Shoulder Protection for the Lifetime Athlete

The human shoulder is a marvel of design. It is perhaps more than a joint and is best described as the shoulder complex. This is because it is somewhat complex. Comprised of a shoulder “girdle” made up of your clavicle (collarbone), scapula (shoulder blade), and humerus (upper arm), the shoulder complex blends mobility and stability in truly unique fashion.

That shoulder blade has the capacity to move on the ribcage. This is known as the scapulothoracic articulation. The collarbone also accommodates movement through the acromioclavicular and sternoclavicular articulations. But most notable is the glenohumeral articulation, where the glenoid fossa (a shallow “socket” more like a saucer) of the scapula interfaces with the head (a “ball” which is not entirely spherical) of the humerus. 

Your shoulder possesses (or used to, or ideally should) nearly 180 degrees of motion in three planes. It’s the body’s most mobile joint. But it also requires a very unique characteristic called dynamic stability. Your shoulder needs to be able to control all that movement and to stabilize on demand in many positions. This is primarily the job of the rotator cuff.

The rotator cuff is made up of 4 (relatively small but very important) muscles which originate on your shoulder blade and wrap around the humeral head, forming a “cuff.” They work to maintain articular congruency (proper joint surface alignment) while your prime movers (large muscles like lats, pecs, delts) perform movements and manage forces. The cuff muscles also contribute greatly to that dynamic stability, helping to hold the joint together during all its functions.

The athletic shoulder is one of the most important functional regions in the human. Evolutionary biologists, paleontologists, and others contend that the shoulder’s design allowed hominids to become proficient with weapons and tools to the degree which facilitated our current status. The shoulder is capable of combining high force and speed with fine motor control in amazing fashion. Throwing is perhaps the most obvious example, but archery, shooting, climbing, bat and racquet sports, swimming, basketball, volleyball, construction work, reaching up into a high cupboard, and playing with your kids and grandkids are also excellent examples of shoulder athleticism.

Shoulder protection is actually a much deeper subject than the simple program I will present today. But preserving joint function and integrity is of vital importance for a Lifetime Athlete who wants to perform well and stay healthy from the teenage years through a triple digit lifespan. I’ve got a few exercises that work on the rotator cuff as well as associated muscles and tissues that you may want to incorporate into your conditioning routine if you are not already doing so. All you need is a light-medium resistance band or tubing.

The exercises are featured in the attached video but here’s a list of the movements along with a few simple instructions.

  • 90 Degree External Rotation
  • 90 Degree Internal Rotation
  • 90/90 External Rotation
  • 90/90/90 External Rotation
  • Face Pulls
  • Pallof Press
  • Horizontal Pull-Aparts
  • Archers

I usually recommend performing 15-20 repetitions of each exercise, with each arm and in each direction where indicated, about 3 times per week. We’ll usually put this program into a warmup routine for athletes when training on an upper body day, or for overhead athletes prior to sport participation. In some cases, we’ll do more than just this little routine, but it’s a great place to start for most folks. This takes less than 10 minutes and can be done almost anywhere, even when traveling.

Here are a couple extra considerations. Newer research reveals that the rotator cuff has a dominance of fast-twitch muscle fibers. This probably makes sense intuitively, in that high-velocity throwing or heavy lifting is dominated by these Type II fibers. Consequently, in advanced trainees, I like to introduce higher speeds and forces with these and other exercises. This isn’t pictured in the video because I just wanted to offer the basics there and keep it safe for everyone. Also, while we are working on basic elements of strength, endurance and mobility with these movements, that’s not the major focus. Instead we are mainly targeting circulation and neuromuscular control. The circulation provides nourishment via blood flow to those deep tissues, and has a great benefit in warmup/readiness. The neuromuscular control aspect concentrates on CNS recruitment of the musculature so that activation is heighted for the dynamic stabilization demands.

I hope you benefitted from today’s topic and can use this program. As always, I thank you and welcome any comments or questions. If you need specialized coaching and training, I might be your guy.

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