Place a cannon in a canoe and put both into the water. Then fire, and... what happens? KABOOM! Id’ bet money on the cannon ball not going far. Why? Because the canoe has a poor base of stability for maximal force production to be generated. Chances are, the canoe will capsize or be blown to pieces.
Would you really try to fire a cannon from a canoe?
Hardly. So why keep pushing your body in training to go to places (KBOOM!) that your shoulders just aren’t strong enough to survive unscathed? Many athletes focus on building the primary moves (for the purposes of my analogy, let’s think of those as big cannons), yet fail to understand the importance of building a bigger canoe (ie. strengthening the stabilisation muscles in the shoulder). It’s typically at this point when the shoulder gets injured, or you start experiencing pain in the elbows or wrists joints because it’s all linked together in the chain. This comes back to an earlier post on structural balance for posture and performance.
The shoulder joint is the most mobile in the human body, the most commonly injured and relatively fragile joint compared to its lower body cousin, the hip. Did you know that the shoulders’ only attachment to the skeletal system is via the clavicle? All the other connections to the upper arm bone (humerus) and the shoulder blade (scapulae) are a sea of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Going through the motions, working out without awareness is like trusting your satnav to auto-pilot your car. That would be STUPID! Many movements do we do on autopilot – in life and in the gym - contribute to shoulder instability.
The below image shows the different muscles used in scapular positioning.
All upper body movements require correct scapular positioning to protect the shoulder and to effectively produce force. Do you know how to protract, retract, depress, and elevate your scapulae? Theses movements of the scapulae are significantly important for healthy shoulder function, and understanding these movements will improve both movement strength and efficiency in various exercises. Your coach should assess how well you understand these positions and your range of motion and ability to activate the required muscles to achieve these positions.
Protraction vs Retraction
Protraction and retraction are opposites. During protraction, the scapulae move away from the spine as you round the upper back (thoracic spine). You protract by pushing your shoulders forward and spreading your scapulae across your back, trying to touch them in front of your chest. Protraction is required to perform full range of motion push-ups and to perform movement like a gymnastics planche.
In retraction, the scapulae move towards the spine and towards each other. Retracting is done by squeezing the shoulder blades together. Retraction is mainly used for horizontal pulling movements like 1-arm rows, barbell rows, ring rows, and to perform gymnastics front levers.
It's worth noting that thoracic spine health can drastically impact protraction and retraction movements. If you sit at a desk for eight, or more, hours a day, chances are you have thoracic tightness and poor scapulae protraction and retraction.
Depression Vs Elevation
Depressing the scapulae means you're pulling them down your back towards your butt, away from your ears. If you are hanging from a pull-up bar you can depress the scapulae by initiating the pull-up correctly. Depression is also used when performing movements like a gymnastics dips, l-sit or ring support, in these movements you are pushing your shoulders down away from your ears. It's also important during horizontal pulling to produce a nice stable shoulder that can generate force.
Note that most ‘athletes’ who use a band for performing pull-ups have zero awareness of scapulae depression because the band generates a huge amount of assistance in the bottom position of the pull-up. This is one reason why TSTM will never suggest using a band for pull-ups – we believe you’ve got to learn to engage the correct muscle and build strength if you’re ever going to get strong enough to do a real pull-up!
Shoulder elevation is the opposite of shoulder depression, where the shoulder blades move up towards your ears. You elevate by pushing your shoulders up as if you're trying to cover your ears. Shoulder elevation is used when you push a weight overhead, or when you perform a handstand.
Internal Vs External Rotation
Internal and external rotation are movements along the longitudinal axis of the humerus (upper arm bone). Hold your arm to your side and flex your elbow to 90-degrees, before laterally raising the arm so that the elbow is level with your shoulder, and your forearm is parallel to the floor. Then, keeping your elbow level with the shoulder, rotate the upper arm forward so that your fingers are now pointing down to the floor and the forearm is perpendicular to the floor. This motion is internal rotation. Next, keeping the elbow in the same position, rotate the upper arm back so that you hand is facing the sky and your forearm is again perpendicular to the floor… This motion is external rotation.
Why is this important?
During upper body pressing and pulling movements, the humerus constantly moves through different degrees of internal and external rotation. The muscles involved in this small but significant movement are the rotator cuff muscles. Any slight misalignment of rotation can cause shoulder pain and injury, so it is rather critical that these muscles work correctly.
Imagine an Olympic lifter performing a snatch: they start with the bar on the floor with the shoulders in an internally rotated position but as they drive the bar overhead their shoulders move from the internally rotated position to an externally rotated position to catch the bar overhead. Both the speed and the weight of this movements require perfect balance, coordination, strength and stability through the entire body, and especially at the primary joints of the hips and the shoulder.
Another example would be a push-up. At the top of the press, we want to have external rotation to help lock out the elbows and protract the scapulae. As we start to lower towards the floor we want to try and maintain a certain degree of external rotation and keep the elbows tucked in by our sides. If the rotator cuff muscles are weak, or the push-up technique is poor, the elbows tend to flair out to the sides and as the shoulder are forced into internal rotation. This quickly causes shoulder discomfort, pain, and/or injury.
The scapulae can do more than just protracting, retracting, elevating and depressing (external rotation, internal rotation, anterior tipping, posterior tipping). Often, we need to do two or more of these movements combined: for instance, in a planche we want protraction, depression and some external rotation. Some athletes have a solid ability to protract the shoulders, but when it comes to performing protraction with depression and external rotation they fail miserably.
Bodyweight movements are some of the best movements to develop excellent scapular stability. The irony is that most athletes fail to focus on bodyweight movement because they are simply not strong enough to perform them correctly. Instead, they go back to lighter external loads like dumbbells and barbells and avoid their weaknesses because they don’t have the patience or willpower to work on the dodgy links in the chain. But it’s a real shame when this happens, as bodyweight movements have significant transfer over to externally loaded movements, but this is not always the case in reverse.
Those who take the time to master the foundation bodyweight movements like push-ups, pull-ups, dips, muscle-ups, handstands, and front levers will easily be able to perform heavy externally loaded movements. Most traditional strength programmes fail to train the aspects of skill-based work. While they help you get strong at lifting external loads, they don’t necessarily carry over to bodyweight activities.
Why is the trapezius important to shoulder strength?
Most of us have overly dominant upper traps, and we need to focus on building the middle and lower traps to balance the shoulders correctly. It's helpful to understand that the traps consist of three distinct areas that can fire separately from one another.
Your upper traps help shrug your shoulders up towards your ears. These are the muscles most commonly associated with many bodybuilding and Olympic lifting movements. The problem with focusing solely on your upper traps, however, is that it can lead to shoulder pain when not properly balanced with middle and lower trap development.
The middle and lower traps help move the shoulder blade in various directions, and are often weak and underdeveloped on most people. If you have trouble holding your arms straight overhead without letting your lower back arch and ribs flare out, then there is a good chance that your middle and lower traps are weak. Fortunately, this also means that you will be able to make solid improvements to your overhead pressing, your Olympic snatch and your handstand if you fix this deficit. Your coach should be able to give you the tools you need to develop the strength in the middle and lower traps.
Working on shoulder stability is just as important, if not more important, than working on the cannons / compound movements. Without stability, we have no chance of being able to create high levels of force without breaking. Many of the exercises needed to strengthen the stabilisation muscle are not those widely regarded as cool or exciting, but they are the real deal and they often deliver substantial rewards to those who take the time to train them. And I think that is exciting, don’t you?