The Shoulder Rules – 2 Simple Concepts to Keep you Pain Free and Reaching New Performance Heights

The Shoulder is Complicated and training it is often Painful

The shoulder girdle.  It’s complicated:  3 true joints, 1 muscular joint, little inherent stability, much inherent mobility all mixed together with over one billion (I counted) exercises. A perfect storm is the result leading to pain, injury, confusion and frustration for a whole bunch of people who just want to train, work out and perform better.
If you have current shoulder issues, want to prevent future problems or break through a training plateau, I want to lay out two simple concepts that can help you with your strength training.  The concepts are simple, but the execution is not.  I treat some extremely fit and athletic people and most of them struggle with one or both of these rules…especially when you add fatigue or heavy loads into the picture.
FYI: shoulder blade = scapula

The Shoulder Rules:

  1. When your elbow is near or moving towards your body, bring your shoulder blade back and down into the “set” position. (think Big, Open chest)
  2. As your elbow moves out away from your body, provide the force from your shoulder to externally rotate it.

If you are able to do just these two things with any strength lift, body-weight movement, catch or sustained position, you will likely stay healthy, perform better and decrease any current shoulder pain with your lifts.

Now let’s dig in deep to each rule.

  • Rule 1. When your elbow is near or moving towards your body, bring your shoulder blade back and down into the “set” position.

The elbow is the best indicator of where your shoulder is positioned.  The higher the elbow is, the more the shoulder has elevated.  The more the point of your elbow is out to the side (pointed laterally) the more the shoulder is internally rotated, etc.  So, as the rule states, when you are performing a movement and your elbow is near your side you need to bring your shoulder blade back and down.

In the sports medicine and strength and conditioning worlds, this scapular position is often called the “set” position.  The idea here is that we need to place the shoulder in an optimal position so that we don’t put too much stress on any one part of the shoulder and that our muscles and joints are in the optimal place to perform.   What typically happens with inexperience, mobility issues or poor control is that as the elbows move towards the body (i.e. top of the pull up or bottom of the push up) the shoulder blades tip forward as well as up towards the ears putting a great amount of stress and strain on the front and top of the shoulder.  This is bad.

Picture yourself at the bottom of your push-up position; your shoulders should be pulled back away from the ground and also down away from your ears.  This is good.  Same goes with the pull up. As you near the top of your pull up, the elbows are coming towards your side, so your shoulder blades need to be pulled back and down.  Get it?

  • Rule 2. As your elbow moves out away from your body, provide the force from your shoulder to externally rotate it.

This rule deals with what muscles you want to be activating while your elbow moves away from your body and then being able to sustain that shoulder position under the load.  This will happen while pressing the bar away in a bench press or overhead press.  It could also be while you lower yourself during the pull-up, press yourself up during push-ups or while sustaining an overhead barbell or dumbbell position. To imagine this in another way, if you were holding a dumbbell, as you pressed away from your body the thumb would rotate out to the side and your palm would face you.  There are a couple reasons why this is important and advantageous.

1. This can help avoid the onset of or decrease shoulder pain.  There is not a lot of space between the ball and socket shoulder joint and the hard protective shelf above it, called your acromion process.  By externally rotating your shoulder during overhead movements, you maintain more space between these structures which decreases the pinching of the soft tissues in this space.  That pinching is often called “impingement” and can be the cause of that all too common, non-traumatic shoulder pain.  (want to improve your shoulder mobility to prevent and treat impingement? Check out this self myofascial release tool)

2. This creates a more stable shoulder. The external rotation will take out the slack of the connective tissue at the joint capsule increasing the static stability.  The external rotation of the humerus (long bone of the arm) also facilitates an improved socket position by aiding in upward rotation of the scapula (shoulder blade).  This also improves stability by turning your shoulder socket into a backstop for the ball of your joint to rest on when pressing or sustaining loads above shoulder height.

