Functional athletic movement is dependent upon healthy hips and shoulders.  The hips transfer force from the core to the lower extremities, the shoulders transfer force from the core to the upper extremities.  The hips are built for stability with deeper sockets, less range of motion and are crossed by some very large muscles.  The shoulders on the other hand are built for mobility with shallow sockets and a large range of motion, they are barely connected to your body by a bunch of very small, relatively weak muscles.  And this is why they are so much more prone to dysfunction.

And boy, do I know about shoulder dysfunction!  I have twice partially separated my left shoulder in Judo competition and in 1996 I tore the labrum of my right shoulder in a fight with a monk and a nun while working security (don’t worry, I’m not in trouble with the Cathjolic church, it was Halloween night). 
So, when I came to CrossFit fresh off a shoulder injury, I was very worried and had a long list of things I was certain I should not be doing.  Luckily my coach was patient and not at all deterred by my resistance.  When informed of what I knew I couldn’t do she simply smiled and nodded and sagely asked, “why don’t you just give it a try.”  She also had the grace not to say “I told you so” when it turned out that the suggested exercises didn’t in fact make my shoulders worse but instead made them stronger and helped me overcome the pain that no end of physio exercises had ever managed to relieve.

Over the years I’ve compiled an extensive library of shoulder rehab/prehab exercises to overcome my own injuries and keep my shoulders healthy (I never did get the shoulder surgery for my torn labrum but thanks to CrossFit it is as strong and pain-free as it ever was).  But instead of drowning you with a hundred exercises, I’d like to simplify things a bit by going over the 5 main causes of shoulder pain and my favourite fix for each.

1) Core to Extremity Violation
Shoulders are not meant to generate force but to transfer force generated at the core.  In CrossFit we train core to extremity activation in all movements but when athletes let their form break down under fatigue or get reckless when racing the clock it is not uncommon to see core to extremity violations occur that can result in shoulder injury or irritation.  There is no one exercise fix to correct this but rather a behavioural shift of becoming more mindful of how you move instead of how fast you move.  Start prioritizing quality movement over quantity of reps.  For example, make sure you engage your lats first in the push up or pull up, make sure you aren’t pressing the bar in the thruster, let your legs drive it and feel the bar lift off your collar with the effective transfer of leg drive before you begin to press with your hands.  Of course this will only work if you took the time to correctly rack the bar in the first place.  Every CrossFit movement is a rehab movement if done at the correct load and speed with proper mechanics.  Learn to be the tortoise and not only will you win the long race, you’ll cross that finish line injury free!

2) Postural Imbalance
Most of us sit all day in front of a keyboard.  We sit behind the wheel of a car.  We bend forward over the handlebars of a bike or we carry backpacks strapped around our shoulders.  All these activities result in internal rotation of our shoulders and are characterized by shoulders that slump forward resulting in shoulder impingement issues.  I can list a dozen exercises to open up your shoulders or you can simply hang for a total of 7 minutes per day in 30 second increments.  Not only will this help realign and open up your shoulders, it will strengthen them in this anatomically correct position.  As an added bonus the hang is excellent for relieving back and hip pain as your intervertebral disks will enjoy the decompression that hanging provides.  It will strengthen your lats which are critical for good shoulder posture, it will help prevent and alleviate bicep tendon pain and will even strengthen your grip which will help you lift heavier.   One exercise, a myriad of benefits and oh, so simple to do correctly!


3) Reduced Functional Mobility/Joint Capsule Tightness
Very few activities take your shoulder through its full functional range of motion.  This results in muscular imbalances in the all-important rotator cuff and joint capsule tightness which can be very painful even in the absence of injury.  Training your shoulders through their complete natural range of motion will relieve joint capsule tightness and strengthen unused rotator cuff muscles.  The caveat is, this must be done under load.  Stretching is not sufficient.  Mobility is a function of flexibility plus stability.  This means you need to have some resistance through the complete range of motion which is why PVC pipe pass throughs will help you develop range of motion but won’t necessarily provide the strength you need to own that range of motion.  Swimming with a variety of strokes (front crawl, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly) may be effective, muscle ups and skin the cats are also promising options.  But my favourite is the 360 degree hammer swing.  Not only does this ancient exercise load your shoulders through their full functional range of motion it engages the hips and core and trains you how to integrate them effectively with correct core to extremity activation.  Yes, it trains you how to coordinate the shoulders with the rest of your body’s movement.  I practice this movement 3 times per week in my reset and as part of my warm up anytime I have a shoulder intensive workout.

4) Weak Rotator Cuff Muscles
Most shoulder pain is due to postural imbalances, tight shoulder capsules, tight lats, shoulder impingement or incorrect movement patterns but, as I learned way back in 96, when actual shoulder injuries do occur, it is usually the rotator cuff muscles that are damaged.  This is because many of the exercises we do emphasize the larger deltoid muscles but do little to develop the rotator cuff muscles.  It was CrossFit’s introduction of ring work that made the difference for my atrophied rotator cuff muscles and have allowed me to enjoy 17 years of fully functional shoulders.  Working on an unstable surface like rings forces the rotator cuffs to stabilize the joint.  A great starting point is ring support and ring plank holds as the isometric hold is safe and accessible at all fitness levels.  But for me, the big difference was regularly practicing strict ring push ups forcing my rotator cuffs to stabilize me through a full functional range of motion.  Bonus: ring push ups require a very strong core engagement and this is going to translate over to everything we do in the gym and help you prevent back injuries!    

5) Tight Lats
While I have not suffered another shoulder injury since introducing the rings to my training, I have suffered shoulder pain due to excessive tightness in my lats.  My massage therapist was easily able to remedy this by grinding out adhesions in my lats with her Graston tool.  But can you guess what I discovered is just as effective at stretching out my lats and preventing the associated shoulder pain?  If you guessed the bar hang, you guessed right!  One exercise to cure them all! 

So, to prevent or address shoulder issues, here are my go-to exercises:

Bar Hang
360 degree Hammer Swing
Ring Push Ups

It’s a short and easy prescription intended to empower you to achieve your optimal shoulder health. 

And of course, don’t forget to slow down during workouts and concentrate on correct form and movement mechanics.  Use loads and speeds appropriate to your strength and skill level.  And take breaks if you feel your form is breaking down.  Stop chasing one rep maxes.  Injuries occur at the threshold of your capacity.  Training at 80% effort provides all the strength and fitness benefits you need while leaving you a 20% margin of error.

Monday is a make-up day so you are free to play as you will but if you are looking for coaching, my attention will be on the group practicing the Shoulder Reset.

Monday Make Up Day

1) Shoulder Reset
5 rounds for quality not time:
30 sec Bar Hang
10/10 360 degree Hammer Swing CW/CCW
30 sec Bar Hang
5-10 Ring Push Ups
30 sec Bar Hang
5/5 KB TGU R/L

2) 12 Minute AMRAP
12 KBS
12 Goblet Squats
6/6 single arm push press

3) Ghost
6 Rounds
1 Minute Row
1 Minute Burpees
1 Minute DU
1 Minute rest

4) Shoulder Press