Taking Care of Your Shoulders

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by Devin Sarno, NSCA-CPT

Your shoulder is a unique joint in the fact that it has the greatest range of motion of any other joint in your body and there is a large amount of muscles that either make up the shoulder, or originate/insert at some area of the shoulder. However, with this being the case, your shoulder may also be more susceptible to injury as well. With all of that range of motion, there are a great number of positions that you need to be strong in. At the same time, some of those positions may also be contraindicated; in which case you will probably want to avoid training in those positions. With that being said, the shoulder accounts for a large amount of injuries associated with exercise. What should you do to help keep your shoulders injury-free during your training?

In my opinion, the most important area of focus in keeping your shoulders healthy is technique. Working out is great and has a significant effect on quality of life, but that positive effect can be lessened if you are getting hurt do to using poor technique. While this applies to any exercise, we are mainly talking about using correct form in your upper exercises. Whether you are pressing, rowing, or doing another form of upper body pulling, you absolutely need to be doing it correct before increasing the weight and stress of the movement. Not sure if you are doing something right? Ask a fitness professional! Even go to youtube if you need to (however be careful what you watch here; make sure the video is done by a qualified professional). Whatever you do, don’t continue to add weight to an exercise that you are not performing in a functionally correct manner. This will only exacerbate the poor form and put you at a much higher risk for injury.

The most important factor (that is 24-hours-a-day risk factor and not just important during your gym time) is posture. Now we are probably all guilty of this, but try to avoid rounding those shoulders forward or hunching over when you are sitting or standing. Too much time in this position can cause some tightening of the pectoralis minor, which is an important muscle in shoulder stabilization. In turn, additional muscles of the shoulder have to work harder in stabilization, and again leave your more susceptible to injury. If you regularly are cognizant of your posture, keeping your shoulders back, and adding some rear deltoid exercise into your training, then you will be in a much better place as far as shoulder health is concerned.

Getting back to our work in the gym, don’t ignore training your rotator cuff and make sure your train your traps too! The rotator cuff includes four muscles, often referred to as your SITS muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis). These muscles are significant in shoulder support and stabilization, and are one of the most common sources of injury in the shoulder. Often times, individuals may not even have a pain response indicating any sort of issue in the rotator cuff. Training these muscles aren’t going to be the exercises that wow your fellow gym-goers, but it will be significant to maintaining shoulder health. On the other hand, the traps are a little bit more of a “show” muscle and are also important in protecting your shoulder; particularly the low traps. The low traps are probably not targeted quite as often, but are easier to train than you’d think. Especially when you are doing pull-ups or pulldowns, pull your shoulder blades down and together to activate those lower traps and make them work.

Two other quick factors to consider are the plains you are pressing in and sleeping. As far as the pressing goes, make sure that bench pressing is not the only pressing that you are doing. Many people believe the bench press is the root cause of their shoulder pain, but this is likely only the case if you are not doing any overhead pressing. This allows your scapula to move freely and remain mobile, as opposed to if you are just bench pressing and constantly pinning them down to the bench. As far as the sleeping goes, if you are sore or tender at all just make sure that you are not sleeping on that side. It is pretty simple, but if you aren’t aware of it you can potentially cause greater issues than what already exist.

Lastly, make sure you warm your shoulders up before training them hard! While that should go without saying, I know that another thing most of us are probably guilty of is jumping right into our workout without warming up any of our movements. Overall, just make sure you are making yourself aware of some of these things and addressing them when issues arise. Most importantly, never sacrifice technique to add weight and try your best to maintain proper posture. Beyond that, do not dismiss any minor pain. You can quickly turn a small problem into a big one if you ignore it and try to train through it. Take good care of those shoulders, and you will be happy and healthy during your upper body training!