The shoulder is the most mobile and unstable joint in the body. It’s evolutionary function has being that of facilitating the manipulation of tools, allowing a range of motion like no other but at the cost of instability. Stability here refers to the capacity of a joint to keep proper anatomical position, whereas it is in a moving or a resting position. This basically ensures proper functioning, longevity and performance.
In the case of the shoulders, the joint lies in a ball type socket that makes us very vulnerable for shoulder injuries. In fact, for most people who don’ t exercise (but also for those who do) the probability of having shoulder problems at some moment in their lives is high. Also, understanding the role of the shoulder is a key component in all of the movements that involve it, specially in disciplines like gymnastics. This is why this article looks to provide some understanding about the shoulder function and key concepts to stabilize it. More over, it looks to give an example of how to go about stabilizing joints, specially the complex ones. Even though we will never be certain to be injury free, preparing for the unknown is the wisest thing when talking about the shoulder.
Movements of the scapula
The scapula is the bone that floats in the upper part of the back. It is surrounded by 17 little muscles that work in conjunction to create movement and put into position the shoulders. This is why there is no stabilization of the shoulder without first looking at the scapula.
The scapula has the following movements:
- Elevation: The scapula moves upwards.
- Depression: The scapula moves downwards.
- Retraction: The scapula moves towards the spine.
- Protraction: The scapula moves away from the spine.
- Upward rotation: The lower part of the scapula moves away from the spine, the upper part of the scapula moves towards the spine.
- Downward rotation: The lower part of the scapula moves towards the spine, the upper part of the scapula moves away from the spine.
Movements of the shoulder
The shoulder has the following movements:
- Flexion: The shoulder moves fowards.
- Extension: The shoulder moves backwards.
- Adduction: The shoulder moves towards the body. It can be horizontal or vertical.
- Abduction: The shoulder moves away from the body. It can be horizontal or vertical.
- Internal rotation: The shoulder moves to the inside of the body. It can be at various levels, like at the umbilicus, neck or any other, with a bend or a straight arm.
- External rotation: The shoulder moves to the outside of the body. It can be at various levels, like at the umbilicus, neck or any other, with a bend or a straight arm.
- Circumduction: Rotational movement of the shoulder.
Even though all of this might sound complex, in reality it is not. What the methodology to stabilize the shoulder usually tells is to strengthen the muscles that are weak and stretch the ones that are tight. This is done in the logic of compensating for the patterns that we usually have in our daily life. So, if you normally work as a computer programer that tends to have a curved back, you would have to compensate that pattern for the shoulder to be healthy. It is, basically, about assuming the price of our live styles.
Nevertheless, I have found that the last methodology is usually too simplistic. I won’t go into all of the details for now, but instead I propose you this road:
Step #1: Mobilize the joint
A healthy joint is one that can move, period. Above all of the more surgical training that you do in individual muscles, what the real test is when the joint is asked to move in various ranges of motion.
For this step you may use joint rotations, resistance bands or any other method that mobilizes the scapula and the shoulder at the same time in an integral manner.
Step #2: Release the fascial knots around the joint
Even though we usually focus on muscles, the connective tissue is what holds together those muscles into a coherent system that creates movements, posture and function. Here, the fascia is a crucial component in the sense that around it some knots may be created that impede correct transmittance of force or movement. Just releasing this spots may create a huge release for the person, as they tend to be little stabilizer muscles like the subscapularis, infraspinatus or teres major that are invokved in many motions. You can see one example of this here.
Step #3: Stretch the muscles that are tight
Even though each person is different, there are muscles that due to our common live styles or even design are usually tight. If not addressed, this tightness will create with time deformity in the skeleton, taking away from us the opportunity to adopt any shape or function that we want to. The muscles that we normally want to stretch are the flexors, meaning the ones that take our body into a fetal position like the pec minor, the biceps or the anterior (front) part of the deltoid.
Step #4: Strengthen the muscles that are weak
In a similar manner that the last point, each person will have unique weak muscles, but the common ones are the extensors, meaning the ones that take us out of a fetal position. Examples of those are the external rotators, the scapula retractors and the posterior (back) part of the deltoid. Weakness or tension are relative, meaning that even a strong and flexible gymnast may have weak or tight muscles in relationship to others muscles in his own body.
Step #5: Integrate
As said in the first point, any pin pointed work that you do on a muscle will be irrelevant if you do not integrate it into a coherent whole. This is why you should also integrate the muscles with exercises that challenge their mobility and stability. There is nothing that exploits more the scapula potential that gymnastics, which is the reason for this type of exercises to be recommended.
Step #6: Relax the trigger points that hold tension
Another system that connects the individual parts in the body apart from the fascia is the energetic system. This is still greatly ignored in the western world, but the traditional practices in Asia have shown the importance of the Qi channels around the body. If you want to have an integral approach, you need to address them. I reccomend doing this on surrounding musculature that affects the scapula, like the pectoralis minor, the biceps, the scalenes (front part of the neck) or the lattisimus dorsi (lats).
The shoulder is the most complex joint of the body, which is how it’s training may also look like. But it is also the one that can offer the most complexity, which is why spending time in taking care of it is worth it.
One last word of caution: just as every muscle of the shoulder depends on the other ones, the shoulder itself depends on the rest of the body. This is why many people have shoulder problems due to postural ones, that many times start at the feet or the hips. Even though training little muscles may not be as attractive as doing handstands or bench presses, it is the attention to details what in the long run will determine our longevity, strength and physical vitality.
If you’d like to know more about these topics, I recommend the work of Tom Myers and Charles Poliquin
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