Tag: flexibility

Stretch your Shoulders without Pain or Pinching

 

It is possible to stretch your shoulders without pain, pinching, or compromising the strength and integrity of the shoulder joint. This range of motions is necessary for a whole host of activities that require you to bring your arms overhead including weight lifting, handstands, aerial arts, yoga, and contortion… and just getting a plate off a high shelf!

Pinching or pain in the shoulder joint is often caused by sub-optimal shoulder alignment. When the bones aren’t in the right place you can create compression in the shoulder socket which can, over time, lead to injuries like impingement and tears.

Plus you wont make good progress on building your mobility and strength.

Coordinate Your Shoulder Movements

Remember that with all shoulder movement we are managing two different areas of mobility: the glenohumeral joint and the scapula. For more about shoulder anatomy please check out last month’s blog post, 3 Things You Should Know about Shoulder Anatomy to Address Shoulder Pain. Understanding shoulder mechanics is essential to mastering shoulder positioning for optimal movement.

The glenohumeral joint and the scapula each have an important job to do. And just like a choreographed duet between two dancers, if either one of them isn’t in the right place the whole thing falls apart.

I’ve broken the process of finding the correct position into three steps—and for you visual learners there is also a video below.

Step 1: External rotation of the Glenohumeral Joint

External Rotation of the Shoulder

External Rotation of the Shoulder

Internal Rotation of the Shoulder

Internal Rotation of the Shoulder

 

The glenohumeral joint, where the arm bone meets the shoulder socket, should be externally rotated when stretching. External rotation creates spaciousness in the shoulder socket and puts the arm in a more supported position.

It is much easier to achieve this position if you start with rotation before you’re in the stretch.

There are some overhead movements that call for internal rotation like the clean and jerk, but you never want to do anything at your end range of motion in internal rotation. This can lead to the dreaded pinching feeling.

If you’re having a hard time finding your external rotators, check out How to Find and Strengthen Your Rotator Cuff.

Step 2: Pull the Scapulae Apart

Illustration of Pulling the Scapulae Apart

Pull the scapulae apart creating space in the upper back.

The scapulae are capable of tremendous mobility since nothing is holding them onto your rib cage except muscles. Restriction in scapular movement comes from neglecting upper back mobility, and poor posture can make it worse. However time spent on scapular mobility has big pay-offs. In this case you want to pull your scapulae straight out to the side, away from your spine. It is easiest to do this with your arms in a T position. Don’t forget to keep that external rotation!

Note: If this is a new range for you, you may feel a deep, nervy stretch down your biceps, elbows, forearms or fingers. If this is you, GO SLOW. Don’t push into that stretch, just gradually work on it little by little over time and don’t stay in the stretch for more than a few seconds. Nerves are easily pissed off and hard to calm down. Don’t upset them!

Step 3: Upwardly Rotate the Scapulae Keeping Them Wide

Drawing showing the upward rotation of the shoulder blades

The scapulae move apart and rotate up in order to move the arms overhead for stretching.

The last step is to bring the arms overhead. This phase of the movement is highly dependent on the scapulae rotating out and up; imagine the upward rotation of a bird’s wing joint as it gets ready to fly. If the scapulae do not rotate upward sufficiently, pointing the shoulder socket towards the sky, then the shoulder muscles will have difficulty functioning properly and the glenohumeral joint will be overworked, resulting in the previously mentioned pain and pinching.

It is vitally important when upwardly rotating the scapulae to maintain steps 1 and 2 so that you don’t lose your external rotation or the width between the scapulae. Once you have all of these pieces in place, you’re ready to rock your shoulder stretch.

When you have all of the bones aligned properly, you should feel the stretch through the back of the arm, the armpit, and possibly down the side of the body. There may also be stretching through the chest (see Tight Shoulders? Try Stretching Your Pecs!). But keep in mind there is a lot of variety in anatomy and different people will experience this stretch in different places.

If you are feeling pinching, stabbing, blocking pain in the shoulder socket itself, keep working on improving your ability to do the three steps above before going deeper into the stretch. If the pain persists, I recommend seeing a doctor or PT as there may be an injury in the shoulder that needs to be addressed before stretching.

For ideas on how to create more stable, mobile shoulders and address your root causes, please check out our catalogue of shoulder mobility videos at Video Club.

Happy Bendings!

 

 

 

Tight Shoulders? Try Stretching your Pecs!

Tight shoulders restrict athletic performance and our daily activities. A key aspect of upper body health is to have full shoulder flexion, meaning you’re easily able to lift your arms straight up over your without arching your back. If you are interested in contortion, handstands, or advanced yoga poses you will want even more range, building the ablility to move your arms behind your ears with strength and good form.

