“How to Keep Your Shoulders From Feeling Older: Three Things To Do Now” by Dr. Glenn Hyman

Since Ponce De Leon never found that fountain of youth, there’s really no way to keep your shoulders from getting older, but there are 3 simple things you can do to keep them from feeling older.

A sad tale of pain and dysfunction – Many of you know the sad-but-true story about how my rotator cuff was torn by a chiropractor when I was in school. For those of you who don’t, here’s a recap: When I was interviewing for my internship during chiro school, a guy we’ll call Dr. Schmidt was one of the chiropractors I went to speak with. A couple of days earlier I had hurt my shoulder while working out. For some reason, I asked Dr. Schmidt if there was anything he could do. I’ll never forget his smug answer. “Young man,” he said, “I happen to be the Leonardo DaVinci of adjusting. You’ve come to the right place.” Looking back, I should have run screaming from his office, but I was young, dumb, and still trusted my elders. He proceeded to put my elbow on his shoulder, wrap his hands around my shoulder, and blast my arm toward the floor. I felt an instant, searing, fire-like sensation deep in my shoulder joint. I knew something very bad had just happened. It was 1996. What turned out to be a grade-2 rotator cuff tear hurt non-stop until August of 2000. That’s right, 4 years of shoulder pain. In 2000, I met Dr. Mike Leahy, the Active Release ‘guru’. Miraculously, after two treatments, the pain was gone. I could lift weights and all that stuff again. That’s why I’m an Active Release guy, but it’s not the point of this Special Report.

I will always be a recovering rotator cuff victim. The point is this: even though Dr. Leahy fixed my shoulder, I still must take steps to make sure that I don’t aggravate it again. Before I share what those things are, I want to explain what the rotator cuff is. Basically, the rotator cuff is a group of 4 small muscles that run from the shoulder blade to the top of your arm. (To use the anatomical terms, they run from the scapula to the humerus). Their jobs are to rotate the arm, support the arm, and position it in the joint. I’m not going to get more detailed than that here. Because the rotator cuff muscles are small, they are easily injured. Because their jobs are so important, injuries to the cuff muscles are usually very painful and annoying. Unfortunately, as we get older, it’s more and more likely that each of us will start feeling some shoulder pain.

Here are three things you can do to keep yours feeling young:

1. Stop the bouncing. Most of you who’ve come in with shoulder problems have felt the pain while working out with weights, so my advice centers around that. One of the first things that I drill into my training clients is the importance of coming to a full stop at the top and bottom of every rep, every time. A classic example of not doing this would be a “big guy” benching at the gym. When the big guy lowers his bar to his chest, he usually will “bounce” it back up. When he “bounces” the bar, the big guy is taking advantage of the recoil from his tendons as the bar reverses direction and goes back up. His muscles are not doing all the work. So, in addition to cheating his muscles of the effort, he’s causing repetitive trauma to his shoulder tendons. Anyway, when you come to a full stop at the top and bottom positions of an exercise, you lose the tendon-injuring momentum that creates the bounce. As this momentum drops off, you must use muscular effort to move the weight back up. This protects your shoulders and makes your muscles work harder. Muscular effort builds a stronger you. So, please, come to full stops at the top and bottom of every rep, every time.

2. Find the “Zone of the Dog.” See Spot walk. See Spot run. See how Spot’s front legs (his arms) always stay in line with his shoulders? That’s because the shoulder joints of both dogs and people are more stable when the arms are lined up with the shoulders. I call this the “Zone of the Dog” because it occurred to me while watching my dog Homer chase a bunny. The bunny escaped unharmed. When you’re doing chest, shoulder, or back exercises, your shoulders are safer and more stable when the weights are in line with the joint (see pictures).

shoulder injuries Hands in line with shoulders (good)
shoulder exercises Hands Outside the Zone of the Dog (bad)

The wider you space your hands, the more physical stress you put on your shoulders. Most people, especially the guys, notice that they are stronger when the “go wider”. This is an illusion. When you go wider, or space your hands outside the Zone of the Dog, you shorten the distance that you must move the weight. This shorter distance lets you pretend that you’re stronger than you really are. It also slowly ruins your shoulders. So, stay inside of the Zone of the Dog, and come to a full stop at the top and bottom of every rep, every time.

3. Work the cuff. Generally, I am totally and completely against the idea of “isolating” a muscle. To find out why, check out the up-coming Stronger-Leaner-Better-Program-In-A-Box: A Training Manual & DVD. This is the whole Program on paper and video, ready for you to enjoy in the comfort of your own home. Anyway, the rotator cuff muscles need to be worked with as little interference from the bigger muscles as possible. Unlike using cables or rubber tubing, this exercise lets you do that. When you do this, you’ll be moving a light dumbbell trough 180 degrees, or making a semi-circle. This will work both the internal and external rotators. Remember to move very slowly, and to come to full stops at the top and bottom.

rotator cuff exercise

Grab a 5-pound dumbbell (available for about 2 bucks at most sporting goods stores), lie on the floor with your arm at 90 degrees to your body, elbow bent at 90 degrees, and your palm facing up.

rotator cuff

Keeping your arm on the ground, and elbow at 90 degrees, roll the weight up. Keep rolling.

rotator cuff exercise

You should trace out a semi-circle with the weight, with your hand ending in a palm-down position. Now, reverse that motion and roll all the way back to the starting position. You’ll notice as you come to the position in Picture 3 that you hit a point where your whole shoulder will want to roll off of the floor. Stop at that point. For now, that’s your range of motion. Over time, that will improve, but don’t force it. Do this exercise at least 2 times a week. Shoot for 1-2 sets of 10-12 reps with each arm. Remember to use light weights (3,5, or 8 pound dumbbells are usually plenty) and move slowly. And remember, shoulder pain can usually be fixed quickly with Active Release. Coming in sooner rather than later is the key to minimizing how much it interferes with the things you like to do. I may not be a chiropractic Leonardo DaVinci, but I do know how annoying shoulder pain is. 

Dr. Glenn Hymann

Dr. Glenn Hyman has worked with thousands of athletes of all abilities. He specializes treating sports injuries with Active Release Technique. As a licensed chiropractor in Denver, Colorado, he also desings custom training and clinical nutrition programs for his clients. He’s an Active Release Techniques Instrutor, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (NSCA-CSCS), and a certified Russian Kettlebell Instructor (RKC). He can be reached through his website: denverback.com. The information within this article is not intended as medical advice.

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