The shoulder girdle. It’s complicated: 3 true joints, 1 muscular joint, little inherent stability, much inherent mobility all mixed together with over one billion (I counted) exercises. A perfect storm is the result leading to pain, injury, confusion and frustration for a whole bunch of people who just want to train, work out perform better.
If you have current shoulder issues, want to prevent future problems or break through a training plateau, I want to lay out two simple concepts that can help you out as you move forward with strength training. The concepts are simple, but the execution is not. I treat some extremely fit and athletic people and most of them struggle with one or both of these rules.
FYI: shoulder blade = scapula
THE SHOULDER RULES:
- When your elbow is near or moving towards your body, bring your shoulder blade back and down into the “set” position. (think Big, Open chest)
- As your elbow moves out away from your body, provide the force from your shoulder to externally rotate it.
Now let’s dig in deep to each rule.
- Rule 1. When your elbow is near or moving towards your body, bring your shoulder blade back and down into the “set" position.
In the sports medicine and strength and conditioning worlds, this scapular position is often called the “set” position. The idea here is that we need to place the shoulder in an optimal position so that we don’t put too much stress on any one part of the shoulder and that our muscles and joints are in the optimal place to perform. What typically happens with inexperience, mobility issues or poor control is that as the elbows move towards the body (i.e. top of the pull up or bottom of the push up) the shoulder blades tip forward as well as up towards the ears putting a great amount of stress and strain on the front and top of the shoulder. This is bad.
Picture yourself at the bottom of your push-up position; your shoulders should be pulled back away from the ground and also down away from your ears. This is good. Same goes with the pull up. As you near the top of your pull up, the elbows are coming towards your side, so your shoulder blades need to be pulled back and down. Get it?
- Rule 2. As your elbow moves out away from your body, provide the force from your shoulder to externally rotate it.
1. This can help avoid the onset of or decrease shoulder pain. There is not a lot of space between the ball and socket shoulder joint and the hard protective shelf above it, called your acromion process. By externally rotating your shoulder during overhead movements, you maintain more space between these structures which decreases the pinching of the soft tissues in this space. That pinching is often called “impingement” and can be the cause of that all too common, non-traumatic shoulder pain.
2. This creates a more stable shoulder. The external rotation will take out the slack of the connective tissue at the joint capsule increasing the static stability. The external rotation of the humerus (long bone of the arm) also facilitates an improved socket position by aiding in upward rotation of the scapula (shoulder blade). This also improves stability by creating boney shelf for the ball of the socket to rest on when pressing or sustaining loads above shoulder height.
This concept is much easier to learn and apply when dealing with “open chain” exercises. These exercises allow your hands to move freely and independently so the applied rotational force will cause rotation of the shoulders and of your hands which is easier to see and feel. For instance, a vertical press with dumbbells will be easier than with the barbell.
These shoulder rules sound pretty easy to follow. However, they are often very challenging if you lack mobility, control or if you throw fatigue and heavy loads into the picture. You can probably think of a movement or exercise that this may not apply to, but for most strength and body weight movements these two rules will keep you safe, help break through plateaus and likely decrease pain. Remember, retooling a movement may result in a temporary decrease in performance but in the long run performing movements the right way will always get you closer to your genetic potential.