Let me take you on a journey. Girl tries CrossFit. Girl loves CrossFit and decides she wants to be like the other fitter girls in the gym doing cool things like snatches and kipping pull-ups. Against the advice of her coaches, girl starts doing kipping pull-ups, even though she’s not strong enough to do strict pull-ups. Eventually, she does a competition where there’s about a million reps (this may be a slight exaggeration) of snatches and shoulder-to-overhead. She develops shoulder impingement and can’t put weight overhead or do pull-ups for six months. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, this story (my story) is all too true for many athletes. We try to progress too quickly without first developing the proper shoulder strength and mobility to handle the dynamic and previously foreign movements common in CrossFit. These movements demand strong and mobile shoulders. But before all of the haters out there use this as ammo for their “CrossFit is dangerous” campaigns, you should also know that a couple years back, my father tore his rotator cuff swinging a six-iron at the driving range.
Why We Are Prone to Injury
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that maybe the issue isn’t what we’re doing in CrossFit that’s detrimental to shoulders, but what we’re doing (or not doing for that matter) the other 23 hours of the day that we’re outside of the box that make us vulnerable to shoulder dysfunction. I was spending the majority of my day either in the car, at a desk staring at a computer or looking down at my phone. How many times throughout the day did I lift my arms over my head? To be fair, I never actually counted; but I’m confident that it wasn’t many. So now that I’d spent all day hunched over with poor posture, of course my body was going to have a tendency to be stuck in that position. Suddenly, I walked into the box and decided to be an athlete, doing all of these dynamic movements that required a lot of range of motion and, more importantly, stability, that I was lacking, throughout that range of motion (which I also was lacking). Without doing any mobility or activation exercises before hopping on the pull-up bar, of course I was going to leave myself susceptible to injury — just like my dad did when he stepped onto the driving range, after no warm up and took a full swing with that six-iron. My chronic poor posture (“computer neck”) and forward shoulders caused tightness in my chest, which lead to inhibition of my scapular stabilizers like the lower trapezius (traps) and serratus anterior. This led to overcompensation, overdevelopment and tightness of my upper traps, which led to faulty movement patterns anytime my arms went over my head. The accumulation of all of those reps in the competition resulted in shoulder impingement. Many visits to the chiropractor and physical therapist later, I was better for the most part, except I still had pain whenever I tried to snatch or do butterfly pull-ups. I was told to just stop doing them. I guess because the snatch and pull-up are foreign to non-weightlifters and CrossFitters, it’s easy to say, “Don’t do them.” But I truly believed that giving up two of my favorite movements wasn’t necessary and that with a little more patience and the proper rehab, I’d be back to doing both. I consulted many mobility resources that told me to stretch, mash and roll to “open up” my shoulders and increase my range of motion; but what I also needed to realize was that better range of motion was nothing if I lacked the ability to stabilize myself in those end range of motion positions. Once I started working on my stability in conjunction with mobility, I saw the most drastic improvements in my shoulder health.
How Can You identify if you Need Mobility or Stability?
I think it’s safe to say that the majority of us will need to work on both improved range of motion and stabilization to some degree; but it’s important to note that where it may seem like you are lacking range of motion, you might simply be lacking stability. A good test is doing an active versus passive range of motion test. Stand tall with your arms hanging at your sides. Then, keeping your arms shoulder-width apart, try to raise both arms over your head without arching your back. Note how high you can bring your arms. Do they go 180 degrees all the way over your head? Now lie on the ground on your back and do the same thing. Start with your arms flat on the ground at your sides. Keep your arms shoulder width apart and bring your arms over your head without arching your back. Can you get your hands all the way to the ground above your head? If not, then you definitely need to work on improving your range of motion by using a foam roller or lacrosse ball on your lats and shoulders. If you can get your arms all the way overhead, but you couldn’t while standing, then this should tell you that you have the physical range of motion to get into that overhead position; however, you lack the motor control to get there yourself. This is where the stability part comes in. In your brain’s attempt to prevent you from hurting yourself, it will restrict you from getting into a position where you lack stability. In my own rehab, I did a lot of banded exercises to strengthen my rotator cuff, rhomboids and lower traps. Nowadays, many gyms are equipped with band systems such as Crossover Symmetry; and while these are an excellent tool for shoulder activation and rehab, I know that not everyone has access to them. (I didn’t at the time.) In all honesty, you can achieve the same great benefits using a $10 TheraBand and some light weights. In some cases, it’s actually preferable to use a small two- or three-pound dumbbell instead of bands, since the free weights provide more isolation of the intended muscle group and will lead to greater muscle activation. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re not a professional exerciser who has the luxury of spending hours on hours in the gym on mobility, stability, buy-ins and cash-outs. While it might seem tedious to do these exercises, take 15 minutes to go through this circuit to activate and warm-up your shoulders a few times a week before a workout, and you will be sure to see a drastic improvement in your shoulder health and overhead stability.
