Lifters and bad shoulders seem to go together like cheat meals and guilt.
Ask 100 people lifting weights whether they have or have had shoulder pain and the majority will answer with a resounding YES.
Some niggles in the shoulder just seem like they’re part of the territory and many people ignore them and work around their issues.
But what if I told you we could fix your shoulders and save them from more harm?
What if we could fix your shoulders without taking you out of the gym?
The answer involves a German doctor, stretchy rubber and an anatomy lesson….
The German Doctor-
The German in question is a very clever man called Dr John M Kirsch.
Dr Kirsch has spent his life studying and operating on the human shoulder- so he knows a fair bit about how it works.
His breakthrough however was in a simple technique that has saved many, many people with shoulder degradation and arthritis from needing the scalpel at all and it’s something you can do at your gym, for free.
(It seriously simple and seriously effective- there’s hundreds of case-studies and it cured my shoulder following a car accident)
Dr Kirsch realised that man wasn’t so different from the other great apes (chimps, orangutans, people who don’t re-rack weights….)
Our shoulder anatomy isn’t drastically different from that of a chimpanzee, but the way we have come to use them in the modern world is radically different.
The crucial movement most people miss is known as brachiation- which in simple terms is hanging with your arms over your head like when you did monkey bars as a kid.
Without brachiation our shoulders weaken, mis-align and become prone to injury.
So Kirsch prescribes that we simulate our monkey movements by hanging from a pull-up bar. Simple as that!
He’s found that the internal structures of the shoulder return to the way they were designed to work over time, reducing impingement in the rotator cuff (where most shoulder issues originate).
Hanging from the bar also stretches out the lats and pecs- which if you’ve been lifting are probably very tight and are pulling your shoulder into internal rotation and further from their happy and healthy neutral position.
You may also feel a stretch through your ribs, intercostals and serratus whilst hanging from the bar. This is all good! All of these muscles are related to scapular health and helping them stay loose and free really goes a long to getting your shoulders pain free too!
You might find it difficult to hang from the bar initially, if this is the case then use a bench or a step to modify how much of your bodyweight you are supporting as you hang.
Begin with 3 sets of 15 second holds per day if your shoulders are in pain and work towards 30 seconds or even on to a minute or more per hold.
(Your grip gets a workout into the bargain!)
This one simple change can literally change the game for people suffering from shoulder discomfort, so incorporating it into your daily routine is a very smart idea!
The anatomy lesson-
To understand why the shoulders get injured so much, we need to understand their position in the body.
Your shoulder is an extremely complex joint that’s responsible for a huge range of movements! Many muscle groups attach to the shoulder or onto the scapula (which plays a huge role in shoulder function too!) and these muscles all need to maintain the correct balance of strength and tension in order for your shoulder to stay healthy.
Think of your shoulder then as the knot in the middle of a tug-of-war rope.
In order to stay healthy that knot needs to stay equidistant between the two sides- we want both sides to be strong so that the knot doesn’t get pulled out of position.
The problems arise when most people start lifting weights, but the weight lifting is more like the catalyst for a problem that’s likely pre-existing due to modern lifestyles (sitting down, hunched over, you get the picture) which pulls the shoulder forward away from it’s natural neutral position as the muscles in the pecs and front delts get used to being short an tight.
When we get to lifting weights and are obsessed with pushing up our performance in the bench press, overhead presses and with building big biceps we unwittingly make the situation worse. We add even more strength and tightness to the already short and tight muscles of the pecs and front delts. The tug-of-war is now very uneven!
The shoulder ends up internally rotated and a long way from it’s ideal posture. Remember how your Grandad used to tell you to stand with your shoulders back? That was good shoulder posture and he was very right!
So, we need to train in order to readdress the balance between the muscles on the front of your body pulling the shoulder forward and those on the back of your body and around your scapula that pull the shoulder joint back into it’s healthy position.
Don’t worry, we have a simple solution again!
First, you’re going to loosen off the muscles on the front of your body that are tight- namely the pecs and delts.
We are already getting some stretch into them when we hang from the pull-up bar, but some extra soft tissue work with a foam roller, lacrosse ball, or even better, a kettlebell rested on the pec and front delt for 2 minutes a side will start to loosen these over-tight tissues.
Secondly we are going to train the upper back, hard.
Predominantly we are going to do this with horizontal pulling movements- so lots of TRX rows, dumbbell rows, low row machine and face-pulls.
Follow the simple rule that for every set of pushing you do for chest or shoulders you need to do 2 sets of pulling exercises and really focus on squeezing back and retracting those scapula as you do so!
This 2:1 ratio of pulls to push is a magic bullet for long term shoulder health.
Over-time the balance of strength around your shoulder joint will readdress itself and you’ll find that your shoulder aches will lessen as your posture improves!
The stretchy Rubber-
Remember how we said that shoulder problems weren’t created in the gym, they were just exacerbated? We can alleviate the daily damage that’s wrecked on your shoulders through sitting, texting, desk-work and driving with a big, stretchy rubber band
(or at least make a dent in the deterioration of the shoulder’s position!)
You may have seen resistance bands starting to appear in your gym but not thought much of them. But they’re a great tool for keeping a set of healthy shoulders so you’re going to need to get one of your own. The red band (with a resistance around 25-35ib) is a good place to start.
Once your band arrives in the post, doing 100 band pull-aparts a day will activate and strengthen the muscles in your upper back that are responsible for stopping the shoulder from being pulled forward into internal rotation.
To do the band pull-apart, hold the band at shoulder height out in front of you with your hands at shoulder width apart with your shoulders pulled back and down. From here, stretch the band and pull your hands behind you whilst keeping your arms straight until the band touches your chest. You’ll feel this in the middle of your back around the scapula.
Separate the 100 reps a day into four sets of 25 and do them spread out throughout the day- it’ll just remind those pulling muscles in the upper back to do their job and stop the shoulder from falling forward into internal rotation.
So, there you have it, 3 simple ways to reduce or stave off shoulder pain! Let us know how you get on and share this with any mates who always have sore shoulders!
Dan Mennell is a Personal Trainer and Strength Coach working in Staffordshire and Shropshire.
He writes regular fitness articles and creates other informative free-content.
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