Did you know that in 2020, it was reported that in the U.S.A there are 4.5 million health care visits because of shoulder pain and an average of 250,000 rotator cuff repairs yearly? Crazy and scary numbers, right? I am going to start this article with a short story about a personal experience that might seem irrelevant to you at first, but please bear with me. I will tell you how not to become part of those scary statistics, and I promise it’ll be worth it.
A few weeks ago I hurt my right shoulder while hanging and stretching on the bar after I had been working on the snatch lift for 30 mins or so. Even though I felt the pull while I was hanging, I knew the hanging was not exactly what had caused the pain or injury in the first place. For weeks now, I had been ignoring some shoulder tightness and discomfort that always happened while doing overheard lifts (snatch, jerk, press, etc.) At first I thought it was lack of thoracic mobility, but after a couples weeks I figured out what it really was: lack of strength on my rotator cuff, which was making other muscles around my shoulder tight. While doing any type of press I felt very unstable and uncomfortable. It felt like I needed to "pop" my shoulder. Even though I knew what it was, I decided to “work through it” hoping I could develop the strength by continuing to lift heavy. My strategy clearly did not work, and it made me realize the importance of properly strengthening the rotator cuff muscles before attempting any heavy overhead lifts. Furthermore, it made me realize how much we use these muscles on our daily life. Reaching for objects overhead, bringing my arm back to put my jacket on, and washing my hair, were amongst some movements that I always took for granted but that was struggling to do for a few days after I got hurt. Even though I believe what I had was just a very small strain or just some shoulder impingement, it made me realize the importance of incorporating rotator cuff strengthening into my programming. It also served as inspiration for this article. So let’s just get to it.
Let’s start by explaining what the rotator cuff is and what it does. The rotator cuff is made by 4 different muscles: supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. These muscles are in charge of keeping the arm in place in the shoulder socket, and provide stability. We must understand the difference between prime movers and stabilizers in order to know how to properly train your rotator cuff muscles. Your shoulder prime movers are the muscles that are in charge of generating large forces to create movement (these are the muscles most people train at the gym.) While your stabilizers, as the name explains, stabilize the joint as you move (smaller muscles that are often neglected.) Knowing the difference between those two types of muscles in terms of their role, is key in improving the quality of your training, as well as helping you stay injury free.
Now you might be wondering, how do I know if I have to strengthen my rotator cuff? Well, the answer is very simple: you should always make time to train these muscles no matter what. That is the lesson I learned. However, some people might need to focus on it more urgently than others, especially if they are doing a lot of overhead training. Here are two easy ways to know if you might need to assess your rotator cuff strength:
1. You are able to lift heavy loads during an overhead press but get wobbly when you try to keep the bar overhead for more than a few seconds, or when you try to perform an overhead squat.
2. You struggle doing a bottoms-up kettlebell press with very light weight.
If you do lack strength on your rotator cuff, you will need to start by isolating the muscles and working on them separately. That will mean to stay away from the heavy weights for a couple weeks. Believe me, I know how much that sucks, but taking care of this now will not only prevent injury, but will also help you break some new PR’s in the future. Once there is a strong foundation, then you can keep working on strengthening them by performing compound movements (lifts we all love: push press, snatch, etc) that challenge the rotator cuff muscles with heavier loads and through greater ranges of motion. The quality of your lifts will progress immensely.
I hope this article helped you realize the importance of shoulder health, and how simple training and isolation can help you stay injury free! Always strive for quality training over anything else.
Author: Dani Ruiz