Let’s face it – one reason women train their shoulders is to make them more defined and sexy and to get that hourglass shape that broader shoulders can give you. Defined deltoids are a dead giveaway that you exercise and take care of your body. However, the benefits of shoulder training go beyond physical appearances.
Your shoulder joints are the most mobile joint in your body, but the immense range of motion the shoulder joint offers – the ability to abduct, adduct, extend, flex, internally rotate, externally rotate, and circumduct – comes at a price – decreased stability. This lack of stability makes the shoulders susceptible to injury. Fortunately, some of the risk is mitigated by the shoulder’s support network, the conglomeration of tendons, ligaments, and rotator cuff muscles that serve as a scaffold to reinforce and protect the shoulder from injury.
Why Shoulder Training is Essential and Should Include Your Rotator Cuffs
You use your shoulder muscles A LOT, not just when you’re weight training, but every time you reach to grab something on a high shelf, wash windows, sweep the floor, garden, paint walls or do a number of everyday activities. You probably don’t think much about your shoulders outside of weightlifting, until you sustain a shoulder training injury and find out how it restricts your ability to do things.
How do shoulders get injured? Other than an acute injury like falling on a shoulder, using improper form on shoulder exercises, overusing your shoulder muscles, and working with a weight that’s too heavy for your upper body to handle are all common causes. Most shoulder training problems stem from injury or overuse of the rotator cuff muscles, most commonly “impingement syndrome,” where the bones in the shoulder rub against the bursa and tendons in your shoulder, causing them to become inflamed. When this happens, raising your arms to shoulder level causes pain.
If you play a sport that requires a lot of overhead movements such as swimming, volleyball or tennis, you’re at higher risk for impingement. In some cases, the inflammation associated with impingement can lead to a rotator cuff tear. Age and repetitive overhead movements are two risk factors for impingement syndrome. That’s why it pays to use good form on shoulder exercises and not overtrain.
The other common type of shoulder problem is shoulder instability, hardly surprising considering the shoulder joint is the most unstable joint in your body. In this case, the head of the humerus slips out of the shoulder joint socket. If the slippage is mild, it’s called a subluxation while more complete movement of the humerus out of the shoulder socket is called a dislocation. Should instability can be the result of an injury or previous shoulder dislocation or a product of overuse. Less commonly, a shoulder can become unstable with no history of injury or overuse. This is more likely to happen if you have naturally lax ligaments.
Strengthen Your Rotator Cuff Muscles
Most people are so focused on working the big muscles in the shoulder like the deltoid and muscles in the upper back and chest that they fail to focus on the smaller rotator cuff muscles that give the shoulder joint stability. Your rotator cuff is made up of four muscles: subscapularis, supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and teres minor. These muscles attach to the upper portion of your humerus bone and work together to stabilize it. Along with stabilizing the humerus, these muscles are involved in the abduction, adduction and lateral and medial rotation of the humerus.
By strengthening the rotator cuff muscles that support your shoulder joints, you lower your risk for sprains, strains, instability, and dislocations that can take months to heal and, in some cases, leave you with chronic shoulder pain and the inability to play your favorite sport. Keeping these muscles strong and healthy is essential as rotator cuff tears have ended many an athletic career. You may not be a professional athlete, but you need strong, injury-resistant rotator cuff muscles and stable shoulder joints if you plan to weight train or participate in sports.
Don’t Let Your Rotator Cuff Muscles Be a “Weak Link”
Rotator cuff muscles act as dynamic stabilizers, stabilizing the shoulder joint when you lift weights or move your arms. If your rotator cuff muscles are weak, they can become a weak link in your shoulder training. Your rotator cuff muscles bear a great deal of force during the eccentric or lowering phase of shoulder exercises, so it’s important to use control during this portion of the movement to avoid a strain or tear.
To prevent muscle imbalances that increase your risk for injury, give your rotator cuff muscles focus too. As you increase the amount of weight you lift and the big muscles in your upper body, like your deltoids become stronger, weak rotator cuff muscles will make you more susceptible to injury. Plus, weak rotator cuffs limit how much weight you can lift on shoulder exercises. Don’t forget that strong rotator cuffs also help keep your shoulder stable and reduce your risk for impingement syndrome.
To strengthen your rotator cuffs, add a few internal and external rotation exercises to your routine using bands or light dumbbells. Try this one:
Lie on your side holding a light dumbbell in the hand pointing towards the ceiling. Fix your elbow to your side and hold it there while externally rotating the dumbbell through its full range of motion. Switch sides.
Here’s another one:
Holding a light dumbbell in your hand, bend your arm to a 90-degree angle. Hold the elbow you’re working against your side with the palm facing inward. Move the arm holding the dumbbell outward through its full range of motion while your elbow is pinned to your side and then slowly back to the starting point. Repeat with the other arm.
Then switch the focus to internal rotation. With your elbow pinned to your side, move your arm inward as far as it will go and back to the starting point. Switch sides.
Don’t forget to stretch the muscles you’re working too to increase their range of motion and flexibility.
Finally, aim for muscle balance when you work out. Muscle imbalances are a common cause of injury. To do this, balance “push” exercises with “pull” exercises.
The Bottom Line
Shoulder training is more than just training your deltoids. To keep your shoulder musculature healthy and balanced, make sure your rotator cuff muscles are strong too. Just as importantly, always use good form when doing upper body exercises and don’t try to work with more weight than you can handle.
OrthoInfo. “Chronic Shoulder Instability”
AOSSM Sports Tips. “Shoulder Impingement”
OrthoInfo. “Rotator Cuff and Shoulder Conditioning Program”
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