March 10th, 2010

Robertson Training Systems Newsletter 6.08

Shoulder Solutions, Part III

In our final installment of the Shoulder Solutions series, I want to discuss some of the typical coaching issues I see when dealing with clients.

And just in case you missed them, you can review Part I and Part II by following their respective links.

I’ve got a feeling this could be a little long, so let’s jump right into things!

Coach Issue #1 – Lumbar extension/rotation versus t-spine extension/rotation

After our first two pieces (as well as my low back video on the Newsletter archive page), we know the thoracic spine should have a large degree of rotation.

When assessing our clients/athletes, they’ll often present with a lumbar-dominant rotation strategy.  Like our old high-school multiple-choice tests, it might look something like this:

A – The lumbar spine rotates first when compared to the thoracic spine, or

B – The lumbar spine rotates to a larger degree when compared to the thoracic spine, or

C – Both A and B.

What you’ll also frequently see is a client whose idea of “tall and tight” is really “I’m going to arch my lumbar spine as hard as possible to get my chest out!”

This is a situation where the “tall and tight” cue works wonderfully.  Tall and tight naturally smoothes out the curves of both our upper and lower back.  Perhaps more importantly, it reflexively turns on our core and trunk stabilizers.

However, the key ingredient here is teaching our clients the difference between lumbar motion and thoracic spine motion, especially with regards to rotation.

Often, they’ll come in with preconceived notions as to how much rotation they have.  Let your clients know from the first session that you don’t care how much they motion they have initially.  Instead, your only focus is on having them move at the appropriate areas.  Over time, as they become more aware of how to move their body correctly, they can work to increase range of motion.

It can be challenging at first, but it’s well worth it in the end.

Before moving on to our next point, I should point out one more important note.  Sometimes when you use the cue “tight” or “brace” for core training, people naturally assume that tight = crunch.  This pulls our rib cage and chest down, and as we already know, this decreases our ability to rotate through the thoracic spine.

In this case, it’s not just teaching them the difference between lumbar spine and thoracic spine motion, it’s also re-tooling their entire trunk stabilization pattern.  A rectus dominant crunch pattern will look like a crunch – while a tall and tight stabilization pattern will get our external obliques into the game.

I realize I’m getting a little of course here, but I wanted to at least mention that here as I feel it’s not only important, but something I see more and more frequently in the gym.

Coaching Issue #2 – Teaching True Scapulae Movement

Another issue you’re sure to encounter is teaching someone the difference between scapular motion and shoulder/gleno-humeral joint motion.

We not only have to select the appropriate exercises, but we have to make sure they’re being executed appropriately as well.  Almost everyone in my gym will perform an I, T, Y series early on in their training so we can develop kinesthetic feeling, motor control, and basic strength around the shoulder blades.

I’s, T’s and Y’s are fantastic for teaching motion and improving motor control, but they are not the best exercises when it comes to loading, improving structural balance around joints, etc.  This is where we need to take those basic movement skills associated with our scap series and build it back into compound movements.

Scapular Retraction

Below is a great video that Bill Hartman produced on rowing the right way.   I would suggest taking a few seconds to watch the video.  This will help you teach your clients to use scapular retraction to finish their horizontal pulls, versus shoulder hyperextension.

The key point here is this:  If you lead with the shoulder blade, you should feel like your elbow barely gets behind your body.  If your elbow is several inches behind you, chances are you’re using gleno-humeral joint motion to produce the movement, versus scapular motion.

Scapular Depression/Posterior Tilt

Teaching someone scapular depression/posterior tilt can be quite challenging.  Often, clients have never used these muscles before, and something as seemingly benign as a scapular wall slide can often elicit massive amounts of delayed onset muscle soreness!

I think the best cue I’ve learned for this comes from Pavel Tsatsouline; he says, “pull your shoulder blades into your back pocket.”  This works wonderfully, and most people have a better idea of how to produce the movement immediately.  I will also tell people to let their shoulder blades “glide” down the back of their rib cage.

Once this has been mastered, it’s time to move on to more challenging exercise progressions.  Believe it or not, I wouldn’t be opposed to using a lat pulldown machine here.  The key is to focus on emphasizing a scapular depression at the midpoint of the movement.

From here, a basic chinning progression works well.  Start with either ISO’s or band-assisted variations, and work your way into full range chin-ups and pull-ups over time.  The key here is always being able to finish the motion by touching your chest to the bar and kicking on the lower traps to depress the scapulae.

Face Pulls – Bridging the Gap

Face pulls are a unique exercise because they bridge the gap between pure horizontal and vertical pulls.  Beyond the mid-back development they can provide us, by using a neutral or “thumbs-up” grip we also hit the shoulder external rotators hard as well.

Below is a video of a supine face pull.  If you have issues with having to lean backwards excessively, this version may be great for you.  I use it to increase total body stability, and therefore loading on the mid-back muscles and external rotators.

Improving Scapular Winging

While it doesn’t fall into the same category as pulling exercises, many clients have issues actively protracting their scapulae, and/or not letting it wing.  In this case, serratus strength and motor control are a must.

The key point to focus on initially is the load – if they can’t perform a push-up on the ground, can they perform it on an incline without any scapular winging?

The best part about starting them off in a rack is that you can quickly and easily adjust the height up and down to accommodate their current levels of strength.

Once you have found the ideal position (where they can not only produce the movement effectively but also for the number of repetitions you’ve prescribed), it’s time to clean up the movement a bit.

Many clients will have a tendency to cave over at the top, using thoracic flexion to finish the movement versus protracting their scapulae.

In this case, the cue I use is simple:  Keep your chest out and push your body as far away from the bar as you can.  It may not be 100% effective, but it’s pretty darn close!

What you may see when using that cue is that they can now produce the movement with a correct upper torso position and using serratus, but their lumbar spine now sags into extension.  This is another issue to clean-up, but at least you have them moving on the right path.

Coaching Issue #3 – Teaching True Shoulder Movement

The final issue you’re going to see when teaching people how to improve their shoulder health is that they have preconceived notions of how much shoulder motion they have.

From this point forward, I want you to focus on stabilizing the scapulae before you perform an upper extremity stretch.  Here are a few examples.

When attempting to stretch their pecs, many will have a tendency to let the scapula go wherever.  Instead, think about tucking your scapulae back/down before trying to elicit that stretch.  It should feel like a deeper and move focused stretch.

Along those same lines, focus on this when performing the sleeper stretch as well.  I’ll often catch clients in the back when cooling down performing the sleeper stretch with their hands almost touching the floor!

Instead, think about depressing your scapulae as hard as you can, and then using the off-hand to create some over-pressure.  You might not get as much range of motion, but I’ll put cash money on the fact that you’re performing the exercise correctly.


So there you have it, my views on training the shoulder for both health and performance.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this series, and we’ll back in a few weeks with some more exclusive content!

All the best



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