4 Secrets to improving Shoulder Mobility and Stability for the Crossfit Athlete/Fitness Athlete

This blog post was written by Maysa Hannawi of Made 2 Move Physical Therapy (www.made2movept.com).

What is one of the most common complaints heard in a CrossFit gym? I tweaked my shoulder” “My shoulders feel tight” “I can’t go overhead today” “It hurts when I kip”

CrossFit is a sport known for its ability to make people push their limits and constantly challenge their perceptions of their own capabilities. In a sport where intensity is the name of the game, it is easy to forget that our bodies need to be taught how to handle the extreme stress we are constantly putting them under. From pull-ups to muscle ups, pushups to handstand push-ups and all the Olympics weightlifting in between, crossfitters are putting their shoulders under stress in various ways, at various angles, with varying loads…. and this is most likely occurring on a daily basis.

The main factors that lead to shoulder pain can be broken down into the following categories:

  • Shoulder weakness: which is can be described as a lack of shoulder strength for the given task. In Crossfit we are asked to move a lot of weight. This is part of what makes the program so effective, but also increases the risk of the athlete putting too much weight on the bar, or trying a movement their body isn’t ready for. Athletes – with education from their coaches – need to know when and how to scale movements. This could be the single most important factor in keeping your shoulders healthy.
  • Lack of mobility: We need adequate range of motion to put ourselves into safe positions for the desired movements. Attempting to snatch bodyweight when you when you have difficulty getting a PVC pipe overhead may not be the best idea.
  • Lack of stability at end range: People often mistake being shaky at the end range of motion – full extension on a jerk or snatch – for not having the mobility. Often athletes can stand against a wall and bring their arm straight overhead, locked out and touch the wall behind them (test your ROM here)…but add some weight and they begin to get shaky and lack smooth movement in their end range. This does not mean they need to stretch their already mobile shoulders, it means they need to focus on strengthening in the end range of motion.
  • Kinesthetic sense or body awareness:If a coach is telling you that you are pulling too early, or that you are pressing out instead of locking out with overhead movements, but you don’t feel yourself doing it, you may be lacking some body awareness. Having a coach video a movement and slow is a good tool to start being aware of what your body is doing when you are lifting/moving.

So the number one question is: Which of these movements is causing my pain and why?

The truth is, that is impossible to determine – and it does not matter. Whether it was practicing kipping, heavy snatches, high volume dips or all of the above, the cause of your shoulder pain does not matter as much as the symptoms do – and those are what can be fixed. One of the number one ways to reduce shoulder pain, and develop healthy and stable shoulders is TEMPO WORK. All four of the categories listed above are what you as athletes need to work on, and tempo work can address all 4 of these in one simple type of exercise.

So, let’s talk about tempo work – what does that really mean?

Let me introduce to you the concept of time under tension. As you already know, CrossFit often demands athletes to work at a high velocity for a high number of repetitions. Our joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments and all the parts of our body that allow us to move have to be able to withstand the stress we put them under on a regular basis. We need to condition our bodies with time under tension in order to make them more resistant to injury. This means we need to put them under these high demand stresses in a controlled manner, so that they can adapt and strengthen for when we need to move fast and efficiently.

Basically: spending time in the positions that put stress on our shoulders will allow them to adapt to these conditions, and withstand the stress better when we need to perform. This will lead to increased strength, mobility, stability at end range, and body awareness for improved positioning.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we need to sit in the bottom of a heavy snatch for long periods of time, or that we need to push our shoulders into painful positions and hold them there. We do need to work on slow and controlled strengthening in sport-specific positions. Below is a video walking you through a shoulder accessory work routine that works through a series of exercises, forcing you to spend TIME UNDER TENSION.

Made 2 Move will be putting on a free clinic at Locomotion Fitness on April 28th at 1130am.  Click here to register.


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