If you are a serious calisthenics athlete, it’s possible you’ve experienced one (or all) of the following:
- Pain in the front of your shoulder (during muscle-ups, dips, pushups, etc)
- Pain when your arms are overhead (during pullups, handstand pushups, etc)
What is causing your pain could be a variety of things. Shoulder impingement, rotator cuff tendonitis and bursitis are common in the physical culture community.
Whatever the name – they can all stop your training dead in its tracks.
If not treated, they can also turn into chronic issues. Fortunately, there are exercises you can do at home or in the gym that help all of those conditions.
But let’s dig deeper…
Why did you get shoulder pain in the first place? Why are your shoulders so easy to re-injure?
During the extreme ranges of motion and strength level required in calisthenics training – things can go wrong (especially if you are lacking full range of motion.) In simple terms, you end up ramming your soft tissues against your hard tissues and pissing everything off.
Once this happens, shoulders are notoriously prone to re-injury. One basic reason is that there is not a lot of space in certain parts of the shoulder.
For example, subacromial impingement occurs when the subacromial space is narrowed and the soft tissues gets compressed, injured and inflamed.
Due to this lack of space + the swelling that occurs – once inflamed, the shoulder easily becomes re-inflamed.
If you’ve had this happen, you are frustratingly familiar with this vicious cycle of re-injury.
When this condition lingers further it can progress to even more damage to the tissue (tendonosis).
So, it’s essential to address the root causes if you want to fix the issue for good.
What are the Root Causes of Shoulder Problems?
Pain is a complex topic so it’s impossible to give the one answer. It can be biomechanical (anatomical, structural, postural, movement related) or even lifestyle / nutrition / recovery related.
All of these are factors:
- Bone morphology (genetics)
- Mobility (combination of genetics + training)
- Posture habits (lifestyle)
- Sleep habits (lifestyle)
- Sitting habits (lifestyle)
- Poor nutrition (lifestyle)
- What’s going on in your head (psychology)
However, most often in the bodyweight training community it is a mobility / flexibility problem.
If you are a follower of FitnessFAQs, we will assume you know proper technique and know some good basic shoulder strengthening exercises (band pull-aparts, etc). So, we are going to focus on the mobility issues.
What Causes Bad Shoulder Mobility?
As with pain, there is no single cause of bad shoulder mobility. Typically, it is a combination of posture, anatomy, soft tissue quality and range of motion (ROM).
- Acromion process morphology (shape) which can be Type 1, 2 or 3 (bone shape)
- Glenohumeral / scapula position and motor control during movement (technique)
- Thoracic spine posture (posture)
- Density or shortness in the pecs, delts, lats or other structures of the shoulder (muscles)
- Neck musculature tightness (especially scalenes) and first rib motion (muscles)
Sounds pretty complicated, huh? Well…sorta.
In laymen’s terms – your posture sucks and your muscles are too dense or tight.
How does a joint designed to be super mobile become the opposite of mobile?
Looking around at the world we live in, sitting for 8+ hours a day since childhood (grade school, middle school, high school, college, work, driving, television, etc)…how could we not have tight, injury prone shoulders?
Most people have been slowly losing shoulder range of motion at an insidiously slow pace since childhood. Its usually in your 20’s, 30’s or 40’s when the sleeping volcano that is your lack of range of motion in your thoracic, glenohumeral and scapula region rears its ugly head!
Good news is you can reverse this trend! Often dramatically if you learn the right approach.
I did it, many of my athletes have done it, and so can you.
The video at the top of this article includes my favorite exercises for beginning your journey. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a really good place to start.
But Wait… What If You Have Tight Shoulders But No Pain?
If you know you have tight shoulders but don’t experience shoulder pain – congratulations! However, before you start celebrating, be aware that your body may be compensating.
Your limited range of motion has not yet caused an injury – but is it doing damage to other areas of the body?
One comical example of this is when my big, buff athletes (who can barely put their arms overhead) will brag to me about how they’ve never had shoulder pain.
“That’s great!” I say. “How are your elbows and low back doing?” (usually met with a blank stare followed by a gradual “A-Ha!” look of realization)
Learning that pain doesn’t always manifest in the area you are tight is a vital lesson for athletes.
Think about it…your body’s #1 goal is to keep you moving at all costs.
Imagine being on the great plains of Africa millions of years ago and experiencing a stubbed toe. If your body wasn’t able to adapt (compensate) and use other muscles and movement patterns to hobble around, you would be lion food!
The human body is an amazing compensation machine. It will get the job done and keep you moving…even if it has to slowly sacrifice more and more “other” joints in the process.
As a modern-day calisthenics athlete this means that:
- Your body will sacrifice your elbows to help you swing into your bar muscle ups.
- You will get a tight, achy back when doing back bridges because your shoulders are too tight.
- You will get elbow pain in muscle ups or dips
The take-home lesson – tight shoulders can lead to injured elbows and backs. Even if you don’t have shoulder pain, try out the exercises in the video above to prevent problems down the road.
How to Use This Article/Video to Fix Your Shoulder Pain
Always consult with your doctor or medical professional before trying any of these exercises.
The meat-and-potatoes of this article / video are the exercises themselves. Watch the video, pay careful attention to the body positioning and cues, and try all the exercises.
Give these techniques a fair trial for a few weeks and your shoulders will thank you.
Tips to remember:
- The magic is in the tissue work + the stretching + learning to move better.
- Try all the exercises (even if you’ve tried “something similar” before)
- Keep working on the tissue until you’ve made noticeable change (less pain, better texture.) Two minutes per area minimum.
- Stretch for a minimum of 1-2 minutes (two is better if you’re new to stretching)
- Alternate techniques (breath/relax, contract/relax, etc)
- Retest your range of motion after each exercise
The Ultimate Test of Your Progress
It’s important to get a “before and after” to see how you are improving. To measure your progress we will use two popular calisthenics movements:
- The Back Bridge
- Dips or Muscle-Ups
The ultimate test of your progress is the actual movements you care about. If you prefer to use pullups, pushups, hanging, skin-the-cat or any other movement – go ahead. The important thing is that you test where you are at before, and where you are at after.
What should you be looking for?
Basically, look for two signs of progress: Less pain + more range of motion
Try the exercises in the video above 3-4x per week for 30-60 minutes and test your progress with your bridge, dips or muscle-ups over the next 3-4 weeks.
In the long-term you will want to develop a body maintenance routine based on these principles. You take care of the human body by massaging it, stretching it, and moving with better posture and technique.
Calisthenics / bodyweight strength training is one of the most rewarding physical activities you can engage in. It is also one of the most demanding activities requiring a high degree of flexibility + strength + motor control.
If you find yourself coming up against a shoulder issue – then step off the gas pedal of training for a short period of time while you focus on regaining some lost mobility.
Remember, the goal is to be a life-long, pain-free athlete. Don’t sacrifice long term health for short term goals.
If you find you’ve got a long way to go, just know others have been in the same situation (myself included.)
If one man or woman can do it…so can you.
Be patient, be persistent, be better.
Yours in flexibility,
About The Author
Shane Dowd, CES, CMP is the owner / founder of GotROM.com. He is also a sports performance & mobility coach specializing in injury prevention and flexibility for athletes.
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