Athletic Shoulders: Training the Shoulder Girdle for Sports Performance

Over the years I have worked with a wide variety of athletes. Soccer players, runners, squash players and martial artists. In all of my athletes I have found limited range of motion and overall weakness. Though the athletes on the tight side do have strength in certain ranges, these ranges are usually limited (straight forward, straight up). In the rare cases of hypermobility the athletes lack strength and the ability to protect the joints involved.

Regardless of their sport the regimen for training the shoulders is usually comprised of linear, robotic movements. Push ups, pull ups, shoulder press, lateral raises and maybe the occasional rotator cuff exercise are usually the movements of choice. Though these may make sense in a fitness routine, they hardly cover the vast ranges of movement and velocity the shoulder has to utilize in performance. In addition they create a hyperactive upper body that activates too early in the kinetic chain and often too aggressively.

The shoulder is a ball and socket joint. It flexes, it extends, it rotates, and moves across and away from the body. The scapula (shoulder blades) protract, retract, rotate (up and down), abduct (separate), adduct (squeeze together), elevate and depress. Ideally this happens in a smooth and graceful manner. This is rarely the case. Typical methods of training the shoulder (see above) compress the head of the humerus in the glenoid fossa of the scapula (aka the socket). In addition the scapula is often in a fixed position. This is ideal under external load but hardly ever in athletic movements. This limits its ability to move freely and severely hinders throwing ability, racquet and running speed. This starts off as tightness, then chronic soreness and in some cases this can progress to injury.

To truly train the shoulder as it was meant to move you have to change your way of looking at exercise. Forget what muscle or muscle groups you are trying to train. Try and focus on two things: 1) What ranges are you tight and/or weak in? 2) What motions do your shoulders have to perform in your sport?

Once you have identified these two things it’s time to get things moving. When training for athletic performance we need light weight and flowing (and ideally fast) full body motions. Small handled medicine balls, cables, bands and wrist weights are ideal. When selecting a weight pick one that doesn’t hinder your speed, power or quality of movement. Don’t think about fatiguing any one muscle. Focus more on enhancing your movements.

When selecting movements try throwing and swinging versus pushing and pulling. The power should generate from the feet and surge through the body in a seamless manner. If this is done in a competent manner, by the time the force reaches the shoulder it can loosen up those tight areas (#1). This teaches the overused and tight muscle to wait its turn to activate in correct order and in a more appropriate manner. Ideally it should activate and let the power flow through it instead of tensing up and taking the brunt of the movement. When addressing tightness make sure not to move through pain or extreme tightness. Stop just short of these sensations. Trying to power through will shut down your speed mechanisms and can cause injury.

Over time and with precision and care you can make vast improvements in tight overused areas. Once this is accomplished you can now move onto sports specific movement. Once again use light weights and fast and flowing full body movements. Strive for graceful power in your movement with seamless transitions from one muscle to the next. Once that grace or power dissipates end the movement. Pushing or muscling through these movements for the sake of volume ultimately sets back your progress for athletic speed and power. Make sure and rest long enough not only to catch your breath but allow enough time for you to regain the ability to move with force and grace.

This isn’t by any means an easy process. Avoiding and improving on tight and injured areas while improving sports performance is a whole different creature than fitness. It takes time, dedication, precision and most of all patience. Keep your eye on the long term goals of longevity and quality of movement and feel your body heal and watch your athleticism reach heights.

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