If you’re like a lot of people, you may have experienced some pain or discomfort in the front part of your shoulder at one point in your life. To make matters even worse, there might have not even been a definitive reason as to why there’s pain. You just woke up one day, and BAM, your shoulder hurts. Maybe it’s just because you’re getting old? And while that might be a contributing factor, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the sole cause for a cranky shoulder.
Let’s have a quick anatomy lesson, shall we?
Here’s a view of the bones that make up your shoulder girdle. The scapula is your shoulder blade, the clavicle is your collar bone, and the humerus is your upper arm bone. So in this picture, you’re looking at your right shoulder.
Your shoulder blade is supposed to be able to move freely on the ribcage whenever you move your arm. It can move towards your spine, move away from the spine, tilt backward, tilt forward, etc. But when it comes to optimal shoulder health, three movements tend to reign supreme: upward rotation, protraction (moving laterally away from the spine), and posterior tilting.
Upward rotation of the scapula
Right shoulder blade viewed from the side
And the reason for this is simple. There’s a part of your shoulder blade called the acromion. Underneath this little bony overhang sits tendons and tissues.
Your right shoulder viewed from the front
When your shoulder blade doesn’t move properly, neither does your acromion (because they’re one in the same). This means any time you want to press or reach overhead, your arm bone will move… but your scapula won’t. This causes a closing or narrowing of the ‘subacromial space’, aka the space underneath the acromion.
When this occurs, the head of the humerus (top of your arm bone) can possibly grind against or pinch tendons against an immobile shoulder blade. This causes discomfort, or even worse, pain.
Now there’s a bit more that goes into healthy shoulders than this, such as rotator cuff strength, but for the sake of keeping this post relatively simple, let’s end the anatomy lesson here. Just realize if you want a shoulder that feels like velvety awesomeness, you need your shoulder blade to move!
So how do we ensure this happens?
First, let’s take a look at your soft tissue quality. If certain muscles like your chest and lats are tense and knotted up, it can restrict movement of your scapula and humerus. You need that like you need to be sandwiched between a sick baby and an overly extroverted person on a cross country flight.
Make sure you start making the foam rolling of your lats, chest, and upper back a priority. This will keep those tissues nice and pliable which will free up movement of that shoulder blade. If this can’t be done daily, definitely do it prior to your training sessions.
Next, let’s cover some exercises you can do to ensure those shoulders move and feel good.
The facepull is an amazing exercise for shoulder health because it hits all the movements and muscles needed for keeping your shoulders feeling goooood. During this movement, the rotator cuff works to externally rotate your humerus and your rhomboids and mid traps work to retract the shoulder blades. All of this helps strengthen your upper back, which is awesome because strong upper backs bulletproof you against nagging shoulder pains.
The TRX forearm slide works your serratus anterior, or the ‘riblet’ muscles on the sides of your ribcage. This muscle plays a huge role in upwardly rotating and protracting your shoulder blade, which makes this exercise a total game changer when it comes to shoulder health. Focus on pushing yourself away from the handles and feeling your shoulder blades move up and around the ribcage as you reach overhead. Don’t walk your feet too far back as this is not a core exercise. Starting off, you should only assume a slight forward lean.
The supine Y on a roller is a great exercise for working your lower traps, the muscle responsible for posteriorly tilting your shoulder blade. In addition to upward rotation and protraction, posterior tilting of the scapula is necessary to avoid any sort of impingement, or pinching, or tendons and tissues that run through that subacromial space. Focus on driving the movement with your upper back, not your hands and arms. If you do it correctly, you’ll feel the bottoms of your shoulder blades pinch the foam roller.
So now what?
If you’ve got nagging shoulder pain, you can start to make these things part of your new daily routine. 20-30 seconds of rolling on your pecs, back, and lats plus one set of ten repetitions of the exercises just shown should help to right the ship.
On upper body training days, make these movements part of your warmup, but perform 2-3 sets of each of the exercises to really get those shoulder blades moving.
Try swapping bench press variations and barbell overhead pressing with pushups and landmine presses, as these tend to be more shoulder friendly.