This concept is much easier to learn and apply when dealing with “open chain” exercises, so I recommend that these types of movements be used first when learning proper form.  “Open chain” exercises allow your hands to move freely and independently so the applied rotational force will cause rotation of the shoulders and of your hands which is easier to see and feel.  For instance, a vertical press with dumbbells will be easier than with the barbell.  This will also force the shoulders to work independently and help identify and correct any strength or mobility imbalances.

In Summary

These shoulder rules sound pretty easy to follow. However, they are often very challenging if you lack mobility, control or if you throw fatigue and heavy loads into the picture.  You can probably think of a movement or exercise that this may not apply to, but for most strength and body weight movements these two rules will keep you safe, help break through plateaus and decrease pain.  Remember, retooling a movement may result in a temporary decrease in performance but in the long run performing movements the right way will always get you closer to your genetic potential.

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Lunge. Like. This.

​There are enough articles about performing the squat form to fill the library of congress.  Why? Well, the squat is a highly technical move that many people struggle with.  As humans we are capable of moving extremely heavy loads into very deep positions with the squat and given how different our builds and abilities are there is a lot to write about and consider.

The lunge, however, is another technical movement that is performed commonly in most strength and conditioning programs. And rightly so, this movement is similar to many things we do every day in life and sport.  Performing it with safe and efficient form while improving strength with this movement will have a ton of carry over into the things in life you want to do well.  There are few articles about the lunge and how to do it well so let’s dive in.

Lunging is more difficult than the squat in some respects but easier in others.  Knowing how the movements differ from a stimulus standpoint can help you understand when and how to program lunges more effectively and why the body responds differently during recovery.  This knowledge can also help select or avoid a movement when rehabbing from an injury.
How lunges are more difficult than squats:

  • The split stance of the lunge puts the rear leg in a less powerful position than the front leg so the potential to lift larger loads is diminished compared to squatting.  The lunge emphasizes single leg strength to a greater extent than squatting.
  • The shape and size of the base of support created by the split stance demands more lateral balance than the squat.  When was the last time you saw someone fall to the side when squatting?
  • If doing a lunge that requires stepping forward (as opposed to a drop step or static lunge) momentum is likely to shift weight to the forefoot of the stepping leg causing the heel to elevate and the knee to travel too far forward.  This puts increased pressure through the patella (knee cap) often causing pain. This weight in the forefoot with heel elevated position takes the hamstrings out of the picture putting increased demand on the quadriceps with less “help” from the hamstrings.
  • There is increased demand on the hamstrings if done correctly.  At the bottom of the lunge the front foot should not be anywhere near the glutes.  This means there is likely not more than 90 degrees of knee flexion which keeps more tension in the hamstrings throughout the movement. At the bottom of the squat the knees are usually bent much more than 90 degrees if moving through full depth.  This deep knee flexion puts slack in the hamstrings rendering them unable to contribute to the movement at that point.  So, with respect to the hamstrings the lunge places a higher demand on them then the squat.

How lunges are easier than the squat:

  • The split stance position makes it easier to stabilize the pelvis allowing for a more upright torso position.  Meaning, maintaining good neutral spine position and lumbopelvic stability is easier when lunging.  Why this is easier is due to the rear leg applying a forward force to the pelvis and the front leg applying a rearward force to the pelvis essentially cancelling each other out and stabilizing the pelvis in an upright position (this point could easily be an article in and of itself).
  • Depth of lunges are limited by the back leg (knee hits the ground) so there is less hip mobility required unless you are performing some type of lunge variant.
  • As mentioned before the stance does not allow a person to lift as much weight as when squatting.  So, with lighter potential loads, a more upright torso and easier lumbopelvic stability the lunge is easier on the spine than squatting.
  • There is less demand on the adductors when lunging.  During the squat, both femur need to spread away from each other to allow the pelvis to drop low between them (knees out).  This puts a large eccentric load on the adductors and why a squatter feels sore on the inside of their thighs when pushing themselves.  This dramatic drive out does not happen when lunging, hence the lunge is easier on the adductors.

