STRUCTURE OF THE SHOULDER JOINT
Compared to the hip, the shoulder is a very fragile joint. Both have what’s known as a ‘ball and socket’ structure, but the socket of the shoulder joint is a lot shallower compared to that of the hip and is supported mainly by muscles, tendons and ligaments. This creates a lot of potential for instability in the shoulder joint.
THE ROTATOR CUFF
Four muscles (Infraspinatus, Supraspinatus, Teres Minor and Subscapularis) are responsible for providing and maintaining stability in the shoulder complex and together, make up what’s known as the rotator cuff. Beyond their stabilising role, each of the muscles individually contribute to movement of the upper arm in multiple directions. As such, they have a very significant role for both performance and injury prevention. Despite this however, being relatively small, superficial muscles, they are often neglected during training. Rather, the biggest, most visible and most ego stroking muscles commonly receive a disproportionate amount of attention. The bench press, shoulder press and their variations are frequently trained heavy and with lots of volume, whilst these four important muscles receive little attention.
WHY TRAIN THE ROTATOR CUFF MUSCLES
Of course, everybody loves benching and overhead pressing to build an impressive chest and shoulders or to display jaw dropping feats of upper body strength. However, a lot is asked from the muscles of the rotator cuff during these movements, subjecting them to high levels stress. If these muscles are undertrained and therefore, weak, (or in the case of the subscapularis which is located on the front side of the scapular, over trained), they cannot effectively work together to stabilise the shoulder. Therefore, overloading them with weight or volume will likely lead to tears due to trauma and/or inflammation and tendonitis due to overuse. The result is niggling pains that prevent you from progressing on these exercises and in more severe cases may force you to stop pressing movements and shoulder exercises altogether. Needless to say, extremely frustrating, but in a lot of cases, this shoulder pain can be treated, reversed and subsequently prevented by giving these four muscles the attention they deserve.
It has been proven that progressively strengthening these muscles will help to provide more support and stability to the shoulder joint, which will then improve their capability to deal with increasingly heavy loads and work capacities. Thereby, helping to prevent many of the shoulder injuries and pains mentioned above. At the end of the day, you are only as strong as your weakest link. Dedicating quality time to properly train and strengthen your rotator cuff muscles can not only help to get rid of and avoid pain, it will also help to improve your posture and improve your bench press, shoulder press, chin up and pulling performance.
FOCUS ON THE EXTERNAL ROTATORS
In particular, the external rotators (the three muscles located on the back or the shoulder joint) are often the limiting factor to internal rotator strength. The term ‘internal rotator dominance’ refers to an imbalance between the internal (rotator cuff muscle at the front of the joint) and external rotators. This imbalance will prevent the potential strength of pressing and pulling movements from being realised because the weak external rotators will inhibit the stronger internal rotators. I would definitely advise including some external rotation exercises into your sessions and performing them regularly as part of your programme. Along with some myofascial release work on the front of the shoulder (hockey balls or medicine balls are great for this), this will help to correct the imbalances, improve your lifting and reduce your risk of injury.
With all being said, I am not a physiotherapist. This approach has certainly helped me to fix my pec and shoulder niggles which is why I wanted to share it with you, but a little bit of sense is also required. I have now opened your eyes to how fragile the shoulder joint can be and the importance of looking after it. You now have use this information to put into context your individual situation. If you are already experiencing some shoulder pain, continuing to load them with heavy weight and/or performing a lot of volume in a single session or over the course of a week is not a good idea and will most likely increase the likelihood of, or exacerbate an ongoing problem. For anybody currently suffering with pain, I would suggest laying off or at least taking it easy on the bench and overhead pressing for a while whilst working on those rotator muscles as described above to start providing more support and stability to the joint. Bear in mind however, although these exercises can be very effective, there may be a deeper underlying issue. If pain is severe (i.e. more than just a niggle) and/or persistent, use your noggin and seek medical advice and therapy from a physiotherapist or specialist.
Keep an eye out for next week, as I will be outlining and demonstrating the very effective exercises for strengthening the external rotators that I use in my own training as well as with my clients and lifters.