Athletes of all types, both young and old, all experience shoulder pain at some point in their lifting career. More often than not the cause of this is rounded shoulders. This is a shame because this condition is completely preventable. Shoulder pain causes people to miss lifts, lose morale and even get injured. But how do we fix this? How do we get rounded shoulders in the first place? These are all questions we are going to answer in this post.
How Shoulders Are Supposed To Be Positioned
If you look at an anatomically “perfect” person from the side, they will have their shoulders stacked over their hips and just underneath their ears. Everything should be positioned in a straight line from head to toe. Compare this to the average gym lifter.
The average lifter/athlete will have a forward head posture, rounded thoracic spine and rounded shoulders. This opens up a gateway of potential mechanical problems. Causing headaches, neck pain, joint pain, numbness/tingling and tightness.
The initial symptoms, however, are much more subtle than most people realize. At first, little to no difference can be noticed from a rounded posture. But under the surface, there all kinds of forces at play. Muscles that were once balanced now become imbalanced. This is where the hard work comes into play. Going to a doctor, or physiotherapist, will only treat the symptoms but it will not address the source of the shoulder pain. The source of the pain is the imbalances.
Let’s take a closer look at these imbalances.
All of the muscles in the front of the body should be in perpetual balance with the muscles on the back of the body. If this balance is disrupted, your chances of injury go up significantly.
So what is the one single thing that can be done to immediately improve these imbalances? It’s simple, improve your posture. When young kids (16-21 yrs old) hit the gym, they can absolutely abuse the hell out of their bodies and completely recover the next day to do it all again. But then when they get older, they start to feel the pain from all of their mechanical problems. So what do they do? They quit.
It’s not that they can’t make gains into their late 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, it’s just that they have not spent the time to assess how optimal their mechanics are. These imbalances will not cure themselves. The best weapon against them is knowledge. You need to understand the muscles that are causing these problems.
The serratus anterior is one of the most undertrained stabilizer muscles of the shoulder girdle. This muscle wraps around the inside border of the scapulae and is responsible for protraction of the shoulder blade.
When you have a rounded shoulder posture, the serratus becomes lengthened and weakened. This causes the scapulae to become unstable. As a result whenever the shoulder has to move into difficult positions it has no choice but to wing the scapulae and default into internal rotation.
This causes pain in the front of the shoulder during overhead motions, such as pull-ups and presses. You can always spot a weak serratus whenever you see a lifters elbows flare out to the sides during pressing and pulling motions. An unstable shoulder leads to an unstable elbow and wrist.
In addition to the serratus, the lower trapezius muscle also becomes weak and causes shoulder pain. The lower portion of the trapezius muscle helps to stabilize the shoulder blades during overhead motions.
When you perform overhead motions, such as the snatch, the lower traps will engage during the catch phase to help the shoulders balance the bar.
If you have rounded shoulders then these muscles become lengthened and weak and cease to fire. When this happens the upper trapezius muscles take over the role of the lower traps. Another contributing factor to shoulder pain.
On the other end of the spectrum, some muscles become too tight and overactive. The anterior deltoid is one of those muscles. Heavy pressing exercises like bench presses and dips cause this muscle to become very overactive and tight.
In addition to this muscle being overtrained, if little soft tissue work is done on this muscle group, it will remain tight. If the lifter has rounded shoulders, then it will not only remain tight, but it will also pull the shoulders forward even more.
I’m not saying that you should stop pressing. But I am saying that if you continue heavy pressing, you seriously should work on soft tissue work for your anterior deltoid.
Neck And Upper Traps
Another major cause of shoulder pain is a stiff neck and upper traps. With the scapulae unstable and the shoulders rounded forward, the neck and upper traps try to pick up the slack.
This usually leads to shoulder impingement and tension headaches. Whenever I see somebody with rounded shoulders I always tell them to stretch these muscles first. Helping alleviate neck pain will also help to eliminate shoulder pain.
External Rotation = Less Shoulder Pain
Start getting in the habit of keeping your shoulders externally rotated. If you do, you will notice something magical happens, your shoulders move into the correct position. This will help to relieve shoulder pain almost instantly in some cases.
To do this first place your feet hip width apart, toes facing forward. Now screw your feet into the ground (externally), but don’t let your feet move. Elongate your spine, squeeze your abs and raise your arms out to your sides in a T-shape. Turn your palms up and lower your arms to your sides. Your in external rotation. Learn to maintain this position throughout the day and your shoulders will thank you.
If your shoulders are bothering you then its a sign that your mechanics are off. Don’t try to muscle through it, you will only get hurt. Instead take the time to read articles like this. Master your body’s mechanics. Your joints are designed to last for well over 100 years, but human error causes us to prematurely lower this number. Learn the correct motions and master the movements and you will be in the game for the long haul.