Theoretical “Pain-Free” Shoulder Exercises Gone Wrong
With the ever growing incidence of shoulder pain among the active population, many in the sports performance and fitness industries are seeking instant gratification in the form of a magic pill for shoulder training and health.
Not dissimilar to the quick fix supplement industry, an emerging quick fix trend has started to infiltrate the training industry spewing theoretical (and otherwise made up) exercises that are promising near instantaneous pain alleviation and functional transference into sport, training and daily activity.
Don’t get me wrong, superficially this all sounds great. Especially when delivered with a 60-second Instagram clip by a self proclaimed expert doctor teaching an exercise that they’ve never used themselves, nor with actual human beings on the right side of the screen, and an anatomical representation of the problem to the left (as if it’s that simple). To the average person who battles chronic aches and pains, man that shit looks sexy. But the real question remains, is it effective for the goals at hand?
The longer I coach, the more clear it becomes that the power of pain-free shoulder training is not only dependent on choosing the correct exercises for someone’s unique needs, but executing the basic staple movements with pristine movement quality according to the N=1 study in front of you.
Even the perfect program on paper is ineffective and possibly even injurious when executed like shit.
So before you start aimlessly chasing the next mythical corrective exercise you see sliding down your news feed, you need to step back and address the glaring red flag in your movement execution, quality and patterning first based on the PRINCIPLES of pain-free shoulder training.
Don’t settle for a physical life filled with transient gains, fluffy corrective exercises and monotonous daily self help techniques.
Here are the three biggest mistakes that you’re making with your shoulder training that are leaving your shoulders chronically hurt and broken down while killing your muscle and strength gains in the process. Address these common shoulder training faults, and successfully transfer your new found skills into ALL other areas of shoulder training for health and longevity.
The Law of Irradiation
The body simply does not work in pure isolation. Even the smallest movements stimulate the function of the kinetic chain that links individual joints, muscles, fascia, and functional regions together. This synergistic motion segment literally runs head to toe, lead not only by mechanical tension but also by neurological sensation, impulse and potentiation.
Three of the most neurologically dense sensory areas in the human body are the feet, hands and face. The hands and feet also happen to be the two predominant areas of the body which come into contact with either load, or ground based forces and contacts, making them extremely intriguing areas for enhancing the neural kinetic linkages of the full body irradiation effect.
Without diving too deeply into the neural science and laws of muscular potentiation and recruitment, the irradiation effect can be simply defined by the way tension is initiated at load or ground contacts and sequentially travels up chain through adjacent musculature. This traveling tension and muscular recruitment usually ends back closer to a central position on the body (shoulders, hips or core) to better recruit control and stability throughout the entire extremely of motion segment.
Strategically kicking on the irradiation effect to better position, centrate and stabilize otherwise inherently mobile joints such as the shoulder, hip and segments of the spine, have been coached for decades with cues like “crush the bar in your hands” and “root your feet into the ground”. But no matter the external cue that is proven effective, it comes down to the internal tension in the neuromuscular system that optimally positions the body for pain-free performances.
Now nearly every movement in the gym can benefit from tapping into stronger irradiation effects at the hands and feet, especially when training for power, strength and hypertrophy. BUT, there are certain regions of the body where the irradiation effect actually negates some of the potential benefits of training such as the deltoid and intrinsics of the shoulder complex.
Stop Killing Your Grip On Direct Shoulder Training
One of the biggest mistakes I see even the best athletes and coaches make with direct shoulder training is coaching and executing this direct shoulder isolation training exercise the same way as you’d execute a bench press, row or other foundational movement pattern, maximizing the hand grip on the weights.
As soon as maximal tension is initiated at such a neurologically dense region of the body such as the hands, all the other sequential muscles of the motion segment such as the flexors and extensors of the wrist and forearm, the biceps and triceps, and even the large trapezius get activated as well to assist in the targeted motion being trained.
If the goal is lifting as heavy as possible, great. The irradiation effect will help you achieve that goal. But realize for a movement like the shoulder lateral raise, the deltoids no longer remain the prime mover in the exercise, as other secondary muscles come in to support and de-emphasize the targeting at that specific region.
