This is designed to be a (somewhat) brief look into the complexity of your shoulder joint and some common things that I see everyday people doing that can severely impact the ability of your muscles to control the joints in question, leading to inevitable injury. We have all seen that guy at the gym who does a set of heavy bench press and then immediately grabs his shoulder and does a pec stretch, not realizing that by doing this his next set of bench presses is not only going to be harder to control, but also may have a much increased risk of injury.
When you think about your shoulder, we have no concept of how complex it actually is. A lot of bodybuilders or laypeople simply think of “delts” and that there are three of them and they move forward, sideways and backwards. Your shoulder is actually made up of several joints, many ligaments and tendons and more than a dozen muscles to help it move. It can actually reach about 60,000 distinct positions across all three planes if you give one degree of freedom between each plane. A lot of people also assume that any problem is in their rotator cuff without even knowing what it is and what it does to protect the main joints in your shoulder.
There are some common issues about the shoulder that I want to address in this article. In a follow up I will go over some strategies that can be applied with any major shoulder dysfunction:
Number One: Your shoulder is not one joint.
When people think of the shoulder, they immediately cannot think beyond the glenohumeral joint, or where the arm bone connects into the glenoid fossa (think of it as the golf tee that the ball sits in), which is located on lateral part of the shoulder blade. There are several other joints that contribute to shoulder movement. They are (in no particular order) the acromioclavicular joint, the scapulothoracic joint, the sternoclavicular joint and some also add the subdeltoid joint, which is not a true joint in a physiology or anatomy sense. Think of the shoulder as the link between your scapula (shoulder blade), your humerus (arm bone) and your clavicle (collarbone). When you want to move any of these things, you end up moving your shoulder region and firing all of the muscles around it. As I have said before, as soon as you move a joint, you use every muscle that crosses over it.
Number Two: Your “rotator” cuff should actually be called a compressor cuff.
We all likely have had what we think is rotator cuff issues at some point in our lifting careers. Personally I have dealt with probably hundreds of rotator cuff issues with clients over the years. However, there is one fundamental truth about this complex of muscles. Usually it isn’t the muscles themselves that have the issue – it is the tendons attached to them and the ligaments involved in keeping the shoulder joint strong that cause pain and limited ability to control. Tendons and ligaments only get involved when the muscles in place go beyond their ability to control force and get outside of their allowable range. So when I’m pressing, pulling, flexing or extending or abducting or adducting my shoulder, what I really need to watch out for is going too far outside of what my joint will allow. This spares the tendons and ligaments from having to take stress and possibly straining. The rotator cuff is designed to help keep the shoulder joints under control, and assist with certain movements. It is not supposed to be worked on its own (not that anything there actually does).
Number Three: The position of my hand and wrist doesn’t make a difference.
Of course it does! Maybe it doesn’t in terms of forming a really nice tricep sweep, but it certainly matters to your shoulder joints. Think about it – if you internally or externally rotate your feet during a squat, leg press or hip extension, does it feel wrong? Would you do that? Of course not. If your hand is internally rotated during an abduction movement your shoulder will allow about 60 degrees of range before your greater tubercle smashes into your acromion. Rotate it externally; you can now get up to almost 180 degrees. Why? Because the joint now allows the part outside in order to move it properly. I can take someone with shoulder issues and usually subject their joints to force with less worry simply by adjusting the position of their hand and wrist. As an addition, how many people actually worry about their wrist position? I see people in gyms constantly having no idea how much their wrists and elbows are getting negatively impacted by simple things like the wrist going into too much extension when they grip a bar.
Number Four: We all have a dominant side, and you need to be aware of it.
You have a dominant side in your upper body that you use for fine motor control through the arm. This was developed back when you were a small child and unless you have actively worked at it or developed as an ambidextrous person it is unlikely to change in adulthood. Therefore you will always have one side that gets overworked during the day with minor things like how you carry a purse, mouse with your computer and put dishes away. Your other side sometimes gets subjected to the same things (for example when you are pressing or pulling something) and simply isn’t as strong or able to handle these fine motor skills. With beginners to exercise, I almost exclusively use unilateral movements when dealing with the body simply due to the fact that one side will always be weaker and less coordinated than the other. Typically in the lower body it is the opposite side to the upper body. Over time the body learns to do the movements, but this doesn’t mean that after a hard day at work constantly rotating your shoulder with a mouse in your hand your one side is going to be very happy if you suddenly force it to control 200 pounds. Be mindful of how your joints are feeling before you fly into weights and make sure to warm your joints up properly and deload if you need to.
These are some simple things to think about when it comes to the shoulder. It is a very complex series of joints and requires a lot of care and attention when walking into the gym and subjecting it to massive amounts of force. So, to summarize:
1) Respect your shoulder area and realize how complex it is.
2) Don’t overtax your tendons and ligaments, thinking you are working your “rotator cuff” and making it stronger.
3) Watch how you are gripping things, because it makes a difference.
4) Make sure to pay attention to your dominant and non dominant sides respectively.
If you have any questions feel free to contact me, or if you have any input into the shoulder area that you think I should cover more in the future just let me know.