Shoulder biomechanics is a good topic to start our blog with as there are so many exercises done improperly that lead to significant injury. I’ll discuss two here. Before I begin, I’ll address some basic biomechanics.
The shoulder is a complicated joint complex that has three primary joints: the acromioclavicular joint, the sternoclavicular joint, and the glenohumeral joint. The sternoclavicular joint helps connect the shoulder girdle to the sternum, the acromioclavicular joint connects (although not too well) the scapula bone to the clavicle, and the glenohumeral joint is the big ball and socket joint that moves the most and is what we generally think of when we discuss the shoulder.
Unlike the hip joint, the shoulder gives up stability for mobility. This means that the soft tissues (muscles, ligaments) holding the shoulder together are relatively fragile, especially if we do things to hurt them. Improper exercises can really lead to a lot of damage in a relatively short period of time. As we all know, shoulder injuries are quite common and this is easy to see when you watch people work out in the gym.
The rotator cuff is a combination of 4 muscles that work as dynamic stabilizers of the shoulder. This means that they help to keep the shoulder together while the rest of the muscles in the region actually move the shoulder. The health of the rotator cuff is of utmost importance. Without proper shoulder stability, injury will occur. Unfortunately, the rotator cuff is generally not addressed properly as few have proper training to properly train the shoulders.
So, this brings us back to the discussion of why lateral raises (in the coronal plane) along with upright rows are bad. I’ll go as far as saying that if you do these exercises, it’s not a matter of if, but when, you’ll end up damaging your rotator cuff/shoulder. Why is this?
When we bring our arms up to the side, we enter into a range called the ‘painful arc’ when the shoulder is between 60 and 120 degrees of abduction. By the time we have abducted 90 degrees, the humeral head has elevated about 3 mm. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is more than enough to put it in close proximity with the acromion process. Within this range, we can easily compress the structures between the acromion and the humeral head…the main structures being the sub-acromial and sub-deltoid bursa sacs as well as the supraspinatus tendon. Repeated movement in this range, especially with weights in our hands, will eventually lead to damage to the structures listed above. The situation gets worse the more you work in this range as the instability in the body leans to arthritic changes. Unless you change your movements, there is really no way around this!
In regards to the upright row, I still cannot figure out why anyone does this. I remember taking my CSCS test from the NSCA and having a practical question that asked what you should do if an upright row hurt. The only correct answer (which was totally WRONG) was to bring the bar up less high. What a foolish way of dealing with this. It essentially is telling the strength coach to hurt the client just a bit less! The upright row essentially replicates an orthopedic test called the Hawkin’s Test. This test checks if shoulder abduction with internal rotation and compression of the glenohumeral joint creates pain. If it does, you have supraspinatus damage. The upright row simulates the Hawkin’s Test to a very close degree, effectively creating a torquing motion that compresses your glenohumeral joint and crushes your acromion process into the aforementioned bursa sacs and supraspinatus musculature.
This begs the question: why do people do these exercises and what are they trying to achieve? What muscles are being trained SAFELY with the upright row? Why do them at all?…can other exercises that are safe be implemented instead?
The discussion is open!