SAVE THY SHOULDERS
Commonwealth Champion Powerlifter – @DomCadden
Bench press, one of the three lifts in power lifting, is hell for shoulders, but there are probably actions just as bad or worse – bowling in cricket, baseball pitching and swimming just to name a few. For a long time I had chronic shoulder pain and I was prone to strains around my elbows. At my age (early 40s) the outlook didn’t look great – most guys around my age at World level were well down on their best bench press because their shoulders were clapped out. Then I worked out a few things that not only saved my shoulders, but rid me of the chronic pain. My bench press improved significantly and I even managed to grab an open-age Commonwealth record. No surgery or even physio involved. Here’s what did the magic.
THE CORRECT WARM-UP
The general aerobic warm-up and light sets got the boot. I have a progressively more complex series of exercises that I move through quickly. There may be more specific ones for your sport, but here’s what worked for me.
- Backstroke – no resistance, arms close to my ears.
- Scapula retraction – I hang onto a small weight plate with a handles in each hand for this, as I find it provides momentum to help with the stretch. Stand with arms hanging down in front of you. Try to get the backs of hands together, then roll back arms and shoulders so hands turn 180° and shoulder blades pull right back.
- Full front raises – small weight plate in each hand, swinging one straight arm fast up past the ear while the other arm is straight beside your leg. Alternate arms with each swing.
- Front lat pulldown (low to chest) – pull-ups also OK, but you really need to be able to get your chest to the bar and arch your back.
- Rotator cuff internal/external rotation (vertical and horizontal) – holding small weights with a handle so I have to stabilise as it swings. This also provides a more dynamic stretch.
- Explosive (jump) push-ups
- I do about 20 reps (or 10 each shoulder) of each exercise.
LOTS OF INCREMENTS TO TRAINING LOAD
Total number of warm-up repetitions are less important than building to the training load in lots of small increments. For me, that means doing 3-8 reps in several warm-up sets. The muscles should never be close to fatigue. For a swimmer, this might mean doing a lap or two at a slow pace, then another lap or two at a slightly higher pace until they work up to a speed close to their top training pace for that session.
RESPECT THE LIMITS
If you do a sport with a motion that is a bit of a biomechanics nightmare, you have to accept that there’s only so much of that motion you can do before you injure yourself. Cricket Australia recognised this and set guidelines for how many balls bowlers should send down. Go for quality of training over quantity.
LOOK FOR VARIATIONS
Seek out different ways to work strength and/or power in the shoulders through more forgiving actions. In my case, that means avoiding a barbell. Barbell pressing motions are taxing on the shoulders because holding a bar locks your shoulders into a fixed plane when their natural action is to rotate slightly through a ball and socket joint. This natural rotation can be mimicked better with dumbbell exercises, although for benching I prefer single-arm pressing with a torsion bar. A torsion bar allows me to use a relatively large load (a little more than I could use with a dumbbell) but importantly, it allows me to press in a plane that start beside my shoulder and goes well in front of my head, rather than above my head. Again, this takes away some of the strain off the smaller muscles of the rotator cuff and rear of the shoulder.
WATCH YOUR ELBOWS
In swimming, the tennis serve, volleyball and many other sports, the position of the elbow goes a long way To directing how much unnecessary strain is put through the smaller muscles supporting the shoulder joint. For bench pressing, there is a huge difference between having the elbows out in line with the shoulders at the bottom of the lift and having them more in line with the sternum (i.e. bar is also lower on chest). In cricket or baseball it’s the difference between throwing with elbow closer to chest height (greater rotational forces on the elbow, shoulder) and throwing with the elbow at or above shoulder height.
USE THE CORE AND UPPER BACK
Ever see someone fairly new to a bench press twitching and wobbling around all the way from hips to neck? The smaller muscles supporting their shoulders are overloaded as they are doing too much of the work to stabilise, plus larger muscles of the shoulder get pushed out of their optimal path. You prevent this by having a stronger core that you actively brace during the action. This is even more important in throwing, where the core becomes a conduit to drive power and rotational force from the legs and glutes.
A strong, engaged upper back makes a solid foundation for the shoulders – it’s like the difference between jumping up off a sprung wooden floor and jump from boggy mud.
GO BOTH WAYS
The actions I’ve talked about – pressing, throwing, swimming – all involve forward rotation of the shoulders. When you’ve finished your work with these actions, it’s then essential to unwind” the shoulders in the opposite direction. Swimmers know this – freestylers tend to cool down with backstroke, which is considered a natural recovery motion for freestyle.
On dry land, a similar effect can be had with any type of rowing motion with light resistance (with full range of motion), therabands, a chin-up bar or a cardio machine.
THE CONVENIENCE OF COMPRESSION
The shoulder is an awkward part of the body to ice or tape/strap without assistance, but using a compression top immediately after training is easy and convenient. The 2XU Recovery Compression Top is designed to pull your shoulders back to open up your chest posturally – something you don’t really feel like doing yourself after a hard session. This is very important – anyone who has ever slumped down on the couch or in the car after an activity that was tough on the lower back will know how you can pay for that later with stiffness and pain. Well, the same happens with the shoulders!
TIP: sometimes I put ice cubes under my top in the shoulder area