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.

Kyle Sela, PT, DPT, OCS, SCS, CSCS

Kyle is a physical therapist who is a board certified specialist in sports and orthopedics. He completed a sports medicine fellowship at Duke University in the Management of Division I Athletes and served as a physical therapist on active duty in the US Army where he cared for a Brigade Combat Team during a deployment to Iraq. His passion is in movement efficiency and maximizing every patient's potential to live life to the highest quality. The SquatGuide™ reflects years of experience teaching people to squat with great form and efficiency so that they may benefit from this great exercise.

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