There is clearly an issue with our modern society and the way we are using our upper bodies. Or NOT USING. Let's face it, we rarely use our upper bodies to undertake the movements we were designed for. We've traded climbing, throwing, hanging, swinging, and fighting type movements for desk jockeying, holding our steering wheel and working a mouse.
I will never forget the very large, very muscular ex-sportsman who said to me in dismay and embarrassment, "Mouse Shoulder? You're saying I have mouse shoulder??"
This post is for all of you that would like to introduce more functional ways of training your upper body for better mobility, less pain and increased strength...but are not sure where to start. Enviously watching ninja warrior while laying on your couch, wishing you kept doing those chin-ups you used to be able to do. Or just wanting to be rid of that headache from carrying around your child (who refuses to be more helpful than a dead weight) all day long.
These exercises are a fantastic starting point for anyone wanting to move better through their upper bodies, without having to bore yourselves with a "one muscle at a time" approach. Each exercise has a direct progression into a whole body, functional movement. Make sure you take the time to develop the movements and build strength in each direction before progressing.
**If you have pain in your upper body, please see your health care team before beginning an exercise rehab program. Nothing beats 1:1 care for pain and dysfunction, please contact the appropriate professional if you have pain or difficulty with any of these exercises.
A bit of mobility to start us off today, let’s get those shoulder blades moving and open your thoracic spine.
Hinge from the pelvis to bring your torso parallel to the floor, and find something steady to place your hands on: countertops or kids play equipment works great for this. Gently press your chest towards the floor for a lovely stretch, but if you have very mobile shoulder joints, think more about pressing down through your hands.
A: Slide your shoulder blades up and down (elevation/depression) your back. “Sticky” spots are ok to work through, if you get sharp pain in the shoulder joint, back off and/or stop the exercise. Work through 10-20 reps.
B: Inhale, press down into your hands to lift the chest, thinking of opening the sternum and collarbones (go easy on the neck). Exhale to lengthen the spine back to neutral. 10x
Finish with another stretch, then return to standing, take a few deep breaths and notice the difference!
Find a bit of wall, and place your hands at shoulder height. We are going to mobilise the shoulder blades into protraction/retraction, (apart/together), and wake up an important muscle called serratus anterior (starts under the scapula and wraps onto the side of the rib cage). Be aware of pecs and upper traps trying to take over here.
Another key to finding the lovely stabilisers is to really focus on the contact of your hands on the wall. Spread your hands and feel each part of the palm and fingers connect into the wall.
A: Keeping your spine straight and your elbows still, slide your shoulder blades towards eachother (chest moves towards the wall), and then connect into the wall to spread them apart (move your chest away from the wall). It’s a fairly small movement, don’t try to make it too big, do 10-20 here.
B: Wall push-ups – Keep the scapula neutral now (in the middle of the range) and focus on NOT moving them as you bend your elbows to come towards the wall, and connect into the wall to push away 10-20x.
Make it harder: You can do each of these as a single arm exercise, which advances the core work as well. Use the same idea of stability when progressing into regular push-ups.
You need something to hang on here. I’m using a gymnastics ring, but in an ideal world you have some monkey bars or a pull-up bar and get your hands shoulder-distance apart.
Bring your legs forward and bend your knees, almost like you’re sitting in a chair under your arms, and take as much weight as you’re comfortable with into your arms.
Slide your shoulder blades down your back (head lifts and neck lengthens), then with control, let the shoulder blades slide back up towards your ears. 10-20x
Make it harder: If this is all feeling easy, stabilise one arm and core, exhale to take the opposite arm off for a few seconds before placing it back onto the ring. See what happens to the body when you support with one side vs the other.
So this starts out the same as Day 2 (on the wall) except you’re on hands and knees. Spine stays still/neutral. If you have no idea what’s going on in your spine put a pool noodle or broom stick down the length of your spine (or get a helper to hold it here).
A: Protraction/retreaction. Let the chest lower towards the floor without the elbows bending or spine changing (retraction). Connect your hands into the floor to spread your shoulder blades (protraction), just watch your spine stays neutral.
B: Thoracic rotation. Press one hand into the ground and protract so much that your other hand lifts off the ground and you rotate through your upper body. If you know your anatomy, really visualize the connection from serratus anterior, through to the obliques to get the rotation.
C: (not shown) Push-ups. Stay on hands and knees (easier) or head to plank, keep shoulder blades stable and spine straight (no head dropping) for good push-up technique. If you cannot stabilize the shoulder blades like you did on the wall on Day 2, you are not strong enough YET in your stabilizers for the load you are placing on them. So reduce load (back to hands and knees or wall) and keep practicing!
Sit with your knees bent to one side, ground your hand on the other side so it is in line with your bent knees (should be forward of shoulder joint). Keep your ribs lifted away from the ground, your torso should be on an angle.
A: Start with just the shoulder blade moving toward your ear, ground your hand to slide it down again. Spine and ribs should stay stable.
B: Tricep press up. Bend your elbow to lower as far as you can keep shoulder blade stable, ground the hand to press back up (keep shoulder wide, not popping forwards).
C: Still keeping the shoulder wide, ground the hand and knees, lift through the bottom side of the waist to come into a lovely side bend.
Go for about 10 of each or as many as you can maintain technique.
Please get in touch if you have any questions about these exercises or movement-stuff in general.
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Enjoy and happy moving xx