There are a number of different structural and muscular factors that can restrict mobility here including the ability of the scapulae to rotate upward and correctly position the shoulder socket (see my blog post on shoulder anatomy for more info about this), instability in the rotator cuff muscles leading to tightness (see the rotator cuff post for more info), and tight lats, among others.

But today we are going to talk about a reasonably common cause of decreased mobility with a relatively easy short-term fix (yay): stretching the pectoral muscles.

What is the Pectoralis Major?

The pectoralis major muscles connect the front of the upper arm bone (humerus) to the bones of the front of the rib cage and the clavicle. It is one of only two bones that connect the arm to the torso rather than the scapula, and it’s a big, powerful muscle capable of lifting a lot of weight. This is the muscle that leads the way for weighted movements like push-ups and bench presses.

The pec major is a pretty common muscle to be highly active and over-worked. Lots of people train push-up style exercises without doing a corresponding amount to work the back of the body. Exercises like benching heavy or continuous sun salutations bias these muscles. If your form is off and your back muscles aren’t active, or your shoulders are forward rotated because of poor posture, those pec muscles can get very stressed out and tight.

Cute skeleton girl with a glowing pectoralis major muscle

Pectoralis Major can contribute to tight shoulders

How Does the Pectoralis Major Effect Shoulder Flexibility?

Since the whole job of the pec muscle is to pull the arm in towards the body, it makes sense that they could get in the way of that overhead shoulder flexibility. Tight pecs will pull the arm bone in and down, creating a concave chest, hunched shoulders, and forward rounded scapulae. Then when you try to stretch your arms overhead they may feel very heavy, blocked, or pinchy, and it will be hard to straighten your elbows and find external rotation.

For folks with chronically tight pecs, a relatively quick stretch of the pectorals can immediately confer a satisfying increase in range of motion of the shoulders. For my favorite pec stretch (I call it the clock stretch) check out the video below. All you need is a wall to do it, and it targets all the different fibers of the pectorals and even gets a little bit into the pec minor which runs underneath the pec major and is a big contributor to hunchy shoulders.

This is a Short-Term Fix!

Pro tip: the gains provided by the clock stretch can potentially feel miraculous, but they do not address the root causes of your tight pectoralis muscles!

If you find that the clock stretch provides a noticeable improvement in your shoulder flexibility I highly recommend that you take a look at your posture and training regimen in order to figure out why they are tight.

Passive stretches like the clock stretch are great quick fixes. They can feel good and provide windows of opportunity to try out greater ranges in our joints, but they don’t change our bodies’ fundamental configuration. Sleuthing down the root causes of tightness will give you a more sustainable change and ease of movement in the ranges you desire.

For ideas on how to create more stable, mobile shoulders and address your root causes, please check out our catalogue of shoulder mobility videos at Video Club.

 

How to Find and Strengthen Your Rotator Cuff Muscles

When I received my MRI back from the doctor’s office it just said “rotator cuff tear”. What a tease!

There are four rotator cuff muscles in the shoulder and each of them does a different, vitally important role. Even medical professionals tend to lump them together into one poorly-defined category. But the better you know each one and can strengthen them with precision, the easier it will be to keep your shoulders happy and healthy.

The rotator cuff muscles are responsible for the rotational qualities of your arm bone in your shoulder socket. They are also vital to the stabilization of the arm bone since the shoulder socket is very shallow and the bone has the potential to slip out of place without muscular support. This means that the balance of each individual muscle is necessary to keep the arm bone centered in the joint.

So let’s meet the team!

Subscapularis

The subscapularis is responsible for internal rotation and stabilizes the arm bone from slipping forward in the shoulder joint. This is a very important job since the most common shoulder dislocation is in a forward direction. The subscap attaches to the front of the arm bone and runs along the underneath side of the shoulder blade to attach along its inside edge. This means it’s very difficult to poke at your subscapularis since it’s mostly an internal muscle.

Illustration of a glamorous skeleton with a glowing subscapularis muscle

The Subscapularis Muscle

Supraspinatus

The supraspinatus is responsible for rotating the arm bone up in the socket and protects against the arm popping sideways out of the socket. It attaches to a boney ridge on the top of the shoulder blade and runs through a little hole in between the shoulder socket and the arm bone to fasten to the outside of the arm bone. This journey through the little hole between two bones makes the supraspinatus especially prone to sadness because improper shoulder mechanics can crush the tendon and over time lead to tearing. Since it’s right underneath the powerful deltoid it is easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention.

Cute skeleton with a pony tail and a glowing pink supraspinatus rotator cuff muscle

The Supraspinatus Muscle

Infraspinatus

The infraspinatus is responsible for external rotation and stabilizes the arm bone from slipping backwards out of the shoulder socket. It attaches to the outside edge of the shoulder blade and runs along the top of the shoulder blade to fasten to the back of the arm bone. Since modern posture biases internal rotation of the shoulder, most of us could use a little more external rotation love from the infraspinatus.

