One of the first things I notice when an athlete walks into the gym is how they hold their shoulders. Shoulders play a huge role in our health and fitness and it is imperative to keep them flexible and strong.
Just like your hips, your shoulder girdle is a complex system of muscles that allow the ball-and-socket joint to move in dynamic motion across many planes. Your shoulders are connected to muscles in front of and behind the body, and literally bisect the body from front to back. If the muscles of this system are unbalanced, it can throw off how your entire upper body operates.
Over the years, I have studied countless athletes. I’ve seen many bodybuilders with an arched back because they have overdeveloped their lats at the expense of other muscles. In others, unbalanced training leads to flatness from the base of the neck to the shoulder. The shoulders are meant to do many things, including pulling, and it is important to have balanced training that allows flexibility and strength to be developed in the upper back and trapezius. This ensures the spine is supported and injury is mitigated.
Others are immediately identifiable as “desk jockies” with their rolled-over shoulders and rounded upper back from sitting hunched over a computer. Constant habit creates permanent position, and the muscles of their chests have shortened, pitching the shoulders forward. This tragic postural change is hurting our ability to perform even the most mundane of physical tasks. (Take a minute to do a bathroom selfie and see if any of these describe you!)
Proper shoulder strength training aside, some simple stretches can help keep your posture aligned and muscles balanced. These shoulder stretches will have you feeling like a new person in no time.
Place the foam roller lengthwise down the spine. Laying flat on the foam roller, allow the arms to fall to the floor. Relax and feel the weight of the arms pulling the chest open and the front of the shoulders stretching. If you are someone who sits a lot—desk jockies, I’m talking to you—or is very tall, this is a great stretch to keep the chest and front of the shoulder from collapsing and rounding forward.
Find a table or desk that sits approximately at waist height. Fold forward at the hips with the palms face down on the table. Pull the hips backward and reach the head down towards the belly button. The stretch will be felt in the back of the shoulder, down the lats and all the way through the arm and biceps. Bodybuilders, this one’s for you! Having a dominance of the lats can shut off muscles of the shoulder, so keeping the back from being too tight can help the shoulders stay mobile.
By far, this is my favorite stretch for the shoulders. Place one hand behind the back as high as it can reach. Keeping the back flat, reach the free hand up and over the head, and then give a gentle pull to the side. This stretch is felt in the front of the shoulder and all the way through the neck. If you are someone who gets chronic stress headaches or sleeps on your side, this will unlock a lot of the problems. Pro Tip: Use a resistance band attached to a door or a pull-up bar to assist the hand behind the back to reach even further.
Internal Rotation “Sleeper” Stretch
Lay on your side with the bottom elbow pointing away from the body. Place a towel under the elbow. Keeping the elbow in place, bend the elbow at 90 degrees and rotate the shoulder up and down. Use the top hand to gently assist in pushing the palm towards the ground. A healthy shoulder should have both internal and external range of motion. This stretch is good for rotator cuff health, especially if you are about to put it to use helping your friends on the Tough Mudder course.
Trigger Point Mobility
Use a simple device like a tennis ball or lacrosse ball to target and release the muscles of the shoulder. If you have an area that is nagging you, like the upper back, or you want to stimulate the muscles of the shoulder prior to a workout, then the lacrosse ball is your new best friend. Put the ball between the spot on your body you want to target and the wall or the floor. Roll back and forth over the ball in small movements for 45 seconds.
Pro tip: If you are rehabbing an injury or priming the muscle for use, do not overdo it. You don't want to risk damaging the muscle by beating it up.
Finally, stay active! A good rule of thumb is that if you want to increase flexibility then you have to use the joint. I encourage not only a good mobility and strength training program for healthy shoulders, but get outside and climb a wall, lift heavy things, throw stuff. It all is good for you!
Eric “ERock” Botsford is the Creative Director of Tough Mudder Bootcamp and believes there is nothing stopping your ability except for your will to do it, so go and be great!