Shoulder Mobility Exercises
1. Banded Pull-aparts (10-15 reps)
Grab a TheraBand or thin pull-up band in both hands with arms extended out in front of you and your palms facing down. Pull your hands apart until your arms are extended at your sides, and hold for a one count before returning to the starting position. If you’re using dumbbells, lay on a bench high enough that allows you to lay face down with your arms hanging freely. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and turn your thumbs out as you squeeze your shoulder blades and raise your hands to the side, making a “T” shape. Hold for a one count at the top.
2. Ultimate Starfish (10-15 reps)
Stand with one side of a thin band under your feet. Holding the band in your hands, tighten your core to prevent overarching your back. With straight arms, slowly raise your arms in front of you until they’re extended over your head. Hold for a one count before lowering under control.
3. Strict Press with Band (10-15 reps)
Step into the band the same way you did for the ultimate starfish. This time, with the band in your hands, bring it into a front rack position and do a strict press. Bonus: For additional stability work, hold the top of the rep for a 10 count and add a four count slow, controlled eccentric on the way down.
4. Rotator Cuff External Rotation (15-20 reps/arm)
This can be performed either with a thin band attached to the rig or with a dumbbell lying on your side. The key is to make sure you are keeping your elbow close to your body as you externally rotate. Demos of banded pull-aparts, the ultimate starfish, the strict press and external rotations can be found here.
5. Y hold with scapula push-up (15 reps/arm)
On your hands and knees, raise one arm over your head and externally rotate your palm to the ceiling. Holding this position, perform a scap push-up with the arm that’s supporting you, protracting and retracting your shoulder blade. Bonus: For extra activation, do this with a yoga ball squeezed between your butt and the wall. As the ball pushes you forward, your down arm has to work extra hard to stabilize against the ball.
6. WY Negative (10 reps)
Focus on keeping your shoulder blades pulled back as you pull your hands toward your face and then extend overhead.
7. Overhead holds (2-3 minutes)
As your shoulders get stronger and you want to start incorporating more advanced stability drills, two of my favorites are wall-facing handstand holds and overhead holds using a PVC pipe with kettlebells looped in bands hanging from the ends. For both the handstand and PVC overhead holds, try to accumulate a total of two minutes, resting as needed. Start with light kettlebells and work up in weight as you get stronger. It's important to remember not to wait until you have shoulder issues to work on your shoulder health. These are all exercises that should be done not only as rehab after an injury, but as “prehab” to prevent injury and correct some of the poor posture you've accumulated throughout the day. While adding these exercises into my warm-ups has allowed me to be able to snatch, kip, butterfly, and jerk pain free, the mechanism of my shoulder injury may not be the same as someone else. Kipping too soon doesn't mean that you are definitely going to develop shoulder pain. But it's important to understand that in doing so you are just adding unnecessary stress to your joints that, if you aren't proactively working on your stability, may contribute to injury down the line. As Julien Pineau would explain, the competition is how I injured myself and golfing is how my dad injured himself — but not why the injuries occurred. If you continue to have pain or weakness and don’t see any improvement after a few weeks, then always seek treatment from a doctor or physical therapist.