prevent shoulder injuriesIt amazes me the amount of demand we, as climbers, put on our shoulders, seeing as it is one of the most unstable joints in our body. We put a lot of faith in the ability of our shoulders to withstand the demands of climbing, but for most, I assume, it is more so an oversight (or lack of knowledge…) than an outright conscious decision to put our shoulders at risk.

The fact that the demands of climbing are so high, coupled with the fact that the shoulder joint is inherently unstable, makes it easily understandable why it is a common site for injuries.

This joint offers the most mobility out of all the other joints in the body, but for the price of stability. In other words, stability is sacrificed for mobility. We can reach for holds in front of us, beside us, above us, and even behind us, greatly increasing the movements and options that are available to us as we scale up a wall. The mobility of our shoulders actually adds quite a bit of interest to our climbs. They open up a variety of options by allowing just one move to be completed several different ways depending on your strengths or style of climbing.

Perhaps your natural movement is to gaston a hold, that for me, feels more fluid to cross to. We really don’t thank our shoulders enough for the versatility they provide us as we pursue our passion for climbing. They broaden our limits an give us the opportunity to flow in our own unique way.

I’d like to keep things that way! Wouldn’t you?

Why not give our shoulders a big thank you by providing them with some more strength, stability, and flexibility so they can carry on carrying us on. 😉

Shoulder / Scapula / Clavicle - Anatomy Bones isolated on white

The rotator cuff is a collection of muscles and tendons that support the shoulder joint by connecting the upper arm (humerus) to the shoulder blade (scapula). The muscles provide mobility of the joint and the tendons provide stability, and together they form a cuff (hence the name rotator cuff) around the head of the humerus helping to draw and keep the head of the humerus in the shallow socket of the shoulder blade.

If you’re an anatomy nut like me (or more accurately, an anatomy nut wannabe…) here’s a more detailed description of the rotator cuff since it’s very helpful to have an idea of your internal blueprints when it comes to understanding movement and keeping your body strong and healthy.

The rotator cuff is made up of 4 muscles, all of which originate in different areas of the shoulder blade and insert as tendons around the head of the humerus. The 4 muscles and their actions are described below:

Supraspinatus: This muscle spans from the top of the shoulder blade to the outer head of the humerus and helps the deltoid (a major shoulder muscle) initiate the action of abduction of the arm (raising the arm). Pay close attention to the fact that it helps ‘initiate the action of abduction’, meaning that the supraspinatus is only used in the initial phases of motion, which is good to understand when it comes to performing strengthening exercises (more on that later). This muscle is also relatively small and most commonly injured.

medical accurate illustration of the supraspinatusInfraspinatus: This muscle originates at the medial edge of the back side of the shoulder blade (edge closest to your spine), spans across the shoulder blade, and attaches onto the back of the humeral head. It is responsible for external rotation of the shoulder.

medical accurate illustration of the infraspinatusTeres Minor: This is a small muscle that works with the infraspinatus to achieve external rotation and also plays a minor role in adduction (lowering the arm). It originates at the lateral edge of the back side of the shoulder blade (edge closest to your arm/side body) and inserts on the back of the humeral head just below the insertion of the infraspinatus.

medical accurate illustration of the teres minorSubscapularis: A large and strong muscle that originates on the medial edge of the front side of the shoulder blade (on the opposite side of the supraspinatus) and inserts on the front of the humeral head. The subscapularis is responsible for internal rotation of the shoulder.

medical accurate illustration of the subscapularisStill with me?

Hopefully you find anatomy as fascinating as I do!

As long as you understand that the muscles of the rotator cuff provide stability to the inherently unstable shoulder joint, then we’re on the same page.

So, clearly the shoulder joint would benefit from additional stability, especially since as climbers it can be likely that some muscular imbalances in the shoulders already exist. Imbalances can lead us towards injury, so lets reverse and mitigate before it’s too late.

Improving the strength and flexibility of your rotator cuff and shoulder muscles can help mitigate injuries, as well as help you heal from existing injuries. Focusing on some prehab/rehab shoulder work builds the strength required for your muscles to hold the head of the humerus in place, allowing it to stay properly aligned as you climb.

