Movement

Shoulder Mobility for the Overhead Athlete Part 1


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When Chad contacted me to contribute an article for “Mobility Week” he gave me the topic of “Shoulder Mobility For The Overhead Athlete.” My first reaction was: “Awesome, I can crush this article!” I’m fortunate enough to be learning on a daily basis from 3 amazing guys, who for all intents and purposes are absolute ninjas when it comes to shoulder health and function. It would be dishonest of me to claim anything you are about to read as my own. With that in mind I have placed a considerable amount of continuing reading at the end of this article from Eric Cressey (Owner of Cressey Performance), Mike Reinold (former Physical Therapist for the Boston Red Sox), and Eric Shoenberg (Owner of Momentum Physical Therapy in Milford, MA).  I extend a huge thank you to these folks for teaching me what I am about to share.

My hope is that I can I simply explain this topic so it is easily digested, and readily usable to everyone who finds themselves on this page today. I am not going to attempt to cover the material in the detail that you will find by exploring the links that accompany this text.

My second reaction to Chad’s request was: “Shoulder mobility is not the right way to think about the intended focus of this article.”

I find that people’s definition of mobility is a bit off. So is their definition of stability. While stability is not the center of this article, it really needs to be understood within the context of a common theme. The theme being: optimal joint function.

Bill Hartman (PT and Co-Owner of IFAST) defines the two simply as:

Mobility: The ability to produce a desired movement.

Stability: The ability to resist an unwanted movement.

That’s a pretty general understanding of those two terms. However, it should be enough to understand the content moving forward.

There are a couple other terms you should be familiar with as well. These pertain to the kinematics of human movement.

Osteokinematics: Most everyone acknowledges these types of movement. They are the visible movement of bones. These movements take place voluntarily. Think: flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, ect.

Arthrokinematics: These are often forgotten movements taking place within the joint. They are much harder to see, if at all, unless you are looking for them. These are non-voluntary. Think: Glide or slide, spin and roll.

It’s crucial to understand that for every voluntary movement of a bone, an involuntary series of movements within the joint occurs.

With that in mind, let’s backtrack a second. My second reaction to Chad’s request was: “Shoulder mobility is not the right way to think about the intended focus of this article.”

My reasoning was as follows. Often people are looking to learn about more than just mobility. They want to know how they can improve movement in general. They want to know what to do in order to keep joints healthy. Improving mobility alone is not the answer. Armed with the knowledge I just gave you on mobility, stability, arthro-, and osteo-, kinematics, you can imagine the dilemma.

If the ability to produce a desired movement (mobility) is improved, but the ability to resist unwanted movement (stability) is not, then you will most likely find a bunch of unwanted movement going on within the joint. That is a recipe for disaster.

Recently, Mike Reinold delivered an in-service for our staff at Cressey Performance. He opened with a question: “What’s more important, mobility or stability?” That’s a tough question, right? There’s probably no clear answer, as they are not mutually exclusive. His question was meant to introduce a new way of thinking about movement. He wanted to place commanding respect on the concept of “position.”

What we are looking to achieve, if optimal joint function is the end goal, is a better position. When things line up they move better. Furthermore, we can’t look to improve the range of motion at a joint until we are sure it is positioned correctly.

Visualize it for a second. The head of your humerus (big upper arm bone) is sitting like a golf ball on a tee. The cup of the tee is the glenoid fossa of your scapula. Ideally, as the golf ball moves the tee will follow with it. As a result the two don’t kink around off each other but instead they work together. Now imagine the positioning of your scapula (golf tee) is out of whack. When the humeral head (golf ball) moves, the scapula (golf tee) doesn’t move fluidly with it. Now we have a problem because the two are colliding all the time. Or to say, when the osteokinematic movement of the humerus takes place, the arthrokinematics of the shoulder joint are faulty.

It’s all starting to make sense right?

In order to keep joints healthy we need to optimize positioning. In order to keep athletes healthy we need to optimize positioning through out their respective sport movements. Position must be achieved first, and then position must be maintained as we strive to improve mobility. All of which cannot occur if we don’t have the stability to resist unwanted movements through out the body, and within the joint.

If we want to improve mobility, we must first look at position. More times than not, improving positioning will result in newfound mobility (not to mention strength that was already present, but lacked a position capable of producing it). If position is achieved and there is still a restriction, then we can attack mobility on a more localized level.

When our positioning is on point in one joint, there is a good chance it is on point throughout the chain. Likewise, if our positioning is off in one joint, there is a good chance it is off throughout the chain. Fascia is a fascinating system of the body that connects everything. It’s pull will effect the entire chain, for better or for worse.

Assessing position will tell us where we need to focus our efforts in improving movement and performance. Is something over active, stiff, or short and not allowing something to move? Maybe we need to inhibit, manually release, or stretch it. Is something weak and / or inhibited and not pulling it’s weight? Maybe we need to activate and / or strengthen it.  Lastly, maybe we need to just give our athletes an overhaul in movement education.

It’s not as simple as prescribing a shoulder flexion drill to improve mobility in the pitcher who walked in to the gym today; with his ribs flared up, scaps pulled down, and overly extended posture. If we don’t attack the over active lats, faulty breathing pattern (rib positioning), and weak anterior core we won’t get anywhere. In some cases we may just cause more problems.

I hope part I of this article hit home with a lot of you. It’s an important concept to digest. Keep it in mind with all the articles you read during mobility week, and we’ll see how it all applies to the overhead athlete is part II.

Greg Robins is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist at Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA. Greg has worked with clientele ranging from general population to professional athletes. His unique experience in many different aspects of fitness, strength training, and athletic preparation have helped him become an unbiased authority on all things fitness and performance related. Outside of coaching Greg is a former collegiate baseball player, active member of the MA ARMY National Guard, and enjoys power lifting.

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