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Three ways to improve shoulder instability

Shoulder screening and assessment with Tim Stevenson

For anyone who is not a sport scientist, it is an insanely boring concept.

However, there is nothing that is sure to generate a passionate discussion amongst a group of academically inclined practitioners and researchers as trying to agree a consensus of the definition for; stability.

Most fitness enthusiasts or performance minded people don’t care that much. But you do, because you are here reading a blog about it, which probably means you have some experience of shoulder instability for which you need a solution.

I’ve had shoulder instability before to the point of multiple shoulder dislocations.

Having a lack of confidence in your shoulder for fear of it leaving its correct anatomical location sucks.

Before I tell you what to do and why, a caveat…

If you have shoulder instability that is significant, i.e. you fear a partial or complete dislocation or you have previously dislocated your shoulder and didn’t get it x-rayed or sought professional advice, I suggest you start this journey by doing that first.

Shoulders are complex and there are several things you want to clear before taking rehab or training advice direction from a blog on the internet.

If you are someone who lacks strength and stability in overhead or pressing positions but hasn’t previously had a traumatic injury, you can make a start on the below.

‘Stability is the degree to which a system can return to an orientation or movement trajectory after a perturbation.’

Applied more specifically to the shoulder we need the muscles surrounding the glenohumeral joint to stabilise or centre the head of the humerus on the glenoid surface (socket on the scapula).

Here are three ways to improve shoulder instability:

ONE: Train your rotator cuff

Stay with me. You might have heard this many times before, tried it, found it boring and sacked it off, probably because no one explained why you needed it.

Let me help you to ‘buy in’ more by explaining why rotator cuff strength and function is so important.

The primary function of the rotator cuff is to centre the humeral head of the humerus on the socket on the scapula. You have read that somewhere before right! Yep, in the definition of stability.

If your rotator cuff is weak the humeral head can move around more than it should in the socket. That is something we want to avoid because it contributes to a lot of shoulder problems.

Everyone that I see with some level of shoulder instability needs some rotator cuff strengthening work. That’s not an opinion, it’s shown in the objective data we collect which affirms the training programme strategy.

Here's an easy way to start training your rotator cuff. Put it into your warmup and do it regularly.

Target 12 – 20 for 2 – 3 sets working on a 4 second eccentric tempo. This gets spicy and that is exactly what your rotator cuff needs.

TWO: Get Up and Round

To keep the ball on the socket we need the socket to move and that means we need to turn our attention to the scapula.

The scapula (or shoulder blade) is the linchpin between the hand and the rest of the body. If the scapula doesn’t move in a controlled and co-ordinated manner, it’s hard to keep the humeral head centred on the socket.

Poor quality scapula movement is common in the banged-up shoulders we see. A common focus on how we resolve it is to get more upward rotation of the scapula so we can optimise the biomechanics of the joint.

If you were ever told to squeeze back and down when you go into overhead positions you need to stop. We need the scapula to go up and round and this is a good exercise to get that going.

The Prone Single Arm Y Raise

THREE: Connect your brain with the ups and downs

Now your rotator cuff is keeping the ball on the socket and we have the scapula movement to keep the socket on the ball, let’s connect it all together with a more functional task.

We see a lot of people who haven’t previously had successful long-term outcomes from their attempts at shoulder rehabilitation. This can be because the isolated work on the shoulder was never connected to the movement patterns they want to do.

The shoulder needs to be considered as part of the entire human movement system.

There are so many ways to do this, one I like is the inverted kettlebell shoulder press.

This movement gives the brain a task – Don’t let the kettlebell fall over.

The brain likes tasks, and they allow it to connect everything together to achieve a useful outcome. Just strengthening your rotator cuff is not a useful objective to the brain as it has no application or context.

That’s point one. Point two behind this exercise selection is the challenge we can create during the eccentric phase.

So many people lack control around the shoulder during the lowering phase of overhead movements. Why? Because people are too lazy to do it properly. It’s far easier just to let gravity do the work.

The issue here is that if we are crashing down from overhead, we’re often not in a great position to be able to start the concentric phase of the next rep.

And if we don’t start in a good shape, the shoulder has a lot of work to do to try and find the best available strategy to complete the movement. Do that for long enough and you can run into problems.

This Benchmark assessment is part of our BASE programme.

The target is 20 percent bodyweight for 10 repetitions on a 3 second eccentric tempo. Get this nailed and I’m confident your shoulders will be in a good place.

Kick-start your journey to stronger, more stable shoulders you can trust.

Are you frustrated with banged-up shoulders?

Are your shoulders restricting your training and progression?

Are you looking to enhance your upper body performance in sport, CrossFit, calisthenics or other gym-based strength training?

Take a look at our 6-week BASE online shoulder training programme.

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