How to Build Healthy Shoulders in Functional Fitness
The following is an excerpt about shoulder health in functional fitness from our P360 FCC Coach’s Certification Manual. We will be hosting our first FCC weekend, open to the public for the first time in five years, November 3rd – November 5th.
The shoulder is the most mobile, and also unstable joint in the body. This is a combination that means we must be on our A-game when it comes to training it.
Shoulders, their mobility, stability and health are a complex game as how well they function can be tied to a bunch of different areas. Our pecs, lats, traps, triceps and t-spine all play a role in how it functions, especially in the game of overhead lifting which everyone loves.
Today is going to be a rather in depth look at the shoulder, and ways we can keep it healthy and setting us to work overhead for a long, long time.
The shoulder complex is generally described as containing four joints:
- The Glenohumeral (GH) Joint – Where your humerus (upper arm) meets your scapula (shoulder blade). This is the “ball and socket” joint that is the most mobile joint in the body. The GH joint is often the symptom of shoulder injuries, but rarely the cause.
- The Scapulothoracic (STh) joint – Where the scapula moves on your ribcage. This is a very important area most commonly associated with injury prevention given its association with the scapula and all of the surrounding muscles.
- The Acromioclavicular (AC) joint – Where your shoulder blade meets your collarbone.
- The Sternoclavicular (SC) joint – Where your collarbone meets your sternum.
Requirements for Healthy Overhead Pressing
The ability to establish healthy pressing overhead requires the shoulder pass the following check points. As Kevin Bacon says in a Few Good Men, “These are the facts. And they, are undisputed.”
- Have a Strong Foundation in the Lats and Core – Distal mobility requires proximal stability. A shoulder cannot function to it’s proper level without a strong core supporting it. This is priority number one. If the muscles around the mobile shoulder GH joint are tight or weak, the GH joint will try and overcompensate for them and this is when you see compromised positioning and shoulder injury.
- Proper Thoracic Spine Mobility – Can’t be too flexed or extended, which will affect rib cage positioning, and ultimately limit shoulder mobility. With the shoulder, mobility comes first. Then, we add stability.
- Stability in the Rotator Cuff – These muscles are critical for stabilizing the most unstable joint in the body (shoulder).
- Balanced Scapular Muscles – The scapula and the humerus (upper arm) always move in coordination with one another. This is known as scapulo-humeral rhythm. They are a pair, so it’s important that balance in the musculature of the scapula exist, as to not create a faulty position of the scapular, which throws off shoulder movement and function. The scapula is also largely responsible for transferring force from the legs, to the upper extremities.
Major Movement Patterns of the Scapula
- Elevation – ie, shrugging in weightlifting pulls. Upper Traps and Levator Scapulae.
- Depression – the opposite pattern, a Farmer Walk. Lower Traps.
- Retraction – squeezing the scapulae inward at the end of any row. Middle Traps and Rhomboids.
- Protraction – The opposite pattern, rolling forward at the start of a row with the elbow extended. Serratus Anterior.
- Upward Rotation – Arms moving overhead, lockout of a jerk. Upper and Middle Traps.
- Downward Rotation – The opposite pattern, pulling the chest to the bar in a pull-up. Rhomboids and Lower Traps.
Certain gym movements are more dominant towards a specific action of the scapula.As you can see, if you are too dominant in a few areas without creating balance, you run the risk of hard-wiring only a few scapular movements, which will likely lead to an imbalance of muscle development in the scapula. This can work it’s way into the joints of the shoulder and cause injury or faulty movement pattern.
Beginners and Overhead Work?
One of the primary reasons we do not take beginners and immediately overhead press them with the fixed shoulder position of a barbell, is they often lack all four of those requirements (strong core, thoracic mobility, strong rotator cuff, balanced scapular stabilizers). In reality, we would love months and months to develop and reverse poor shoulder posture and function, but we do the best we can with what new athletes will give us. The best starting point is a set of dumbbells and an understanding of why taking it slow is king.
Let’s break down all four requirements.
#1. Strong Foundation in the Lats and Core
Remember the phrase distal mobility requires proximal stability. Refer to our article on both the lats and the core to better understand why they must be performing optimally for the shoulder to in turn perform optimally. If you don’t feel like reading them, then understand that weakness in your lats and anterior core will never produce a properly functioning shoulder. The best analogy is to think about trying to generate power and stability off an unstable surface. It’s not happening. It would be like trying to fire a hunting rifle one-handed.
The lats and the core must be strong for the shoulder to be healthy. This is non-negotiable.
#2. Proper Thoracic Spine Mobility
The human body is one large complex interaction and interdependence between various parts. This is very evident when looking at the shoulder complex and the thoracic spine. Healthy overhead positioning starts in the thoracic spine, particularly, whether or not the T-spine can extend will have great impact on rib cage position.
Rib cage position is very important to shoulder health, because if the rib cage position is faulty, then it is simply not possible for the scapulae, and the humerus (upper arm bone) to to avoid that line of fault when moving under load.
The humerus and the scapula always move in cooperation with one another, known as “scapulo-humeral rhythm”.
So, as we move forward remember the important connection between the rib cage, the scapula, and the shoulder.
Too Much Thoracic Flexion
You must be able to extend their T-spine in order to enjoy healthy overhead pressing. Think about it like this. If you cannot extend, it means they are “locked in” a position of too much rounded flexion (that upper bunch back look). It is only common sense to know that a shoulder, which sits on top of that rounded position, cannot move free and easy in its normal range, right? That flexed T-spine has messed with the natural order of the scapulo-humeral rhythm.