by Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS
As the strength and conditioning coach of a school carrying a wide variety of sports, I get to work with a number of athletes with a myriad of competitive demands. Whether they’re a starting pitcher, crew athlete, or an offensive lineman, they all share the same thread – the need to keep the shoulders healthy.
The shoulders by design are a complex anatomical structure which requires a seamless blend of stability and mobility. If one or the other is lost, then the integrity of the shoulders and their movement can be compromised.
The shoulder is comprised of four staple components or joints that govern movement – the glenohumeral, acromioclavicular, sternoclavicular, and scapulothoracic joints. Each joint is crossed by a web of musculoligamentous structures which control their movement. These muscles are prone to becoming injured when not properly warmed up or when exposed to faulty training protocols. Therapists and coaches, including myself, consider most shoulder pathologies to be injuries of accumulation, as they are typically preceded by long periods of activity, which usually includes sporting activities and lifting.
It’s pretty obvious that throwing athletes and those who lift regularly are most susceptible to shoulder injuries. Repetitively engaging in activities which involve extreme ranges of motion and conducted at fast speeds will eventually cause injuries if proper measures aren’t taken. Throwing a baseball involves 7200 degrees of internal rotation each second, which equates to the forces of twenty 360 degree rotations of the shoulder occurring per second. Bench pressing involves the forceful contraction of the pectoralis and shoulders, which internally rotate the shoulder, to get the weight off the chest.
The contractile forces of the pecs and shoulders are magnified during speed work or when a heavy load is being hoisted off the chest to lock out.
Included below is the shoulder saving warm up which has worked effectively with the pitchers I work with, powerlifters I train alongside, and athletes that I have performing Olympic lifts and overhead presses in their training.
In line with the article I provided Josh for his May newsletter, a warm up should: raise body temperature and increase blood flow, lubricate joints, activate muscles, excite the CNS, and groove proper movements.
Prior to the warm up, I’ll have athletes perform self myofascial release with a variety of implements, such as a foam roller, lacrosse ball, or PVC pipe on the muscles of their superficial front arm line – which include muscles that flex (anterior deltoids), internally rotate (pectoralis muscles and lats), and adduct the shoulders.
When these muscles are tight, they amplify the internal rotation forces imposed on the shoulders during activities, create muscular imbalances, and may impinge or cause strain to the muscles which stabilize the shoulder, such as the rotator cuff muscles.
Following self myofascial release, I’ll have the athlete perform an assortment of lower body movements to increase body temperature and blood flow before performing more specific warm up work for the shoulders.
Once this is achieved, I’ll instruct my athletes to perform this sequence:
Half Kneeling Bent Arm Circles (performed away from body) x 20 reps
- The athlete assumes a half kneeling position and hold the arms at shoulder height moving them away from the body.
Side Lying Windmill Circles (performed away from body) x 15 breaths – exhale as arm passes body
- The athlete lies on their side on the floor, with the bottom leg extended on the ground and the top leg supported by a foam roller or medicine ball with the knee flexed. They are instructed to keep the shoulders stacked and get them in line with the hips as they move their top arm away from the body.
Half Kneeling PVC Pec Minor Mobilizaztion x 15 breaths – exhale as arm rises
- The athlete assumes a half kneeling position, placing a long PVC pipe in their hand, while they drive the end of the PVC pipe into the other hand’s open palm. They are instructed to open up the chest and rotate through the shoulders. While they do this, they exhale.
Wall Sit to Shoulder Press x 10 breaths
- The athlete sits with their back against the wall. They are instructed to position their arms at shoulder height with the elbows flexed. The back of their arm and hand should be making contact with the wall behind them. They are instructed to pull the chest away from the sternum while they elevate the arms overhead, maintaining contact with the wall throughout the movement.
Inchworm to Push Up variation (plank push up, standard push up, Yoga push up) x 5 body lengths
It’s also important to activate the muscles of the shoulder girdle. Research involving healthy and post-surgery subjects revealed that activation exercises serve as a viable strategy to establish neuromuscular control of the muscles of the shoulder, which reduce the demand on the shoulder joints (2). Another study pegged abherrant timing of the rotator cuff muscles as causing injury and dysfunction. The study hypothesized that activation exercises may help the rotator cuff muscles in properly stabilizing the shoulder (1).
I’ll have this perform a block of activation exercises:
Half Kneeling Arm Hula Hoop (performed with arm moving away from body) x :20 reps
- This is an exercise I borrowed from Jim Radcliffe, the University of Oregon’s Head Strength Coach, as it gets the rotator cuff muscles to fire to stabilize the head of humerus during activity.
- The athlete assumes a half kneeling position and slides a small hula hoop on their arm, situating it slightly past their wrist. They are instructed to initiate a small circular motion of the arm to keep the hula hoop moving in place for the prescribed amount of time.
Alternatively, banded distraction or perturbation exercises (1) can be used as long as good posture is maintained and the shoulder blade is packed in place, allowing for the humerus to move more freely.
Contrast Plank Push Ups x 5 reps
- The first rep involves holding a plank, retracting the shoulder blades as you descend to the floor for five seconds, hovering above the floor for one second before returning to starting position.
- The second rep involves holding a plank, retracting the shoulder blades as you descend to the floor for four seconds, hovering above the floor for one second before returning to starting position.
- The third rep involves holding a plank, retracting the shoulder blades as you descend to the floor for three seconds, hovering above the floor for one second before returning to starting position.
- The fourth rep involves holding a plank, retracting the shoulder blades as you descend to the floor for two seconds, hovering above the floor for one second before returning to starting position.
- The fifth rep involves holding a plank, retracting the shoulder blades as you descend to the floor for one second, hovering above the floor for one second before returning to starting position.
At this point, you should be ready to begin your warm up sets of bench, overhead press, or begin tossing a ball.
If you’re a throwing athlete, competitive strength athlete, or someone who enjoys lifting, you can prolong your athletic / lifting career by considering the aforementioned guidelines I’ve provided you in warming up your shoulder.
1. Day A, Taylor NF, Green RA. The stabilizing role of the rotator cuff at the shoulder- responses to external pertubations. Clin Biomech. 2012;27:551-556.
2. Hawkes DH, Alizadehkhaiyat O, Kemp GJ, et al. Shoulder muscle activation and coordination in patients with a massive rotator cuff tear: an electromyographic study. J Ortho Res. 2012;30:1140-1146.
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