There are many schools of thought when it comes to exercising. From getting ready to bikini season to getting shredded with mad gainz at the gym, each thought process has its pros and cons. A lot of them overlap. A lot of them are just fine for the vast majority of people. One idea that many find to be particularly polarizing is Crossfit. It professes that if we focus on performing a variety of Olympic lifts, plyometrics and fast paced cardio along with cleaning up your eating habits you will have the ability to go from an amorphous blob of a human to a chiseled beast. Seeing that I am a Crossfitter, I do believe this will happen if the RIGHT PERSON takes on this mindset. Why do I say the right person? I say this because anybody cannot and should not just jump in to such a rigorous exercise regimen. We all have imbalances in our body and many of us just deal with these aches and pains; we just keep on keepin‘ on. If these deficiencies are present, they WILL be exposed and become really painful issues. One particularly dangerous, and unfortunately common, issue is a shoulder problem. The shoulder is the joint most susceptible to injury due to its large range of motion. One particularly dangerous, and unfortunately common, family of exercises in Crossfit is overhead lifting. Good overhead lifting require lots of skill and coordination. Pairing high injury susceptibility + high degree of difficulty and you’ve got trouble. Here’s why.
A recent survey states that 86% of Americans have desk jobs. Three-quarters of Americans also report they have Wi-Fi in their house, which one could deduce that those folks also own a smart phone, tablet or laptop computer. One could also deduce that means that most of us sit all day at work, get in our cars and sit on our way home, and then plop our butts on the couch to get some more sitting in (with more Netflix of course). Since we all sit spread-sheeting/power pointing/facebooking on our work computer all day and then facebook/pinterest/netflix all night, many of us have developed some pretty poor posture. That poor posture includes tight hip flexors, forward head posture and also rounded forward shoulders. When you take a person with rounded shoulders and put a barbell in their hand, a lot of nasty stuff can happen. Now lets go over exactly what that nasty stuff is.
The bursitis I’m referring to is sub-acromial bursitis. It is a deep ache in the front of the shoulder that often happens when somebody with rounded shoulders performs overhead lifts. Instead of keeping their shoulders retracted (i.e. shoulders brought back and chest out–good posture) their crappy posture makes an appearance as they get tired and the weight starts to migrate forward. This ache happens because in good posture the bursa sac (a tiny pillow that gives your body a mechanical advantage while moving–also does a swell job acting as a cushion) has plenty of room to do its job and when your shoulder blades round forward they also get pulled down by your working-way-too-hard pectoral muscles. Even when you try to maintain good form while lifting, you will eventually get tired and your shoulders will start to come forward (along with whatever you are holding). This restricts the space for the bursa sac and this cramped space leads to friction with the structures around it. All that jazz leads to inflammation and nagging pain. As Jay-Z would say, on to the next one!
Thickened posterior shoulder capsule
When one structure in the body gets shorter more often that not another one will have to get longer, or in this case, overstretched. The shoulders are rounding forward due to the pectoral muscles being shortened. On the flip side of the body, the muscles on the back of the shoulder blade (infraspinatus and teres minor) end up getting stretched out along with several other muscles. “But if these muscles are on your shoulder blade, and the whole shoulder blade is rounding forward, why would they be overstretched?” Reader, what a fine question! These muscles are overstretched because as well as your shoulder rounding forward, your arms internally rotate as well (round towards the body) a bit. This condition has several other contributing factors too. One being that when you do an overhead press you have to externally rotate your arms, which is the function of those muscles. When your fatigue as your do your overhead work your shoulders round forward a bit, which makes these muscles have to stretch AND contract AT THE SAME TIME! When your body senses this (which it is VERY good at) it says to itself “Ohcrapohcrapohcrap these muscles are overworked and could tear! I need to provide more support!” Support in this case comes by way of a thickened shoulder capsule and fascia over the effected muscles. This will effectively put a cap on the amount of force you are able to generate through these muscles and will sometimes cause a “pinch” sensation in the front of the shoulder since your shoulder now has a tough time moving. The pinch happens because the space that is between a little fingerling on your shoulder blade known as the acromion process and the head of the humerus (your arm) is now half the size AND since your shoulder is forward the acromion process is too. When you bring your arm up your arm and the acromion will “jam,” causing that pinch sensation. Worst offending exercises: bad form push-ups (your arms should be no more than 45 degrees from your torso, not 90) and kettle bell swings.
Making an already existing muscle imbalance worse
Having rounded shoulders means that you likely have a little diddy referred to as Upper Cross Syndrome. (I’ve talked about this in previous blog posts, so if you don’t know what it is, check it out HERE.) Overhead lifting essentially makes this condition even worse than it already is. You are making the already overworked and tight muscles work harder and get even tighter. Ideally a person with UCS should focus on the exact opposite exercise: the pull up. Your arms are still overhead but you are focusing on pulling a weight down instead of up, which when performed correctly will strengthen your lower trapezius (below the shoulder blades), rhomboids (between the shoulder blades), and your latissimus dorsi (big honkin’ muscles that connect your lower spine to your arms, help stabilize your shoulders).
If you have anything like I just described, you have some work to do before you get into overhead lifts. The three things I reviewed aren’t even a full list, so if what you have isn’t described here but you know your shoulder just doesn’t feel right listen to yourself and get it figured out. You will need to stretch and mobilize the tight muscles, strengthen the weak and likely get your spine un-hunched and moving with some chiropractic care and soft-tissue work. Overhead lifts are great for strength if that is your main goal, but I cannot think of a reason in today’s most common lifestyle you would need the “functional” capacity to push a ton of weight over your head. If you are just a desk jockey who doesn’t feel the need to lift a lot of weight, ignore it. If you want to make yourself a superbeast, you probably have some homework to do first. Good luck and happy lifting!