Building Better Shoulder Stability for Overhead Strength and Health

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Mobility has been a buzzword in the weightlifting and CrossFit realm for quite some time, and for good reason.  But it’s the other half of the spectrum, stability, that needs a little more love.  Focusing on mobility work without incorporating stability is like cutting the brake line on your supercharged Corvette.  Sure you can move, and you can look good doing it, but eventually there’s going to be some problems.  Chronic shoulder pain, including shoulder impingement, biceps tendinitis, and rotator cuff issues, can be a huge roadblock for overhead training. In this article we’ll discuss why these things happen and talk about a few ways to improve posture and stability not only to reduce that lost training time, but also to give yourself a more stable platform for pressing overhead, jerking, and catching big weights.

Anatomically the shoulder is made up of two joints: the glenohumeral joint, or the ball and socket, and the shoulder girdle, which incorporates the clavicle and scapula.  Commonly, shoulder inflammation injuries occur as a result of a narrowed subacromial space between the scapula and humerus.  This is because there’s quite a bit of musculature and soft tissue that coexist in a very small space. But, like a crowded beach with the tide coming in, eventually when that space narrows, no one is happy.  There can be a rapid snowball effect with this condition because as one tissue becomes aggravated and inflamed, that leaves an even smaller space for everything else and opens the door to tears, tendinitis, and nasty shoulder pain that just won’t go away. This can easily lead to everyone’s worst nightmare: lost training time.  While it’s important to note that all shoulders are not structured the same and some people naturally have a subacromial space that just won’t allow for great overhead positioning, there are some things we can do to prevent or correct this issue for many of you. It all starts with posture.

Our lifestyle predisposes us to a rounded shoulder posture. Desk jobs, smartphones, and computers leave us spending quite a bit of our time hunched over. Overhead training with unbalanced musculature can highlight and escalate posture problems. In my time working with weightlifters and crossfit athletes of both recreational and competitive levels, I’ve seen many instances of shoulder discomfort, intense pain, and injury.  Almost all of these athletes presented with rounded shoulders and none had been counseled on how to actually correct the problem. Rounded, forward shoulders put you at risk for impingement because the humerus is being constantly fixed against the anterior joint capsule causing subacromial compression.  This rounded position is known as scapular protraction.  In order to get out of this pattern, the recipe is simple: loosen and lengthen the short tissues, tighten and strengthen the weak ones. To improve this position, let’s look at how to restore and strengthen the opposing motion of scapular retraction.

One of the cardinal rules of rehab is to restore full range of motion prior to strengthening. For scapular retraction we’ll employ soft tissue work and stretching to loosen the tight muscles and some basic exercises to increase the range of motion.  In this first video we’ll discuss shoulder positioning, how to loosen and lengthen the tight tissues that are restricting your position, and some exercises to help you pattern in scapular retraction and increase range of motion.

Only after you’ve developed an understanding of the movement and its full end ranges do we move on to strengthening.  The reason for this separation is that we’re trying to correct a faulty movement pattern and position that has been a go-to for months if not years, and that takes effort.  Another very important piece of this is that these exercises are strictly for establishing motor control. There is no PR for wall slides or band pull-aparts. These exercises are to teach, reinforce, and strengthen a movement pattern and stabilize musculature. Understanding of this is vital because if you try to overdo the resistance, the dominant muscle groups that already dictate your shoulder motion will take over and you’ll be wasting your time and will greatly minimize results. The wall slide is the “light switch” for understanding good scapular stability.  In each of these strengthening exercises in this second video try to feel the same big squeeze between your shoulder blades that you feel with the wall slides, and take the time to really focus on proper positioning.

Adding these exercises before your heavy overhead days or on off days will help to keep your shoulders in good condition. The goal is to feel the same big squeeze between your shoulder blades with the barbell in the front rack and overhead as you do with the wall slides. This means you’re engaging the musculature and adding it to the movement. These stretches and exercises are fine to do as often as daily since there’s not much of a strength component.  It’s all about feeling the right muscles and learning the movement pattern.  It’s important to note that this doesn’t replace hard work in the slightest. Think of it this way: With the help of our sport, we’ve turned our bodies into high performance machinery, but no matter if you’re the ’81 Honda in Employee of the Month or Eleanor the ’67 Shelby in Gone in Sixty Seconds, everyone needs the routine maintenance to stay in the game.

Jason Allen is currently a private athletic trainer/strength and conditioning coach at Cornerstone Strength and Fundamental Fitness in Mount Pleasant, SC as well as assistant coach for the Charleston Marauders semi-professional GRID league team. After receiving a Bachelors degree in Athletic Training from UNCW he went on to receive a Master’s Degree in Exercise Science from the Citadel while working as an athletic trainer at the College of Charleston. For the past 3 years Jason has been working privately to help athletes from many realms and general population clients to improve their athleticism, strength, movement, and fitness levels.


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