The key when strengthening the muscles of the rotator cuff is to understand that these 4 muscles are by no means powerhouse muscles. They require light resistance in order to be properly stimulated, otherwise the more dominant muscles of the shoulder will take over.

The goal is to avoid over recruiting so that the rotator cuff muscles can be properly targeted.

This can be easily achieved by performing your strengthening exercises with:

a) little to no additional weight, and
b) less than 50% effort

Following these 2 guidelines is necessary because using too much weight and effort will cause you to default to your dominant muscle patterns. Your dominant shoulder muscles have been trained to fire under certain conditions and they will fire by habit when they sense that they can assist in the task at hand, especially if the task is beyond the capability of the target muscles.

On the other hand, less weight and less effort gives you more control of which muscles to fire. Instead of defaulting to your more ‘engrained’ muscle pathways, you can choose to use the less dominant muscles, and the low resistance also ensures that there is no need to recruit other muscles to perform the task.

A healthy, strong and well balanced shoulder needs both strength and adequate range of motion. So, below I’ve listed several stretches and strength exercises you can perform that specifically target the rotator cuff.

Warm Up

Classic Pendulum Exercise

Hold a very light weight in one hand, about 1-3 lbs (like a bottle of water), and place your other hand on a table. Lean forward and allow your weighted arm to completely hang down. Using no muscular effort in the weighted arm, use the rest of your body to move your arm from side to side and forward and back. The swinging motion in your arm should originate from the movement of your body, not from the muscles in the arm.

Perform the exercise for 30-60 seconds and then switch sides.

prevent shoulder injuries 1Supine Range of Motion Exercise

Lie on your back, soles of the feet on the floor, and place a yoga block (or similar object that is about the width of your shoulders) between your palms. Extend your arms straight up and plug the heads of your arm bones down into their sockets so that you feel the backs of your shoulders pressing into the floor. Keeping the arms straight and shoulders down, begin to lower the block towards towards the floor. Move slowly, resisting the urge to creep your shoulders up towards your ears. Focus on keeping the shoulders stable throughout the decent down towards the floor, as well as back up.

Repeat 10 times.

prevent shoulder injuries 2Rotator Cuff Stretches

Garudasana Arms (Eagle Arms)

Target in Rotator Cuff: Infraspinatus, Teres Minor, and Supraspinatus.

*The supraspinatus of the upper arm is targeted in the variation where the arms pull to one side.

Cross one arm directly overtop of the other so that the arms cross above the elbow. Bend both elbows, and if possible, wrap the hand of the lower arm around the inside of the other hand and bring the palms together. If this is not accessible, grab onto the thumb of the upper hand or use a strap between your hands. Work towards reaching the elbows diagonally up and away so that you feel a nice stretch in the shoulders and upper back.

To target the supraspinatus, use the lower hand to gently pull the upper arm to the side, creating an external rotation in the shoulder of the upper arm. Keep both elbows centered in front of you.

Hold for about 30 seconds and make sure to reverse the cross of your arms for the opposite side.

prevent shoulder injuries 3Cross Body Stretch

Target in Rotator Cuff: Infraspinatus and Teres Minor

Cross your arm across your chest so that your palm is facing behind you and using your other arm gently pull your arm towards you.

Prone variation: Another variation is to lie on your belly and thread your arm across your chest, palm facing up. Gently lower the weight of your body onto the arm to create the stretch. You can also do both arms at the same time by threading the other arm across the chest (palm facing up), above the other arm.

Hold for about 30 seconds, making sure to do both sides. For the prone variation with both arms, make sure to perform the stretch again with the opposite arm above.

prevent shoulder injuries 4Karate Chop

Target in Rotator Cuff: Subscapularis

Come to a wall and bring the outside edge of your hand against the wall (palm face up), slightly above shoulder height with a slight bend in the elbow. Imagine you’re trying to karate chop the wall. Begin to turn your body away from the wall so that you begin to feel a stretch on front side of the shoulder. Feels so good! One of my favourites!

