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One of the best predictors of long-term training progress is how well an athlete can manage pain. The goal isn’t just reduction of current pain levels, the goal is also to avoid pain and joint damage in the first place. While it’s impossible to get ahead of all tissue stress when making the level of effort under the bar that will result in progressive adaptation, the best strength athletes in the world are very familiar with the constant race to get ahead of joint problems down the road. World class lifters know that consistently winning that race means a higher likelihood of winning, period, whether it’s in the field, on a platform, or inside one’s very own garage squat rack.

Shoulder Function Basics


In order to start our journey towards training that minimizes unnecessary shoulder stress while still producing stellar results, we need to (re)familiarize ourselves with the basic mechanics of the shoulder. Whether you’re a seasoned lifter or a newbie under  the bar, the more knowledge you gather regarding the biomechanics of your body, the more empowered you’ll be to make sound decisions about its upkeep and sustainable training practices.

In that spirit, the following are five terms that will help you understand how your shoulders function:

  • Scapular Mobility:
    • The ability of the shoulder blade to glide smoothly across the rib cage, along with the capacity to depress and retract the scapula, is fundamental. When scapular mobility is restricted, compensatory movements occur, leading to poor joint centration. This compensation can increase the risk of injuries such as pec tears during exercises like bench presses.
  • Scapular Stability:
    • Stability in the scapula is vital for maintaining control over joint positions. Without adequate stability, the shoulder may be compromised into positions of internal rotation, commonly observed as the elbow flares out during movements like the bench press. Insufficient stability can result in issues like rotator cuff tears, impingement, or AC joint problems.
  • Thoracic Mobility:
    • The thoracic spine, situated between the neck and lower back, plays a crucial role in shoulder mobility. Loss of extension or rotation in this area forces the body to seek mobility elsewhere, often leading to compensation and strain on the lumbar spine. This strain can manifest as herniated or bulging discs.
  • Internal Rotation:
    • Adequate internal rotation is necessary for various movements, such as reaching behind to put on a backpack. Insufficient internal rotation compromises joint positions, increasing the risk of injury, particularly evident during movements like the bench press.
  • External Rotation:
    • External rotation allows for movements like raising the hand out to the side, crucial for overhead positions. Lack of external rotation leads to compromised joint positions and can result in compensatory movements such as excessive arching of the lower back during overhead presses.

The Moving Target

 

The somewhat paradoxical truth of strength training is that tissue accrual–aka building the much sought-after “boulder shoulders”--often contributes to “stiffness,” or decreased mobility in the above listed elements of shoulder function. In building muscle, the body is fortifying, or stabilizing itself, making it easier to control and thus move load safely. Muscle gain is then a protective adaptation, a reinforcing of the body so it can withstand higher and higher weights on the bar. But that same protective mechanism can work against us in being able to move fluidly through a full range of motion, particularly if we do not continuously and productively load the body through that range of motion. Move (through) it, or lose it.

In what may be a familiar example of the above, a lifter who grows from 170 pounds to 220 with significantly increased shoulder development might find he has a much harder time engaging in the amount of external rotation at the shoulder required to get under a squat bar than he did when he was smaller. In addition to engaging in diligent, regular work challenging and loading the shoulder through all ranges of motion with tools like the ShouldeRok, this lifter is smart to minimize extreme demands on shoulder mobility whenever possible as he continues his pursuit of increased strength performance.

Better Tools, Healthier Shoulders


Saving the risks of high effort combined with high mobility demand for strategic periods such as during a powerlifting meet prep is the one of the most sustainable approaches to barbell work. This is where specialty bars come into the picture. When it comes to pressing longevity, bars like the Duffalo Bar and Kadillac Bar are specifically engineered to lower mobility demands on the shoulder while still delivering an optimal strength stimulus. The curves sported by both these bars are integral design features that allow the shoulder to function through a significant range of motion without having to repeatedly navigate the extreme end ranges of articulation like a straight bar. The Kadillac’s neutral grips further this mission, giving the lifter more grip options to adjust the angle of the elbow and thus modify shoulder movement while pressing and rowing.

Both the Kadillac and the Duffalo were designed to help lifters build strength that will easily carry over to straight bar performance without the liability of joint stress. The use of these bars in pursuit of the goal of maintaining healthy, mobile shoulders throughout a long athletic career is best complimented by the regular implementation of ShouldeRok swings. Whereas specialty bars minimize stress on the shoulder, the ShouldeRok swing creates a unique opportunity to maintain and even increase shoulder mobility and strength.

Working to strengthen and mobilize the shoulder as well as minimize unnecessary wear and tear on the joint even when you don’t have shoulder pain is the best way to help prevent it in the future. Already struggling with shoulder discomfort and restriction in training? This is your sign to approach loading your shoulders in a sustainable way, Duffalo, Kadillac, and ShouldeRok style. 




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