But if your goal is to improve muscular activation and recruitment around the deltoid, scapular stabilizers or even the synergistic rotator cuff in some instances, we need to minimize the irradiation effect, NOT maximize it. This is achieved by loosening up the grip, or eliminating the use of a grip in direct shoulder training exercises.
A perfect example of this technique at work is the cable lateral raise with attachments placed around the wrists instead of held in the hands. By hooking the load to the wrists instead of inside the hands, there is no need to flex the fingers, hands and wrists that will recruit unwanted tension up chain. The hands can simply stay relaxed, allowing the prime mover of the pattern to be the deltoids at the highest degree without heavy compensations coming from secondary muscles assisting with the action.
From an anatomical standpoint, the strength, size and density of the forearms and upper arms trump the simpler, thinner deltoid, thus when brought into a movement, will overtake the action. Remember, the first line of tension aka the muscle that fires first, usually becomes the prime mover, even if that isn’t the muscle that an exercise is attempting to target.
For traditional lateral raises, compensatory irradiation can be minimized by leaving your grip to a minimum to keep the dumbbells in your hand, or even placing multiple dumbbells in your hands to refrain from gripping hard deep into a sympathetically driven global flexion range of motion.
Though the lateral raise is showcased in the video, the same concept can be used for ALL direct shoulder work including multi-directional raises (front, lateral, sides, Y-T-I’s etc), face pulls, pull apart, and many other popular isolation work in this region. Focus on minimizing the grip, enhance your mind-muscle connection and watch your shoulders grow and strengthen at exponential rates.
Train The Targeted Muscle, NOT The Compensators
Direct shoulder training has gained a notorious reputation for being inherently dangerous for the shoulders, mainly due to it’s association with a more bodybuilding-esque style of training compound with extremely poor execution. While many athletes and lifters new to direct shoulder work first make the mistake of tapping into too much tension via their grip, the second common mistake I routinely see with poorly executed shoulder training is utilizing improper ranges of motion and rhythms.
A commonly misunderstood topic in direct pain-free shoulder training is the role of the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff itself is a complex consisting of the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis, four tiny musculo-tendinous structures that attach proximally on the humeral head. A traditionalist, and honestly extremely archaic, approach to rotator cuff strengthening would be centered around breaking each of these structures down individually and training them through their textbook actions in a dynamic way against gravity, load or both simultaneously.
The reason this approach has not only proved to be ineffective but potentially injurious is the idea that the four units of the rotator cuff work independently of one another. This theory is false. The rotator cuff must function as a synergistic unit with a primary role of contracting the gleno-humeral joint and stabilizing this ball into the socket upon initiation of elevation in any direction up to approximately 15 degrees.
This means that the rotator cuff functions with an “all or nothing phenomenon” especially as we place muscular strength and hypertrophy goals on the shoulder complex as a whole. This is where the main problem presents, turning theoretically awesome direct shoulder training movements into potentially injurious ones for the rotator cuff and other intrinsic structures.
Using again a multi-directional shoulder raise as a prime example, we must have an appreciation for the simple mechanisms of movement in order to have optimal success with direct shoulder training exercises. The rotator cuff must initiate stability upon unlocking 0-15 degrees of range of motion BEFORE the deltoid and other bigger, stronger shoulder musculature can take over the prime role in acting as a dynamic mover.
If we take this one step further, training the targeted muscle, as in this case and example is the deltoid during the shoulder lateral raise, depends on adhering to biomechanical laws of tension along with executing these movements with a rhythm that allows a predictable constant tension on the targeted musculature being trained.
In the video above coach Jason Brown is training the supine cable lateral raise and is having trouble “feeling” this exercise in the deltoids, but rather is getting a deeper straining sensation at the front side of the shoulder aka the rotator cuff. Since we already took the grip out of this movement, we know this is NOT a tension problem, but rather an executional problem with his range of motion and rhythm.
As Jason comes down through an eccentric range of motion, his arms come right down to his sides, losing all tension and length tension relationships at the deltoids, shifting loading and requisite recruitment to the smaller rotator cuff in order to maintain tension in the chain. With each rep, we see that tension is lost at the bottom of the range, forcing the rotator cuff to kick on forcefully to unlock the movement over and over again, which can become irritating to these tissues very quickly.