Hold each side for about 30 seconds.

prevent shoulder injuries 11Gomukhasana Arms (Cow Face Arms)

Target in Rotator Cuff (Upper Arm): Subscapularis

Target in Rotator Cuff (Lower Arm): Supraspinatus

*In addition to stretching, this pose also strengthens the infraspinatus and trees minor of the upper arm and the subscapularis of the lower arm.

Bring the back of your hand onto your back, creating an internal rotation in the shoulder, and begin to slide the back of your hand up your back. Lift the opposite hand over head, bend the elbow, and bring the palm of your hand onto your upper back, creating an external rotation in the shoulder. If it’s accessible reach for your fingers, otherwise use a strap between your hands. Resist rounding in the upper back.

If it’s more comfortable, you can perform the exercises separately by extending one arm to create enough tension on the strap to produce a stretch in the opposite arm.

Hold each side for about 30 seconds.

prevent shoulder injuries 5Rotator Cuff Strengthening

Remember that the muscles of the rotator cuff only require light resistance in order to be properly stimulated and strengthened. If you decide to add any resistance, limit it to about 5 pounds.

Protractions and Retractions

Target in Rotator Cuff: This exercise helps to build overall stability and strength in the shoulder

Come into plank, either on your toes or your knees, and align the creases of your wrists under your shoulders. Keeping the arms straight, protract the shoulders by drawing the shoulder blades away from the spine. Feel the upper back round and press up slightly as you move further away from the floor. Then, retract the shoulders by drawing the shoulder blades together as you descend closer to the floor. Make sure not to sag in the lower back. Focus on maintaining your alignment and allowing the movement to be generated from the shoulder blades.

Perform 3 sets of 15 reps.

prevent shoulder injuries 6Hitchhiker

Target in Rotator Cuff: Supraspinatus

Lay on your belly with your arms overhead in a “Y” position. Create a fist with your fingers and point your thumbs up towards the ceiling to put the shoulders in external rotation. Lift and lower the arms.

Perform 3 sets of 15 reps.

prevent shoulder injuries 10Internal Rotations

Target in Rotator Cuff: Subscapularis

Lie on your side with a light weight in your lower hand. Bend the elbow so it’s at 90 degrees and lift the weight up as you internally rotate the shoulder.

Perform 3 sets of 15 reps on each side.

prevent shoulder injuries 7External Rotations

Target in Rotator Cuff: Infraspinatus and teres minor

Lie on your side with a light weight in your upper hand. Bend the elbow so it’s at 90 degrees and lift the weight up as you externally rotate the shoulder.

Perform 3 sets of 15 reps on each side.

prevent shoulder injuries 8Scapular Plane Arm Raises

Target in Rotator Cuff: Supraspinatus

If you remember, I mentioned above that the supraspinatus helps in the initial phases of abduction (raising the arm). To be more specific, the supraspinatus assists in the initial 0-30 degrees of abduction. Another important point to understand when strengthening the supraspinatus is that this muscle is most effective when working within the scapular plane.

What’s that, you ask?

The scapula don’t lie completely straight against your back. They are actually angled slightly forward; approximately 30 degrees. This is your scapular plane.

3d render illustration scapula bone - top viewTo perform this exercise, place a light weight in your hand and raise and lower it slowly, making sure you are working within the scapular plane. Your arm should be slightly infront of you and only short raises (up to about 30 degrees) are required.

Perform 3 sets of 15 reps on each side.

prevent shoulder injuries 9Isometric Wall Stretches

Target in Rotator Cuff: Supraspinatus

To perform this exercise, place the back of your hand against the wall so that it is slightly infront of you (i.e. in your scapular plane), at an elevation of about 30 degrees. Press firmly into the wall for about 30 seconds, then switch sides.

prevent shoulder injuries 12Target in Rotator Cuff: Infraspinatus and Teres Minor

Stand beside the wall and bend the elbow closest to the wall to 90 degrees. Press the back of the hand firmly into the wall to create an isometric external rotation. Hold for 30 seconds and switch.

prevent shoulder injuries 13Target in Rotator Cuff: Subscapularis

For this exercise you’ll need a doorway rather than a wall. Bend the elbow again to 90 degrees, but this time pressing your palm firmly into the wall to create an isometric internal rotation. Hold for 30 seconds and switch.

prevent shoulder injuries 14