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Shoulder performance at the edge of chaos

Shoulder performance at the edge of chaos talk at PerformX 2023

Many say that training the shoulder is complicated. The reality is it’s more than that. Complicated systems can be deconstructed to their individual components and the mechanics can be fully understood. A Swiss watch is complicated, but it is not complex.

When we have a complex system, we’re talking about multiple systems that are all interrelated and interdependent. A change in one is going to affect a change in another one.

Possibly the simplest definition of a complex system comes from Aristotle who famously said ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts’.

When it comes to human movement, on the one side of the spectrum we have everything that is stable, organised, structured and somewhat rigid. These are good things.

If we’re asking ourselves to do something with increasing complexity like a freestanding handstand push up, we’ll need to travel from order into something more like chaos.

To be able to perform well, we need a balance of both.

What we’re interested in doing from an athletic performance perspective and decreasing injury, is moving people into a place where they can thrive on the edge of chaos. The sweet spot is in the middle; enough stability for quality and enough freedom and fluidity to be able to move.

So, how do we prepare the shoulder for chaos?

This is the talk from PerformX 2023 "Shoulder performance at the edge of Chaos" with some highlights below.


When we talk about the shoulder, we’re essentially talking about four joints: scapulothoracic, glenohumeral, acromioclavicular and sternoclavicular joints. It’s the articulation and integration of these four joints that gives the shoulder function.

The humeral head is three times bigger than the socket (glenoid fossa) it sits on which means that the whole of the humeral head cannot always be in contact with the joint surface.

Essentially, the shoulder is designed for mobility – it’s a super mobile joint that must be relatively ‘unstable’ to allow you freedom of movement overlayed with a complex web of musculature acting on the shoulder to try and hold and control position.

We need to keep the ball on the socket and the socket on the ball while the scapular is moving around the rib cage in the upward and downward rotation pattern.

When we start thinking about chaos, we need to respect the design of the shoulder: it’s super mobile with lots of forces acting upon it. The scapular is effectively a false joint, it’s suspended largely by muscle forces.

Eric Cressey describes it as a piece of tent canvas, and we have guy ropes pulling in different directions. If we have some of the guy ropes pulling too tight, we’ll see a distortion in the canvas. Relating this to the musculature and the scapular, this will affect the scapular’s ability to move.

That’s why balance, rhythm and coordination is so important in having a high performing shoulder.


Incorporating athleticism into your movement philosophy will help you perform much better because it gets you away from thinking about muscle function from A to B and more into the space of what can you do.

When it comes to the shoulder… a shoulder that can do more things, has more movement options, and can perform better because of the design.

Definition of athleticism from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA):

“Athleticism is the ability to repeatedly perform a range of movements with precision and confidence in a variety of environments, which require competent levels of motor skills, strength, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination and endurance.”

We can’t be athletic if we don’t have the stable pieces in place. We need a certain component of order, and we need enough variability to handle the randomness so we can express movement patterns effectively.

Think about your training programme and how you can integrate more stability, control and strength into different shapes.

Think about play. Think about literacy. Think about moving in new ways.

Hang more. Play on monkey bars. Introduce crawling patterns into your movement prep. Use gymnastic rings. Develop hand balancing skills.

So that when you find yourself in more chaotic positions, your brain knows what to do because it’s done it before, and it knows what it’s like to have these forces acting on the joint.


Rotator cuff fatigue is one of the primary causes of shoulder issues. When we start to think about the shoulder and the design, and the load we’re placing upon it at the intensity we’re starting to place on it in terms of the levels of fatigue, if the shoulder can’t maintain the congruency of the joint, it’s going to have a problem.

A study done by Ian Horsley from the English Institute of Sport with rugby players found that proprioception decreases in end ranges under fatigue. Basically, this means that if you’re tired, you lose joint sense (where you are in space) in end range positions more than mid-range. This means that if you’re tired overhead, your shoulder is vulnerable.

By increasing and building your endurance capacity or fatigue resistance in your shoulders and particularly around the rotator cuff, it’s going to keep the ball on the socket and the socket on the ball when you go and do more complex movements. So, do some high volume, slow eccentric work to build capacity. Try the side lying external rotation below, 12 reps with a 4 second eccentric.


How fast can your shoulder produce force. When we talk about rate of force development, we’re talking about the ability to produce maximal force in the minimal amount of time. Your shoulders need this from a protection and a performance perspective.

In rugby for example, if you’re going to take a hit, the speed at which the shoulder can create stability is then going to allow you to create stability from which you can transfer force and it will do a good job at keeping the ball on the socket.

Try this plyometric push up. How many touches on and off the plates can you achieve in 10 seconds (both hands at the same time) help you get more twitch around the shoulder?

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Are you frustrated by shoulder pain, instability and lack of confidence that's holding you back and restricting your training progression? We can help you build strong, stable shoulders you can rely on and have confidence in.

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