If you’ve been training long enough, one of the most common injury’s or pains you’ll come across is shoulder pain. Whether it hurts while bench pressing and overhead pressing or simply just nags at your mechanics during other lifts, rotator cuff miscues can be frustrating when not addressed. The good news is that surgery is usually not the course of action that’s needed and that through some release, therapy and strengthening of the correct muscles, your rotator cuff will be stronger than ever before.
What is the Rotator Cuff?
The muscles that make up the rotator cuff include the:
☐ Teres minor
The supraspinatus muscle acts as an abductor of the shoulder girdle and its main purpose is to aid in allowing the arm to move up and down from horizontal planes. The infraspinatus muscle is attached on the backside of the scapula and is one of the larger muscles that make up the rotator cuff. Its main purpose is to help stabilize the shoulder joint as well lateral rotation of the shoulder. The teres minor goes right along with the infraspinatus in that its main function is to also stabilize the shoulder joint and very lightly adducts the arms, but it also assists in drawing the humerus into the scapula correctly. Finally, the subscapularis (which is the largest and strongest cuff muscle) has the main function of medially rotating the shoulder at the shoulder joint itself.
How to Avoid Injury
The rotator cuff basically keeps the scapula in a smooth plane of motion while doing any sort of overhead movements. When bench pressing, your scapula should be retracted during the entirety of the lift in order to keep the shoulders safe and to help stick out the chest to isolate the muscle through the lift. The cuff is also important in moves like pull-ups and deadlifts for keeping your rotator cuff health in check will allow your lats and middle/lower traps to fire and engage correctly to perform the lifts correctly and with greater force
One of the main things to check and make sure the rotator cuff is protected, is that it is warmed up before any heavy pressing movements. If you throw 315 on the bar without the proper warm-up, the chest is not warm and neither is the shoulder girdle. Since the rotator cuff is a bunch of small muscles, excessive weight is not needed to either warm it up or strengthen it. So when performing any type of warm-up, it should be incredibly light and be more focused on form and not working the muscles to feel pain or fatigue.
How to Fix It
We all know that injury’s occur all to often from incorrect shoulder mechanics that leave the shoulder in a vulnerable position and thus can create either trigger points, pulls, tears or just leaving the shoulder in a poor position. The first thing we can do to correct rotator cuff mechanics and to alleviate a lot of shoulder pain is working on your posture. Most of us probably have a job where sitting at a desk for the majority of the day is inevitable. But just because you have to sit a majority of the day doesn’t give you the excuse to sit poorly. Ensure your abs and core are tight, keep the hips and glutes slightly engaged (yes even while sitting) and have your shoulders pulled back with the muscles of the middle back providing strength for this hold.
With posture fixed, the next thing to do is to release bound up trigger points, scar tissue and overall tightness within the rotator cuff region. More than likely if you’ve had poor posture, the backside of the rotator cuff is extremely stretched and the front side of the shoulder is incredibly tight. Using either a tennis ball or lacrosse ball, roll directly on all the muscles of the rotator cuff (YouTube exercises if you don’t know already) and get your rotator cuff back to functioning properly through a new found range of motion. The front side of the chest and front deltoid is also considered a culprit. Due to the rounded shoulders throughout the day and even while lifting, the chest becomes tight and makes the scapula itself begin to pull off the back and “wing” in a sense. Using a tennis or lacrosse ball up against a wall is a great way to unblock the limited range of motion and restore proper mechanics through the front side of the pecs/shoulder.
Exercises to Keep it Strong
Because the rotator cuff is such a weak link on many, getting it strong is a key foundation in keeping it healthy. For the vast majority of folks reading this, your shoulders are probably already internally rotated which means your external rotators are weak. Do things to strengthen the upper back and external rotators like:
☐ Dumbbell external rotators off the knee
☐ Lying dumbbell side raises
☐ Incline Y raises
☐ Face pulls with a rope to offset the constant pushing motion and rolled forward shoulders
A great movement that improves scapular mobility and allows the scapula to suck back into the middle back is the serratus push-up. This allows the scapula to suck back into the rib cage and also get a good stretch to really exaggerate the plane of movement. All of these movements will help strengthen the rotator cuff as a whole and keep the shoulder set into the correct girdle position and the scapula in a healthy plane of movement.
Take Home Message
Although we all have nagging things on our body that make us feel under 100%, there is no reason not to address these issues with just as much intensity as training. Do your body some good and keep yourself far from injury and your fitness journey will last as long as you want it to. Invest in a good lacrosse ball, maybe a foam roller or two and you’ll be set to improve shoulder mechanics and keep your rotator cuff working on top form.