Truly, our shoulders are overworked. They bear burdens, carry chips, and provide places upon which others may cry. If you have, at any point this winter, looked in the mirror and said to yourself, “You look like you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders,” this one’s for you.
The shoulder is involved in almost every activity or sport that you can imagine. It’s the most mobile joint in the body, capable of large ranges of motion in several planes, which means it can also get into some awkward positions. This combination makes it vulnerable to breakdown — especially as you get older.
The joint is made up of a large ball at the top of the arm bone, which fits into a shallow socket in the side of the shoulder blade. Imagine a softball balanced on a saucer. This precarious arrangement is held together mostly by your muscles.
There are three things you can do to help take the burden off your shoulders — or at least prevent injury and keep things moving smoothly.
First, work the strength of your upper back. For every pushing-type exercise that you do, such as push-ups or bench presses, include a pulling movement. Elastic-band lat pull downs are one to try: loop the band around a stable object above shoulder height. Holding one end of the band in each hand, step back and stand with feet staggered, core engaged. Reach your arms toward the anchor, elbows straight. Now pull your elbows back and down as you squeeze your shoulder blades toward your spine.
Slowly release the arms back to your starting position. Remember, when you’re working with an elastic band, you can get a workout in each direction. Repeat 8 to 15 times.
Thing two: balance your shoulder strength with mobility. You need strength to keep the ball and socket together and properly positioned. But you don’t want your muscles to get so tight that you lose range of motion. A common culprit here is tight lats (the latissimus dorsi is the big V-shaped muscle that’s prominent on a swimmer’s back).
One do-it-yourself fix is to use a foam roller to loosen up the muscles on either side of the spine. Lie on your back, on top of a foam roll placed perpendicular to your body, with knees bent and fingers laced behind your head. Turn your torso slightly to the right and roll back and forth 5 to 10 times from your lower ribs up to the level of your shoulder blade. Repeat the massage on the left side. You’ll find the tight and tender spots — give them a little extra attention.
The other area to watch for tightness if you’ve been working to build shoulder strength is the pecs (the pectoral or chest muscles). You can stretch them by lying on the foam roll, with the roll placed lengthwise along your spine. Extend your arms straight out to the sides in a “T” shape — let them float a few inches above the floor. Slowly move your arms down to your sides, then up toward your head, as though you were making snow angels. You should feel a comfortable stretch across your chest and the front of the shoulder. If it hurts, lift your arms a bit higher. Your arms may feel as though they need to lift a little higher at certain points in the arc, and that’s okay
Third, pay attention to your posture. The typical smart-phone slump with the shoulders rounded and the head forward moves the shoulder socket down and forward, which decreases the space in the joint and puts the squeeze on the uppermost rotator cuff tendon. Want proof? Try this: slouch forward and try to raise your arms out to the sides. You’ll notice it’s uncomfortable and you won’t get very far. Try it again standing up straight. Your arm will lift a lot higher without pain.
To counter that slump, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and roll your shoulders up, back, and then down. Lace your fingers behind your back, palms together, and reach your knuckles toward the floor as you lift your chest. Keep your gaze straight ahead. Take a deep breath and relax.
When you’ve done all three of these, you can give your shoulders one last stretch by patting yourself on the back.