Updated: Apr 10
Shoulder pain is a very common complaint in athletes, especially those that are considered overhead athletes: baseball, volleyball, tennis, lacrosse. Overhead athletes are those that use their arm and shoulder to throw a ball, typically overhead, in their sport. These sports use repetitive movements of the arm and shoulder and can wear out very quickly leading to inflammation, ligament and tendon tears, and/or impingement at the shoulder.
General strengthening will definitely be beneficial for overall strength of your upper body, but oftentimes it is the smaller stabilizing, endurance muscles that get missed. It is also important that when you strengthen your shoulder muscles you focus on proper posture and technique with sport-specific movements. Let’s dive into this a little more.
Shoulder Stabilizers and How to Strengthen Them
What are the most important muscles for overhead athletes? Well, there are many, but the rotator cuff and postural muscles need to be in tip-top shape. These muscles are mostly endurance muscles and should be strengthened by utilizing increased reps. We want these muscles to not run out of energy as they are used over and over again in the overhead movements.
Building up endurance is done by completing an exercise with a lower weight and increased reps: 4 sets of 15 for example with moderate fatigue after each set. However, most importantly, is that by the end of each set your form should not falter. The goal is to get the muscle to tolerate a lot of repetitions with good form so that you can translate that into game-time situations and not strain the shoulder.
The rotator cuff consists of four muscles: supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres, and subscapularis.
The most common muscles to have issues are the supraspinatus and biceps, which comes up through the grove in the front of the shoulder and inserts into the labrum deep in the joint. The main problem is that the muscles become impinged in the small space that they have to pass through because of a few reasons:
Weak postural, scapular, RTC muscles,
Weakness in overhead positions,
Decreased endurance with overhead movements, or
A combination of problems.
To get rid of the pain, you’ve got to fix the problem(s). Let’s look at a few ways to do just that.
Rotator Cuff and Postural Strengthening
There are many ways to strengthen these muscles and what you use will be dependent upon where your weaknesses lie and what sport you play. Yet, these are a few of the more basic strengthening exercises for the rotator cuff and postural muscles.
Prone T, Y, I
Prone External Rotation
External Rotation w/ Resistance Band
Repetitive Overhead Movements Should Be a Whole Body Effort
If you watch a volleyball player spike or serve the ball, for example, you will see that their entire body is working to hit the ball, not sure their shoulder or arm. An athlete will have a lot more power if they recruit help from their core, glutes, postural muscles, and legs to hit, serve, or throw the ball. Utilizing more muscles will also take strain off of the shoulder and preserve it for a longer athletic career.
The hardest part about using more muscles for overhead movements isn’t the strengthening part. The hardest part is learning how to turn these muscles on while we are playing our sport. The best time to learn the control of each of these important muscles is by practicing. Slow down the movements, use sport-specific exercises to focus on what your form looks like and what muscles you are using.
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