By Dave Thomas, CPT-NSCA
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. Even our hips and ankles are contributors, as tightness in the base can set off a chain reaction in each joint along the way all the way to the top where an overhead grip can be disrupted. If any one area is particularly immobile or tight it will adversely effect shoulder function.
Sit all day long? You’ll most likely have shoulder blades that slink forward all day long leading to tight external rotators, and most likely either the onset formation or full blown kyphotic spine we absolutely cannot have in successful and healthy weight lifting.
You could make the very strong argument that the shoulder is the most important joint to keep healthy. If you possess bad mobility in your shoulder then push-ups, bench press, push press, snatches, overhead squats, handstand push-ups and all of their cousins will be inherently flawed and potentially damaging.
Correcting shoulder immobility is absolutely mission critical for any serious overhead lifting.
There are few people in the industry I respect more than Eric Cressey when it comes to the topic of shoulder health. I have a rudimentary understanding of anatomy but am by no means an expert, so I really lean on the likes of Cressey, Gray Cook and Kelly Starrett to absorb knowledge. Eric trains baseball players, as a former player myself I know how much respect the shoulder must be given to that sport and Eric’s resources have been a staple in my programming for many years.
First Things First
Before you even get to mobility and soft tissue work, there are a few tips that everyone can apply to their training to either maintain proper function or start paving the way for improved movement.
- Avoid Pain – If you were at work and your mouse shocked you every time you touched it, would you continue? Or would you walk down to the IT room and have one of the tech guys condescendingly replace it for you? If a movement causes you pain then stop immediately. Inform your coaches and we’ll take a look at why this is and prescribe you an indefinite substitution for as long as needed if we need to. There are way too many exercises out there to do any one that routinely makes you hate life. It’s amazing what common sense can do.
- Stand More – Standing improves your chances at better posture and upright t-spine. When you sit, you hunch. When you hunch, you become immobile in the shoulders.
- “Elbows Tucked, or Shoulders are Fucked” – This is a good reminder to place emphasis on tucking the elbows by the side on all pressing movements including push-ups, bench press and to a degree, even push press. The elbows should ideally never flare out for any exercise.
- Respect Your Mobility – Understand that few people start out being able to do everything, and for some people, overhead movements is a work in progress. Not everyone can jump right into snatching, OH squatting and even pressing. It takes a very high degree of mobility to handle stabilized overhead movement like snatching. Sometimes you can be strong as hell but the positioning of certain movements can be difficult based on mobility restrictions. Take Pritz, for example. He is in the leader board in many lifts, but ask him to OH squat and it’s going to be difficult for him. So, he is smart. He avoids it until his shoulders are capable, and channels energy elsewhere. Chris Brosig is another great example. He has learned everything very slowly, and while it’s still a work in progress the base he has laid for himself will allow his future. There is plenty of time to learn new movements and become mobile. Not everyone is awesome at everything at the onset. Most people are woefully unprepared to catch and stabilize weight overhead as they start out and there’s not a thing wrong with that. Resist the temptation to get your black belt on day one and allow yourself the chance to develop slowly.
- Keep the Shoulders “Packed” – In every single movement keep a razor sharp focus on squeezing the shoulder blades together and not letting them protract forward. This is most applicable to rows, pushups and swings but can also come into play on bench press and pull-ups, as well. Don’t let your shoulder drift forward at end range of motion. You can still get full range of motion and complete elbow extension with a packed shoulder. Here’s how.
Soft Tissue & Mobility Work
Okay, so now that you have complete focus on the actual movements down, we can move onto throwing some rims on it.
From personal experience, very basic static stretching tends to have the most immediate impact on mobility. I love the myriad of resources available on mobility these days, but honestly, some are just way too advanced than what most people need. Old school gym class stretching of the muscles where you hold in a static position can do wonders. No real need to overcomplicate things on this end.
After that, these basic release and rolling drills are great.
Triceps Roll Out
We used this same exercise to help our front rack positioning, so even though the verbiage is tied in with that, this exercise is hugely beneficial for overhead shoulder mobility and health. Typically speaking, the more painful the more it helps when it comes to soft tissue release and this one, is pain. But suck it up and endure it because it pays off.
Improving Scapulae Function
Here’s a few of our favorite drills to do help tie everything together and work through overhead mobility “sticking” points.
We’ve given you guys a good start today. Along with these videos, we highly recommend Eric Cressey’s Shoulder Saver series and it’s also recommended you search for opinions outside of ours, as well.
It’s important to understand that bad shoulder mobility is created over time, often times many years and usually has nothing to do with the actual shoulder.
It can take a while to successfully unwind. It’s not as if you sit poorly and sedentary for ten years, slap a bunch of mobility drills into your repetoire for a month and you’re healed. Unwinding immobility is a lot like treating an illness. Let the treatment run it’s course. It takes some time. So be patient, stick to the process and continue to listen to your body on movements.
Lastly, a thank you to Craig Tortorici’s cousin serving in Afghanistan who follows us while serving our country. Stay safe, and I hope this article helps you with those snatches, brother.
Dave Thomas is co-owner of Performance360 in Mission Beach, San Diego.