Teres Minor

The teres minor is the bff of the infraspinatus and they do everything together. The teres minor is a smaller muscle that sits just under the infraspinatus and reinforces the external rotation and stabilization role. For our purposes you can think of the teres minor as the Robin to the infraspinatus’ Batman.

A skeleton with cute hair and star earrings and a glowing infraspinatus and teres minor rotator cuff muscles

Infraspinatus and Teres Minor Muscles

 

Compared to the big, beefy deltoids, biceps, and triceps, the rotator cuff muscles are relatively small. If you only do shoulder strengthening with heavier weights it is very easy to go right to the bigger muscles since they are designed for the big, dramatic movements. To feel and strengthen the rotator cuff muscles it is better to use light weight, or even no weight at all, to make sure that the bigger muscles aren’t called into action.

The video below shows three unweighted, easy isometrics that you can use to experience each of your rotator cuff muscles and develop your relationship with them. Once that relationship is established you can add weight and movement to build their capacity. But you can’t strengthen a muscle that you can’t find or feel so this is a great start in getting to know your shoulders so you can all be friends!

Spend time getting to know your rotator cuff team. It’s a relationship you will value for the rest of your life.

 

3 Things You Should Know About Shoulder Anatomy to Address Shoulder Pain

When I first injured my right shoulder in 2010 I joined the ranks of circus performers, acrobats, dancers, and athletes with shoulder injuries. I was bummed out, but far from alone. It is one of the most common sites for pain and injury for anyone who engages in vigorous upper body activities from aerial arts to lifting groceries out of the trunk.

And it’s no wonder. Shoulders are a complicated piece of equipment and, even though most of us have them, they didn’t come with an instruction manual. When I started to learn more about how shoulders are constructed I was amazed, and immediately changed the way I was training, stretching, and thinking about shoulder movement.

So here are three things that I wish I had known before I injured my shoulder that have helped me in my rehab process and informed the way I address shoulder pain in my clients.

The Shoulder is Not 1 Joint… It’s 4 Joints!

1. The Sternoclavicular joint is the place where your clavicle meets your sternum, right below your throat. We aren’t going to worry to much about this one because there aren’t a ton of muscles that affect it, but it’s important to know that it exists!

Stylish skeleton showing the sternoclavicular joint

Where the clavical meets the sternum and is attached by some ligaments.

2. The Glenohumeral joint is what we traditionally think of as the shoulder joint, where the arm bone meets the shoulder socket. It is pretty mobile, controlled by the rotator cuff, deltoids, pectorals, and lats. However it is vital to know that the glenohumeral joint, if no other joints are moving, cannot lift your arm above about shoulder height and is pretty limited at bringing your arm behind your back.

Adorable skeleton showing the movement of the glenohumeral joint

The Glenohumeral joint where the Humerous meets the Scapula and Clavical in a ball and socket joint.

3. The Scapular joint is the most mobile part of your shoulder. There is nothing but muscle attaching your scapulae to your back. No bones, no connective tissue, just muscles. The scapulae is primarily controlled by the trapezius (upper, lower, and mid), the levator scapula, the serratus, and the rhomboids. These muscles coordinate in an intricate dance to move the scapulae all over your upper back to position the shoulder socket for optimal arm movement. It is this versatility that gives the shoulder its mobility but also makes it extra tricky to control and understand.*

Adorable skeleton drawing showing the scapulae moving around the back

The scapulae have no bones or ligaments attaching them to the back so they can move around all over the place!

4. The acromioclavicular joint is where the scapula and the clavical come together. Since we don’t have a lot of musclular control of this joint I’m not going to bog us down but it is important to mention that this is another area that can have pain and strains if you aren’t using proper shoulder mechanics.

 

Only 2 Muscles Attach your Arm to Your Torso, The Rest Attach to the Scapula

So here is this wild, wiggly scapula floating around on your upper back, and the kicker is that the stability of the shoulder is deeply dependent on the stability of this very mobile joint. Only two muscles go directly from the arm bone to the torso. They are big, important muscles though: the pectorals run from the arm bone to the sternum and the latissimus dorsi run from the arm bone all the way down to the base of the spine and the pelvis. These are great muscles for big movements like push-ups and pull-ups, but they aren’t stabilizer muscles.

All of the muscles that provide finer control of the shoulder (the rotator cuff muscles and the deltoids) attach to the scapulae. And that means that no matter how much you strengthen your rotator cuff or pump up those delts, if you don’t have control over your scapulae then you are anchoring those muscles to an unstable surface.

This is why any campaign to improve shoulder health and address shoulder pain must include the muscles of the upper back.

