It’s my intention to avoid vague terms as much as possible. I don’t think I ever said in a class: “Open your heart” or “Spread your wings” as these actions cannot literary take place. How about though develop “stable shoulders”? The truth is that this is also a vague term. The shoulders can move in 8 directions and the scapula (also known as shoulder blade) in 6. Which clearly raises the questions:
• In which of the 6 x 8 = 48 positions are we trying to stabilize our shoulders?
• In what range?
• And how about the transition between them?
How to deal with shoulder injuries?
The reality is that there is no need to perform 1,000 exercises to improve shoulder stability. I have helped by now ~ a dozen individuals with shoulder pain (chronic or acute) and the list below is the order at which I approach their rehabilitation:
- Increase strength in the major muscles in the area at whatever range is available. That involves deltoids, triceps & lats, although ideally: serratus and traps are also addressed. This is a great exercise to start with: overhead shoulder presses.
- Improve flexibility in the shoulder joint, focusing mostly on external, internal rotation and extension.
- Strengthen the rotator cuff. A classic exercise is this.
How to avoid shoulder pain?
To avoid pain or injury in the shoulders we need to perform some prehab work on them. The prehab will vary significantly from one individual to the other. The shoulder demands of a cyclist, Olympic lifter, basketball player, or yogi are significantly different, and providing all of them with the same program is unlikely to go far.
If I was to give an umbrella answer to the question I would say the movement most commonly performed needs to be done with some resistance and in a full range of movement. For a basketball player that would mean for example bouncing overhead a heavy ball against the wall. In the video below you can find a series of exercises to use in your prehab routine.
The cornerstone of shoulder stability: Rotator Cuff
The rotator cuff consists of 4 muscles that act as stabilizers for the shoulder joint. While they are not the be-all-end-all of shoulder health they should definitely not be overlooked. In the video above you can get an insight on which movements each of these muscles facilitate + 2 exercises to strengthen them.
One thing that I didn’t mention in the video: The rotator cuff NEEDS to be challenged both with stretching and strengthening exercises in :
• with the trunk in different planes
• with the shoulders & shoulder blades in different positions
if someone has aspirations for advanced poses in yoga. Of course the rotator cuff work can also be sport-specific.
Why shoulder mobility should precede most upper body workouts?
1. If we look into the 5 body’s main movements: squatting, hinging, carrying, pushing & pulling, with the exception of the first one (& some exceptions of the 2nd & 3rd) they all depend on shoulder stability.
2. The shoulder flexibility determines the handgrip in many instances. Poor shoulder mobility will jeopardize both wrist and elbow health.
3. Due to its proximity with the upper back and chest, shoulder work complements the function of the pec and upper back.
Take home message
• Worrying if your elbows are in or out in chaturanga, when you can not take 10 push-ups; makes little sense.
• If you have: sensitive wrists, aching neck or pain between the shoulder blade, chances are your shoulders can benefit from some strength work.
• If you are a new mother or pregnant woman and you “don’t trust your shoulders” do something about it as your baby will need to be carried for a while.
• If the delts and lats are weak you need to strengthen them alongside the rotator cuff. Focusing on just the rotator cuff will not get you stable shoulders. These muscles are big for a reason.
• Yoga offers many poses and transitions to strengthen your shoulders. If using weights is not against your religion you can use both.