5 Reasons Your Shoulder Is Jacked Up and Not Jacked Part I

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We work with a lot of overhead athletes at Cressey Performance – in particular baseball players – and it’s no coincidence that we deal with, address, work around, and (hopefully) fix a lot of shoulder issues ranging from the acute like AC joint issues and external/internal impingement to the more “oh shit factor” scenarios like shoulder separations and post surgery situations.

And using the word “acute” in this instance isn’t to downplay things like impingement (as anyone who’s had to deal with a chronic case will think otherwise), but rather it’s just to put things into perspective that some shoulder pathologies take a little more attention to detail and TLC compared to others.

As an example I can’t tell you how many times someone’s walked into the facility complaining of consistent shoulder pain preparing for the worst, only to demonstrate to them that their push-up technique is god-awful.

I didn’t need to resort to bells, whistles, and smoke machines or take a page out of Professor Dumbledore’s Magic Book of Bedazzling Hexes and Awesome Shoulder Remedies (on sale now through Amazon!) to show them how to perform a push-up correctly and to not piss their shoulder off further.

Unfortunately, it’s not always so cut and dry.  For many people out there – average Joe’s and meat heads in particular – living their day to day life with shoulder pain or discomfort is sometimes second nature.  Analogous to riding a bike, putting your left sock on before the right, or reaching for that second cup of coffee. Or fifth, don’t worry I won’t judge.

What’s more, some view it as a proverbial right of passage or badge of honor, as if living with daily pain comes with the territory for those who spend their free time lifting heavy things.

While true, there is some semblance of “risk” involved, and many will undoubtedly have a few bumps and bruises along the way (we’re lifting weights here not doing origami), just “dealing” with pain  and sucking it up isn’t an option in my book.

That said, not many things can derail one’s progress in the gym like a banged up shoulder.  Okay, a Zombie apocalypse or a raging case of explosive diarrhea rank fairly high on the list for sure.  But a nagging shoulder injury bites the big one, too.

Below, while not an exhaustive list, are some of the more common “reasons” why your shoulder may be hating you.

1.  No, Seriously, Your Technique Is Horrible

I won’t beat a dead horse here, but it stands to reason that half the reason your shoulder hurts all the time is because your exercise technique is less than exemplary.

I know, I know:  you’ve been lifting weights since stone washed jeans were considered a cool fashion trend, and there’s no conceivable way you’re doing something incorrectly.

Well, I’m here to tell you otherwise!

Taking the time to actually learn how to perform a push-up correctly or how to bench press correctly – or at the very least tweak things to make them more “shoulder friendly” – will go long ways in keeping your shoulders healthy.

It’s akin to lightly tapping your thumb with a hammer.  While seemingly not a big deal at first, before long, it’s excruciating.

Constantly performing your exercises with shitty technique day after day, week after week, and month after month will eventually lead to some bad things happening.  Namely a shoulder ouchie.

And this goes for rowing variations, too.  You’d be surprised as to how many people butcher these on a day to day basis.

A perfect example would be something as innocuous as a face pull.

* Video courtesy of the one and only Mike Robertson

I was training at a commercial gym not too long ago and watched a gentleman perform this exercise with the exact opposite form Mike demonstrates above.

For starters, he held the rope with a pronated (overhand grip) which locks you into more internal rotation and thus compromises the acromion space.

Secondly, he’d allow his scapulae to go into posterior tilt with each rep, and worse he’d substitute scapular retraction with an excessive forward head posture.

While I’m sure he had good intentions for including the exercise in his program, the execution was less than to be desired and was probably causing more harm than good.

And this goes for just about every rowing variation out there.  You’d be surprised as to how many people butcher technique and aren’t even close to performing them correctly.

Take the time do things right, and your shoulder will thank you.

 2.  Your Program Kinda Sucks

More to the point: it’s the structure of the program thats sucks. It’s common in the strength and conditioning community to talk about programming imbalances, especially as it pertains to the upper body.

Dissecting most training programs, it’s not uncommon to see significant favoritism or preponderance towards pushing exercises compared to pulling.  It’s no secret:  guys like to bench press.  And as such, many develop muscular imbalances (overactive/stiff pecs and weak/inhibited upper back musculature) which results in a less than happy shoulder.

To counteract this, many fitness professionals will advocate more pulling motions compared to pushing – oftentimes to the tube of a 2:1 or even 3:1 ratio.

In other words: for every pushing exercise prescribed, they’ll “counteract” it with two to three pulling exercises.

This is sound advice, and definitely a step in the right direction for many trainees.  But we’re omitting another less obvious (yet equally as important) component, and it’s something Eric highlighted last year and that we’ve been addressing at Cressey Performance for a while now.

And that is:

While anterior/posterior imbalances are important to address, not many people give any credence to superior/inferior imbalances.

Translated into English, we also have to be cognizant of the interplay between upward and downward rotation.  More and more (especially with our baseball guys, but even in the general population as well) we’re seeing guys walk in with overly depressed shoulders. For visual reference, cue picture to the right.

Most baller t-shirt, ever ================>

This can spell trouble for those whose livelihood revolve around the ability to get their arms over their head (baseball players) as the downward rotators of the scapulae (levator, rhomboids, and especially the lats) are kicking into overdrive and really messing with the congruency and synergy between the scapulae, humeral head, glenoid fossa, and acromion process.

And this doesn’t just pertain to overhead athletes either.  We’re seeing this quite a bit in the general population as well, as we as fitness professionals have been shoving down their throat  “shoulder blades together and down, shoulder blades together and down” for years now.

In this case, some dedicated upper trap work would be advisable so as to encourage more scapular UPWARD rotation.  And no, relax, I’m NOT referring to barbell shrugs.

These wouldn’t be useful because there’s no “real” scapular upward rotation involved, and you’re doing nothing but encouraging more depression anyways.

Instead drills like Forearm Wall Slides with Shrug;

And Back to Wall Shoulder Flexion will work wonders.

Too, it may come down to toning down things like heavy deadlifts, farmer carries, and anything that entails holding onto heavy dumbbells (since all will pull the shoulder girdle down promote significant shoulder depression) in favor of more overhead/waiter carries, Goblet variations (squats, reverse lunges, etc), and barbell related work.

Just some food for thought anyways.

And that’s it for today. Be sure to check back tomorrow for some more insight and conversation on why your shoulder is jacked up and not jacked.

SPOILER ALERT: your shoulder may not be the issue in the first place!

*Smoke bomb, smoke bomb.  Exit stage left*

Also, as an a side (and giving credit where it’s due):  Title inspiration came from THIS article I read a while back on Elitefts.com.

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