Those are few ways the two movements differ.  We could go on but let’s stop here and move into how to perform the lunge correctly.
Just as there are many different squat variations, there are many different lunge variations but for this article we are focusing on the basics and establishing sound principles.  With that said, an important thing to keep in mind is that no matter if you are lunging by stepping forward or reverse the form at the bottom position should look the same.

I like to start people off lunging by teaching the drop step (AKA reverse) lunge first.  The drop step tends to prevent the front knee from traveling too far forward and more resemble the squat pattern that most are more familiar with.
To Perform the Drop Step Lunge:

  1. Start with feet together in a narrow stance with feet under your hips and pointed forward.
  2. Take a large step back but keep the bulk of your weight in the front foot.  The step was large enough if when that knee hits the ground it is behind the hip if looking at someone from the side.
  3. When taking that large step back keep your “core” engaged so that your lower back does not overextend – this will be a challenge for those with tight quads and hip flexors and can actually be a great dynamic stretch of those muscles if brace your core to resist spine extension.

4.The knee of the front leg should be positioned somewhere from directly over the ankle to over the midfoot during the entire movement.  Another way to think of this is that when looking from the side the shin is vertical to just forward of vertical. If the shin is forward of vertical too far the heel will come off the ground and if the shin behind vertical the front leg is unloaded and too much weight will be in the back foot.

The front leg should be doing most of the work.

  1. The knee of the front leg should also be pushed out to the side slightly.  This will help “screw” the foot into the floor, prevent the knee from collapsing in, clear space at the front of the hip and also engage the glute muscles to a greater extent.  The knee is pushed out enough if when looking down at the foot the inside 2-3 toes are visible.  That knee position should be maintained on the decent, transition and rise up of the lunge.  I will often see the knee dive inward during the transition from down to up so really focus during that time.
  2. After stepping back into the lunge, kiss the back knee to the ground under control and return to the start position by driving up through the front foot (think about pushing through your heel) and bring your back foot forward even with the front foot.  We recommend doing 5 reps per leg before switching.  This allows self-corrections of the movement during the set whereas alternating every rep can make it difficult to feel the subtle changes needing to be made.

Tweak to then perform the forward or walking lunge safely:

  1. The main difference here is that momentum forward will need to be controlled and reined in so that knee doesn’t travel too far forward putting weight only in the forefoot.  To accomplish this take a large step forward but then drop the hips straight down.
  2. Again, the bottom position of the forward or walking lunge should look no different than the drop step lunge.

These concepts should get anyone lunging or teaching the lunge on the right path.  Of course there are million way to perform this movement differently but it’s always best to master the fundamentals before progressing into other types.

In summary, while it does not get near the attention of squatting the lunge should be a part of EVERY strength and conditioning program.  Be aware of how and why it’s different than the squat and use that as an advantage when programming for yourself or others.  Be patient with the reps, think about where your weight should be (especially in the lead foot) and where the knees should be positioned in relation to the feet and hips.

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What if Grandma Could squat? 

What if Grandma could squat?  I mean it, what if Grandma could drop her hips, bend her knees and get her ass on and off any seat in the world?  What if her doctor didn’t tell her not to squat because it’s bad for her knees?  What if he wouldn’t tell her that because she wouldn’t be complaining about her knee or hip pain?  What if Grandma was strong?  What if Grandma stayed strong?  Like strong enough to squat down, grab her granddaughter, stand up and walk away as if it was no effort at all.  What if Grandma turned into Great Grandma and could still squat?  Great Grandma could squat down onto the toilet with no help, no hand rails and no worries about her weak hip or ailing back.  What if Great Grandma didn’t have a weak hip or ailing back because Great Grandma can and does squat, on the regular?  What if Grandma and Great Grandma stayed independent? 

I know, Grandma does not squat because Grandma gets pain when she squats.  Grandma does not squat because she’s old and old people don’t squat.  Grandma doesn’t squat because she doesn’t know how.  Grandma doesn’t need to squat.  Grandma doesn’t have the energy to squat.  It’s not safe for Grandma to squat.  Besides, even if we taught Grandma to squat she would forget how and no one is there to make sure she’s continues to do it safely. 

