light and make sure your are actively concentrating on the muscles you’re aiming to work. Heavier isn’t necessarily better! As always, I am not a health professional, so please don’t take any of this as a diagnosis or exhaustive list of prescriptive exercises – it’s simply what I do with my clients to ensure everybody remains healthy and can get strong.
Drew is a competitive powerlifter and strongman, who realized that strength training had a massive positive effect on other areas of his life. After realizing he was much better at teaching others how to be lift than lifting himself, he decided to step down off the platform and create Dreadnought Strength – an online and in-person coaching business that dedicates itself to allowing regular people to experience the transformative power of strength training. He is available for online coaching from Starting Strongman.
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