S&C: Stabilising the Shoulder Joint
On a weekly basis I seem to have a conversation or overhear an athlete complaining of a shoulder niggle. The regularity of this topic encouraged me to write the following article and begs the question ‘Are we as triathletes guilty of being solely lower body focused?
Do we do anything to protect the repetitive requirements our shoulders take on?
Before I begin, as much as I don’t profess to be a cycling or run coach, and I don’t profess to be a swim coach either. I admit that the extent of my swimming experience is observing in awe the ease of my ‘social circle’ whilst I blast out 25m at a time on 5mins recovery! Therefore my aim with this article is not how to improve your swim technique but rather what you can be doing to help your shoulders cope with the demanding training load and in turn avoid common niggles and overuse injuries.
(I must also emphasise that if you are suffering from regular or serious pain, I insist as always you seek out professional advice in order to get the best treatment and get you back to training quicker. The exercises in this article are not a cure to the already injured shoulder, but preventative for future injury.)
The occurrence of shoulder pain can develop from a number of causes, over training, fatigue, hypermobility, poor stroke technique, muscle weakness or muscle tightness. Without going into too much depth regarding its anatomy, the shoulder is a very mobile joint and so requires a number of muscles and ligaments known as the rotator cuff, to work together and keep your shoulder centred in its socket.
The repetitive motion of swimming on an unbalanced upper body will at some point create issues. On numerous occasions I have overheard athletes saying “I’ve been doing heaps of paddle work recently it’s given me really sore shoulders”. Yes, it may be that the paddles are the aggravating factor but before they push them to the depths of their kit bag, I would question as to how often they actually train to strengthen and stabilise their shoulder joint.
A common justification for paddles is to help develop an athlete’s in-water strength, with plenty of research to support that swimming speed can improve when using them. However, what we must consider is that with this increase in pulling power and development of specific muscle groups, a muscular imbalance can develop leading to an increased chance of injury down the line.
I am not here to critique the use of hand paddles, again I am not adequately trained on the swimming side of things to reliably evaluate their pros, cons and effectiveness, but they (paddles) have been a common ‘red-flag’ when discussing possible triggers of shoulder pain therefore we need to discuss what can be done so that they can continue to be used pain free.
Regardless of paddle use, the other most obvious ‘red-flag’ to me is a lifestyle that promotes poor posture. The majority of us spend our working days behind a desk or steering wheel of a car meaning we inadvertently adopt (unless you are very careful) a slouched posture with hunched forward shoulders and forward rounding of the spine and neck. “How many of you are sitting up straight, correcting you posture as you read this!”
Combine this with our innate tendency to then head to the gym and focus our attention on training the front aspect of our bodies, i.e. the chest and abs; there is no wonder why we are seeing an epidemic of shoulder and neck injuries. The slouched position that we hold at our desks and in our cars inadvertently shortens the muscles at the front of the shoulder and chest (the pectorals or ‘pecs’) and elongates those at the back (mid and lower trapezius muscles or ‘traps’ and the rhomboids). And as you can imagine this position over a prolonged period of time, will become ingrained. Then, to add to the matter further we get onto the bike and spend hours in a tight, tucked aero position.
One of the first steps that any good trainer will take with their athletes is to simply watch how they “move”, generally you can tell a lot about someone and any underlying imbalances by their posture and how they perform under load. With the general public I can make an assumption that 95% of them walking through the door of the gym will have a forward rounding of the shoulders, either from poor posture or from an over training their frontal side.
Too often have I heard an athlete’s strength program consisting purely of push-ups and sit-ups. The question you have to ask yourself is “At the end of the day will doing push up functionally make me a better triathlete?” What you’ve got to realise is that by following this type of methodology we are overloading these muscle groups, from swimming upwards of 10km a week, to then pressing our body weight repeatedly is only going to overload and stress the muscles that we rely on.
And so the simple solution to this problem is looking to balance and reinforce these structures (the shoulder joint and its surrounding muscles). By training the opposite aspects, in this case the muscles at the back of the shoulder and stretching those at the front will help develop a range of motion around the shoulder joint and through the upper back. Look at it like this – we don’t just train our quadriceps, but rather we train and activate our hamstrings, to improve the overall performance and balance of our lower limbs. The same applies to our upper body.
Shoulder Mobility and Strengthening Exercises
These are a number of drills and exercises that we use to develop strength and mobility with our athletes.
More than ever here I want to emphasise the importance of starting with a light weight, you’ll soon realise how tiring these exercises are. Remember it’s the small stabilising muscles we are trying to activate, starting too heavy will only cause injury rather than prevent it.
Mobility and Stretch routine– great stretches following a bike session
Broomstick/Resistance band Shoulder Pass Overs – 1 set of 8-10 full rotations
Keep arms locked out and engage upper back by shrugging shoulders as your hands pass over – a standard warm up drill I have all my athletes perform. Look to make every session an opportunity to improve mobility
Reverse Overhead Reach
Lying on your back over the roller or rolled up towel, reach overhead with your arms to achieve the desired stretch (this shouldn’t be painful. If it is you have gone too far.)
Open Chest stretch
Lie with roller or rolled up towel directly down the middle of your back, with knees bent and your head resting at the top of the roller. Drop your arms out either side of you and allow gravity to stretch the muscles of your chest and shoulders.
Single Arm Dumbbell Row – 3 sets of 12/15 repetitions
A fantastic exercise for balancing single side strength, allow scapula to retract but do not twist torso in an effort to throw weight up.
Seated row – 3 sets of 12/15 repetitions
A great exercise for strengthening scapula retraction, this is important in swimming because it stabilises your arm attachment to the body and strengthens your upper core.
Rotator Cuff Internal/External rotations – (resistance band drill) – 3 sets of 10/15 repetitions each arm
Standing side on to resistance band at waist height, bend elbow but keep by your side. In a controlled movement pull your hand across your body then slowly return to start position.
Reverse Flyes (Resistance band or dumbbell) – 3 sets of 12/15 repetitions – Lying flat on a bench with feet supporting, raise your arms out to the side, retracting your shoulder blades together, ensuring not to use any momentum.