What if that’s bullshit? What if Grandma did squat?  What if every day Grandma woke up and did 10 perfect squats down to toilet seat height?  What would happen to Grandma’s strength? To her confidence? Bone health? Mobility? Quality of life? Independence? Longevity?  You know what would happen?  They’d all fucking improve.  Grandma would incur a whole host of benefits.  No fractured hip, no walker, no help getting up the stairs, no life alert bracelet.  So why doesn’t Grandma do this? Why doesn’t she squat?  Hell, why doesn’t everyone squat? 

As things stand, it’s honestly good that everyone is not performing the squat for fitness, longevity, health and independence.  This is because the elderly, the young and the middle aged all really suck at squatting with any type of proficiency.  And squatting poorly will not reap the great rewards of fitness, longevity, health and independence. Squatting poorly will no doubt cause pain, dysfunction and a decrease in quality of life.  So, really when the doctor tells Grandma and Great Grandma not to squat because it’s bad for your knees, he’s partially right.  However, what he should tell Grandma and Great Grandma is not “you should not squat” but “you should not squat LIKE THAT!”

So what gives?  How do we fix this dilemma?  How do we get the masses of Grandmas and Great Grandmas to squat well so that they may live well?  There are certainly not enough strength coaches, physical therapists, and personal trainers available to even teach your Grandma and mine to squat well, let alone continue to follow them over time to ensure they continue to squat correctly.

Until now, this dilemma did not have a solution but the people at Movement Guides, Inc feel a solution has been created.  It’s called the SquatGuide™ and it’s helping people move correctly and get functionally stronger all over the United States.  Yes, grandma  can use the SquatGuide and in no time be happily getting on and off the toilet safely without a raised seat or hand rails. 

The device is the first of its kind in that it prevents the user from going into a poor squat pattern while facilitating the user to squat correctly.  The user must control their own range of motion and body weight.  The device is adjustable and portable.  It is not too large or heavy and best of all not that expensive either.  It’s solidly constructed, made in the USA and invented by a physical therapist and US Army Veteran.   

The  SquatGuide™ is used in physical therapy clinics, strength and conditioning facilities, as well as in homes across the country.  While this article focuses on how it can help Grandma, it is just as effective at training young athletes and inexperienced people looking to improve their fitness and to move properly prior to starting a strength or resistance training program.   

There is an answer for long term independence with a focus on a one of the most basic movement tasks in life.  The Squat. 

SquatGuide™

Move. Like. This.™

www.MovementGuides.com

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SquatGuide™ Instructions

 

The SquatGuide is unique in offering a structure that will create the perfect squat for you every time.  With a simple design and even more user-friendly set up, there is no question about its ability to make your work out more effective. Check out the easy to follow instructions for setting up and performing with the SquatGuide. And then ask yourself this – Was that the best squat of your life?

The squatguide – Set Up & Use

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1. Set the height of the knee guides to the height of your knees.


 

2. Set the width of your foot plates so that your heels will be shoulder width apart when standing on the SquatGuide™ (This is our recommended stance width to start from.  Users may prefer a slightly more narrow or wider stance).

3. Stand on the SquatGuide™ with your toes touching the front rail and the outside of your foot touching the lateral rail (essentially in the front outside corner of the foot plate).

4. Bring your arms up to shoulder height in front of you.

5. Begin to squat by first sending your hips backwards while keeping your chest up (move hips prior to bending your knees).

6. As you lower into the squat make contact with the outside knee guides and
avoid touching the front knee guides.

7. Maintain contact with outside knee guides until you return to standing position.

some tips

• The goal is not to see how far out you can push your knees.  Do not push out so far that your big toes come off the ground.
• As you get lower into your squat it may help to push your knees out to provide stability and minimize the feeling falling backwards.
• Try to prevent your lower back from rounding and your tailbone from tucking under – we advise that you do not squat so low that this happens
• Ideally each knee will be pushed out equally during your squat.

For assembly instructions please view our assembly video at:
http://www.movementguides.com/video-guides-set-up-and-use/

 

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