 

We Must Improve Our Strength, Control, and Mobility in our Upper Back

Almost everyone I work with, myself included, could improve the strength, control, and mobility of our upper back muscles. The scapulae are theoretically capable of amazing ranges of movement and can act as a gorgeous base for shoulder strength and mobility. But poor posture, lack of attention, and just not being aware of what is going on in the back side of our body has a cumulative affect of creating tight, weak, unenthusiastic scapular muscles.

When our scapulae don’t engage and move properly it has a profound effect on the ability of the shoulder to do its thing.

One common example of this is when the scapulae are stuck in an elevated forward rounded position (computer hunch). This means that when we lift our arms over our head to do a pull-up or put dishes away after dinner, our glenohumeral joint, which doesn’t work well one it’s own once the arms are above shoulder height, has to strain past its happy place because it’s not getting the help it needs from the scapular joint. Over time this can lead to the miserable condition known as shoulder impingement and even to tears in the supraspinatus tendon.

That is just one of many sad stories about what can happen with the scapulae aren’t strong and free to do their job.

What I took away from learning all this was that I need to spend much, much more time thinking about my upper back and my scapulae. And that extra time has paid off in reduced shoulder pain, increased stability and mobility, and improved performance overall.

If you are curious about what has worked for me and for my clients, the shoulder series included in the Video Club Membership has a lot of the exercises I love to coordinate between the shoulder joints and build scapular awareness.

Happy Bendings!
Kristina

 

*OK, you anatomy experts know I left out the scapuloclavicular joint. This is where the scapula and clavicle come together but since it has very little movement I don’t want to muddy the waters with excess information. But if you have a burning desire to get deep into shoulder anatomy, this is the fourth joint.

 

What is the Difference Between a Straddle Split and a Middle Split?

The straddle split and the middle split are similar, and there can be some confusion between the two. However the relationship with gravity makes these two splits feel very different, especially for newer benders. Knowing the difference is very important for ensuring proper form and developing the strength, flexibility, and control in your lower body.

The primary difference is in the position of the pelvic bones. Pay attention to the alignment of those bones and you will know whether you are in a straddle or a middle split.

The Straddle Split

In a straddle split, the pelvis is in “anatomical” position. This means it is aligned as if you were standing up, with the three bones in the front of the pelvis—the hip bones and the pubic bone (anterior superior iliac spine and pubis)—facing forwards.

The bones at the base of the pelvis are on the floor. These “sit bones” (ischium if you want to get formal about it) take the weight of your body so that you are not supporting yourself with your legs.

The legs move apart to the extent that they are able. If your straddle has the shape of a small slice of pizza or if your feet are so far apart that they are behind your hips, it’s still a straddle.

It is also still a straddle split if you are leaning forward. That means that if you start to lean forward and the only way that you can get your chest towards the floor is by allowing your sit bones to come up off the floor, you are losing your form. Wherever you move your torso, you want to have the strength and control to keep that pelvis in the same alignment. That separation between the pelvic position and the torso is part of the gift of training straddle splits.

The Middle Split

In a middle split the entire pelvis rotates 90 degrees forward.

Now those sit bones are not on the floor, they are facing back behind you. Your hip bones and pubic bone are now facing the floor. The body is usually aligned parallel to the floor, however you will see middle splits with a backbend that brings the body back to vertical. Either way, it’s still a middle split because of the pelvic position.

In this position the relationship with gravity means that your legs are now supporting your body weight unless you are flexible enough to get to a 180 degree split. This is why the middle split is so challenging for newer benders.

The inner thighs are receiving contradictory messages to “relax” and lengthen, and to hold you up. They may get confused and start to scream. This is why, for so many folks, middle splits are unpleasant and even emotionally draining. A careful ramp-up is necessary to avoid misery and potential injury.

Graded Training is Required

If middle splits are your goal, start by getting comfortable in your straddle splits. The work of learning how to control your hips in this position, anchor your legs while moving your torso, and develop the strength in your butt and inner thighs, will prepare your body to start training middle splits with more awareness and capacity for that stand-off with gravity.

For a visual on the difference between straddle and middle splits, please check out the video below. If you would like a graded set of workouts to get comfortable in your straddle and middle splits, our Video Club Membership includes a series of four workouts to get you there!

Jean-Claude Van Damme doing a box split between two trucks.

Pro Tip: There is a third type of split that looks similar called a Box Split. This type of split is common among martial artists and was made famous in the 80s by Jean-Claude Van Damme who famously used it to suspend himself between two walls or moving trucks. In the box split the sit bones face the floor, the hip bones face forward, and the inner thighs face the floor.

I do not do or teach this split, not because it isn’t awesome, but because it is inaccessible to a lot of people based on the structure of the pelvis. For many humans, particularly those whose pelvises are prepared for childbirth, the head of the femur is sits too deeply into the pelvic socket to achieve the box split and pushing into it can dislocate the hip. However, if you find a good coach and wish to train it safely, it is pretty bad ass!