During my freshman year of college, I was blindsided on a play, landed awkwardly, and slowly stood up with staggering shoulder blade pain. It felt like my arm was hanging below my waist.
Like most high school and college guys, I paid a lot of attention to the obvious aspects of athleticism: getting bigger, stronger, and faster. I didn't focus on the details, like soft tissue work, mobility and joint stability.
Throughout most of my career, I can't recall one instance of stretching, which is one of the most overlooked aspects of training among youth athletes.
Like any other testosterone-riddled young male, I continued working through any injury, training around or ignoring my discomfort. That was dumb. The injury set me back about 4 weeks. Within two years, I'd separated my left shoulder and later dislocated both shoulders. I could have avoided a lot of pain if I had taken the necessary steps.
The Shoulder, Explained
The shoulder is an intricate system of tiny muscles that can place the upper extremities into 1,600 different positions. The shoulder joint itself is made of three bony structures: the humerus, scapula, and clavicle. They're all encompassed within an even more intricate system of connective tissues, like the labrum and shoulder capsule that help stabilize the shoulder joint. Then there are the major muscles in the area: the rotator cuffs, trapezius, levators, rhomboids, and serratus anterior.
One of the biggest predictors of shoulder injuries actually arises from the position of your neck. If you have poor posture, you're at risk.
Rounding the shoulders, upper back and neck forward makes the muscles along your backside loose and inactive, while simultaneously creating tightness along your front side. This limits the ability of your shoulders to raise your arm overhead—which in turn limits your ability to catch a ball, rebound or spike.
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To avoid this issue, you need to develop strength in your upper back. But before you can develop strength, you must make sure you have good flexibility in the surrounding muscle groups, so you can use them properly.
To develop flexibility in your neck and shoulders, try these four stretches, holding each for at least two minutes:
- Lateral Neck Stretch
- Forward Flexion Neck Stretch
- Straight Arm Chest Stretch
- Bent Over, Lean Away Back Stretch
A big issue with any joint problem is that it can sneak up on you. If you're not sure what feels right or wrong, an injury can occur seemingly out of the blue. It could be the result of overuse, sudden trauma (like being blindsided and falling) or a muscular imbalance. These problems lead to bigger issues like instability and tendinits or bursitis—all of which can be avoided if you start to feel pain in front of or on top of the shoulder.
Once you have good flexibility, you can add shoulder-specific rehab exercises to strengthen the smaller, lesser-known but important muscles surrounding the joint. Check out these sample videos, which work to strengthen specific areas of the shoulder.
Perform a minimum of 3 sets of at least 15 repetitions per exercise with Blackburns and Face Pulls, and hold Supermans for at least 30 seconds.
You can use this as a guide for rehabilitation, or pick and choose exercises to perform in your weight training as accessory work or as a warm-up before strength training.
Exercises to Avoid
You can't train well if your joints don't function well. Poor exercise selection and technique can hinder joint mobility.
If an exercise causes an ache or pain, it's probably not good for you. Here are a few exercises to avoid when shoulder issues ensue:
- Overhead Press
- Upright Rows
- Olympic Lifts
- Lateral Raises
- Bench Press
- Anything behind the neck
Here are two weight room tips you can take with you to modify shoulder exercises so that they work better for you:
- When performing upper-body exercises like Pull-Ups and Shoulder Presses, use versions that allow you to have a neutral grip, meaning your palms face one another. Dumbbells, cambered bars, and inside grips allow you to do this. A neutral grip creates a safer position for the shoulder joint to operate from, because it keeps the muscles surrounding the joint compact.
- For every set of pushing exercises, perform 2 or 3 pulling exercises.
TIP: Pair opposing muscles group in back to back fashion (superset). This keeps the pace of your workout high and makes the selected exercises more effective because of the localized muscle pump. Try this pairing and you'll see exactly what I mean:
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