Jason is also nearly locked out at the elbows, creating compensation patterns at the triceps and forearms picking up tension in combination with the rotator cuff acting as the primary means of dynamic movement. Lastly, Jason’s rhythm of this exercise was off, looking very much mechanical instead of smooth and synergistic. This can quickly alter the activation and potentiation of the delts to fire optimally.
While this movement looked fine to the naked eye, the internal feel and targeting of the exercise was clearly off and needing some executional upgrades. As smaller more isolated movements are executed, it’s THAT much more pivotal that we truly deep dive in on fine tuning the feel for long term pain-free gains.
Position For Biomechanics, Coach For Neural Dynamics
The first simple executional fix for this is to stay 15 degrees ABOVE full available bottom range of motion to keep the deltoids on tension, and as the primary movers of this exercise. This also allows us to keep constant tension on the tissues themselves, creating a metabolic stress effect in the tissues from occlusion and total time under tension, which in this case was around 30-40 seconds per set.
After we biomechanically position this exercise for success, it’s time to optimize the firing pattern, rhythm and general execution to peak contraction quality while minimizing force leaks and compensation patterns. Since higher threshold motor units are recruited by increasing load and velocity placed on the pattern itself, we can manipulate both of these variables to improve targets firing patterns at the delts.
It’s important to remember that the delts are NOT huge muscles, even in athletes with some impressive looking shoulders. Also, their relative strength in pure isolation is less than impressive on the weight stack, meaning we must avoid supra-maximally loading this movement as this is a sure fire way to automatically bring in secondary movers to compensate, thus taking away our targeting abilities for the delts.
Another common mistake is loading these isolated shoulder movements too heavy, creating mismatches of the size of the muscle and the authentic strength needed to move the load placed upon it. More loading is NOT better when it comes to isolated feel based movements, better contraction quality is indeed better.
Since loading will be low, we must incorporate a more dynamic concentric action to increase high threshold motor unit recruitment for the delts that have the biggest potential for muscular growth and strength gains. That means exploding up against the resistance under control, and peaking the flex by volitionally squeezing the delts as hard as you can at the top. Controlled explosion plus peak flexes, when executed pristinely, will be an absolute game changer for the feel of this movement.
Lastly, accentuating the eccentric aspect of the movement is a great way to increase the total time under tension of a set, inducing a strong metabolic stress effect aka da pump, and strategically fatigue the targeted tissue. All of these executional details in combination with a little more elbow flexion proved to be a game changer for Jason’s training effect in record time.
Pain-Free Trainability Is Dependent On The Details
Don’t fall for the idea that form, technique and execution doesn’t matter when it comes to training optimally, and training pain-free. After spending my career coaching every intricate detail of human movement patterning with some of the most banged up human beings on earth, I can say that individualizing and perfecting form on a continual basis is one of the most powerful protective mechanisms to building a pain-free and bulletproof body that is as strong as it is resilient.
In the age of information overload preaching the quick fix mentality to pain, dysfunction and performance, don’t fall for the fad. Know that being a master of the details, and becoming a real time problem solver with staple movement patterns and exercises may just be what you need the most, not another theoretically made up fluffy exercise from an Instagram expert that doesn’t even lift. The power lies in the tried and true principle based methods of training and coaching, not the shiny new object syndrome. It’s time to clearly differentiate the two if you want to unlock true pain-free longevity.
About The Author
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and sports performance expert. Dr. John has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes, including multiple Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pros, MLB All-Stars, Professional Bodybuilders, World-Record Holding Powerlifters, National Level Olympic Lifters and All-World IronMan Triathletes.
Dr. Rusin is the leading pioneer in the fitness and sports performance industries in intelligent pain-free performance programming that achieves world class results while preventing injuries in the process. Dr. John’s methods are showcased in his best selling Functional Hypertrophy Training Program that combines the best from athletic performance training, powerlifting, bodybuilding and preventative therapy to produce world-class results without pain and injuries.