The wrong way to strengthen your shoulder

by | Jun 20, 2011 | Exercise, Fitness & Rehab | 0 comments

muscles of shoulder blade

Many athletes and physically active people experience shoulder problems – pain, weakness, or stiffness in some combination.

Maybe you’re one of them – your shoulder’s injured from throwing a football or swinging a tennis racket, too many laps in the pool, or simply trying to manage an unruly dog who’s constantly jerking on the leash.

Even if you’ve been lucky enough not to throw your shoulder out of whack from activity, there’s another risk to avoid – inactivity.

Your shoulder can also wear down from long hours spent tapping computer keys, scrolling with your mouse, and generally not getting out to play.

You’re not alone if you have shoulder problems. Orthopedists estimate that about 600,000 shoulder surgeries are performed in the United States each year.  And the cases that require surgery are only a small fraction – the worst of the worst.

In light of these dismal statistics, strengthening your shoulder muscles sounds like a good idea. Unfortunately, every sports trainer, fitness instructor, and physical therapist seems to have his or her own strategy for strengthening shoulder muscles.

And approaching shoulder exercise the wrong way can backfire.

Where Danger Lurks

You probably already know that the shoulder joint is considered a classic “ball and socket” joint.

The end of the arm bone (they call it the “humerus”) is the ball.  Brilliantly sculpted to work in harmony with the ball, a cavity on the shoulder blade (the “scapula”) forms the socket.

Anatomy of Rotator Cuff Muscles

Anatomy of Rotator Cuff Muscles

But danger lurks just a few millimeters above this harmonious geometry. Less than half an inch above the humerus there’s a bony shelf formed by the clavicle and scapula.

Even while its gyrating through its full range of motion, your arm bone has to fit underneath this bony outcropping.

But wait – there’s more.

There also has to be room for the tendons of the rotator cuff muscles. It’s easy to picture this space getting constricted, and when it does, your rotator cuff is sure to experience friction and inflammation.

The Key to Rotator Cuff Rehabilitation (And Avoiding Problems in the First Place)

You’ve got to keep your arm bone in a centered position within the shoulder socket.

If the humerus rides up in the joint space, you’re going to experience impingement against the overlying shelf formed by the clavicle and acromion. That will unleash a cascade of problems.

That means you need to develop balanced strength in the muscles that anchor the arm bone in the joint.

The problem is that most of the time we don’t think about these muscles at all. Instead, we think about the muscles that move your arm in space – pushing, pulling, swinging, lifting, reaching, and all those other external actions.

That’s a shortcoming of most shoulder exercise programs.

You start by holding a weight (or the pad of an exercise machine, or a strand of elastic band) in your hand. Then you move your arm through an arc in space.

With this type of exercise, your muscles are organized to control what’s happening way out at the end of your arm – where the weight is moving through space. Your muscles aren’t being trained to control what’s happening at the near end of your arm – where the ball fits into the shoulder joint.

If your arm bone is improperly positioned in the socket, all those reps you’re doing are reinforcing the negative pattern of impingement.  That will give you shoulder problems down the road – or make today’s shoulder problems worse.

The Secret That’s Missing from Most Shoulder Exercise Programs

To address this challenge in the design of exercises for the shoulder, I’ve developed a short video — check it out.



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