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Fitness: Shoulder Health

By Oscar Saucedo

If you attend a fitness facility, you have probably had a shoulder injury or know someone that has had one. Shoulder injuries may be the most common in fitness. It is one of the most mobile joints in the body. The ball-and-socket joint adducts and abducts both vertically and horizontally.  It also rotates internally and externally at various angles. All of these motions are initiated or supported by many groups of muscles. But when there is pain or injury, most of the time it is in the rotator cuff.

The rotator cuff is a term given to a group of four muscles and their tendons that stabilize the shoulder joint. All of these muscles originate at the scapula (shoulder blade) and insert at the humerus (upper arm bone). The teres minor is a small muscle that you can feel if you touch the area right behind your armpit between your lats and your rear deltoid. It helps rotate the arm outward. The infraspinatus is a flat muscle that covers the back of the shoulder blade. It also helps rotate the arm outward. The subscapularis is a flat muscle under (in front of) the shoulder blade. It helps to rotate the shoulder inward. And the supraspinatus is on the top of the shoulder blade and inserts at the top of the arm bone. When you feel that sharp pain “under” your collarbone or perhaps at the top of the shoulder joint, that is probably some inflammation of the tendons that attach to the supraspinatus. Again, all 4 muscles can contract to help keep the shoulder stable during other motions such as bench press, shoulder press, or rowing.

Because this injury is so common, I suggest that you should be proactive and implement a program to support your shoulder health and minimize the risk of injury. This should include both strength and flexibility.

Strength. Direct strength training for the rotator cuff is relatively simple. Three of the muscles flex to help rotate the arm. You can strengthen these with elastic bands, dumbbells, or cables. I suggest using cables with a D-handle attachment because they provide continuous tension from start to finish and a smooth movement. Start with a very light weight, 3 sets, 15-20 reps of rotation in every direction. You can rotate out with elbow stuck to your side and arm bent at 90° for one exercise, then rotate inward in the same position for another exercise.  You can hold your arm straight out, parallel to the floor, elbow bent at a 90° angle and rotate upward for another exercise, then downward in the same position for another exercise.  

I also suggest strengthening the muscles that help pinch your shoulder blades together. Lifting weight with your shoulders back and shoulder blades together (good posture) helps further stabilize the shoulder joint. You can work your rhomboids and middle trapezius with floor prone cobras, supermans, and rowing exercises with good posture. Strengthen these “posture muscles” and activate them while performing presses, rows, triceps exercises, and bicep exercises to help protect your shoulder joint.

Flexibility. There isn’t enough space to describe all the shoulder mobility exercises. But it is important to note that when you lack flexibility in the shoulder, your risk of injury goes up. Many large muscle groups can contribute to “tight shoulders”. Tight chest muscles will hunch your shoulders forward and decrease backward shoulder mobility. Tight lats (latissimus dorsi) make it more difficult to lift your arms straight overhead. So stretching and foam rolling chest and lats is important to help avoid shoulder pain. Get with a fitness professional, or use your favorite search engine to find more exercises, stretches, and videos to help you maximize your shoulder flexibility.

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