Synthesizing information into something that is usefully directed is a big part of getting better as a coach. Honestly, focusing my brain and avoiding the oh, there’s something shiny effect can be tough for me. It’s my struggle, but I think I’m getting better. I think today’s post is a good example of my progress.
Lately there has been a lot of great information released on how to train for shoulder mobility–especially in regards to caring for soft-tissue. The problem is figuring out where to start and end.
Through trial and error I’ve put together a soft-tissue release progression that works great for getting shoulders moving and feeling great. It just took a little attention and combining ideas from a few great resources.
Thoracic Spine and Upper-back
If you haven’t checked out mobilitywod.com, Kelly Starrett’s site, yet you are behind the times, my friend. K-Star is a brilliant physical therapist and mobility specialist. He posts great videos every week.
A little while back he posted a video on rib entrapment and mobility of the t-spine called “Getting Crushed by a Stone?” Like K-Star says in the video, if you’re ribs are stuck and your t-spine isn’t moving your scapular movers and stabilizers aren’t going to fire–especially your mid- and low-traps. This is bad news for the rhythm of movement at your shoulder. If thoracic extension is limited and you have gummy tissue around your scapulae, your scapulae won’t rotate, elevate or depress without compensation (usually recruiting too much upper-trap). You’ll start to look like Trapzilla, but your shoulders won’t work for poop.
K-Star’s crushed by the stone technique releases the mid- and low-trap while increasing thoracic extension and internal rotation mobility. The key is moving up your thoracics, starting at the inferior angle of your scapula, and working the ball into each segment–placing it just beside your spine. Working on segmental movement of the t-spine and improving the tissue quality of the mid- and low-traps is important before working on soft-tissue and movement quality elsewhere in the shoulder. All other shoulder movement is dependent on how well the t-spine and scapulae interact.
After we increase t-spine mobility and improve tissue quality of the upper-back muscles using the stone crush technique, we move on to improving the tissue quality of the external rotators of the shoulder. The infraspinatus, supraspinatus and teres minor make up the external portion of the rotator cuff and they are the dynamic stabilizers of the glenohumeral joint. Like the muscles of the upper-back, our external rotators are usually laden with adhesions and trigger points. The big take home is if they suck so will your shoulder health.
Unless you are a pitcher or quarterback, in which case your external rotators could be too short, your infraspinatus and teres minor are probably too long. It’s the result of sitting with rounded shoulders for hours on end reading BSP articles or LOL-ing at Swamp People. Shoot ‘im ‘Lizabeth! Shoot ‘im!
Keeping this in mind, we don’t want to stretch the crap out of our external rotators, we just want to improve the tissue quality. The lacrosse ball sleeper stretch works well to meet this end.
After you set the lacrosse ball (it will feel like it’s almost in your arm pit) you’ll need to keep your shoulder blade packed back and down. If you don’t you could torque your shoulder into an injury. You’ll also notice, quickly, that there are some nasty adhesions on your rotators that hurt badly. Seek these adhesions out and get the lacrosse ball on them–don’t go soft on me!
This isn’t an intense stretch (even though it can be painful)–you shouldn’t be putting a lot of force into your forearm. The goal is to improve the tissue, not stretch the bejesus out of the muscles.
Sequencing the lacrosse ball sleeper stretch after the stone crush technique prepares the shoulder to move with good scapulohumeral rhythm. This is important before we move on to the pecs. The technique used to improve pec tissue requires shoulder movement in all planes.
The fact that that the mid- and low-traps share a fascial line with the external rotators is also worth considering. Thomas Myers explains this concept in his book Anatomy Trains. Torque and tension are transferred through these muscles simultaneously and from multiple directions. Thinking about soft-tissue function in this way makes releasing them in sequence seem like an even better idea.
Like the external rotators, the pecs get nasty from sitting with rounded shoulders. Well, from sitting and from any gym rats favorite holiday–National Bench Press day! (It’s celebrated on Mondays.) The difference between the pecs and the external rotators is that the pecs are usually shortened. Short pecs exacerbate the plight of the upper-back muscles and the external rotators by increasing their length and stealing their neural drive. So after we improve tissue quality, we have to restore length to the pecs and activate the peri-scapular muscles as well as the external rotators.
My favorite way to release the pecs involves the floor, a soft-ball and a lot of shoulder movement (you’ll see this at the end of the sequencing video). The pec process I use is adapted from a technique I’ve learned from Jim Smith and Joe DeFranco. If we hadn’t worked on the upper-back and external rotators before we moved on to the pecs we wouldn’t get the same effect. Extensibility of the pecs is restricted if the scapulae are not moving through a good range of motion. You gotsta take care of the back before you can take care of the front.
Putting It All Together
The video below shows the entire shoulder girdle soft-tissue sequence that we talked about in pieces above. I use this process at least twice per week–making sure that I definitely use it on squat and bench days.
Check it out:
Pretty sweet, eh? I know that I used a kettlebell instead of a stone, but thats what I have handy! I’m sure you also noticed the “Turn Your Body Into A Weapon” DeFranco’s Gym shirt. Yes, it is awesome. I got mine for free as part of my membership in the bald strength coaches club, but you’ll have to buy yours. Check out defrancostraining.com and ask Joe when they’ll be for sale.
The key in developing your programs is being able to synthesize information into something you can apply. Give this sequence a shot and let me know what you think!