Sean McCawley, Fit for Life: Strong and healthy shoulders
Fit for Life

Sean McCawley, Fit for Life: Strong and healthy shoulders

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The general population’s everyday functional activities involve multiple movements that the upper body is responsible for. Opening doors, reaching overhead, writing, and postural support are just a few actions involved in the usage of the upper extremities. Inadequate shoulder strength or previous injuries to the should joint can limit movement significantly.

Imagine a world in which we couldn’t open a jar of peanut butter, raise a glass of wine, get a book off the top shelf, close the shower curtain, or reach back for your seat belt. These everyday activities can be slowed down due to lack of exercise and neglect to shoulder health.

Shoulder injuries can randomly affect our lives, such as accidents and previous sport or work injuries. Adhering to an upper body strengthening routine and injury prevention tactics can ensure your shoulders can endure the demands of a normal days work for the rest of your life.

Some of the simplest tactics to improve shoulder health include focusing on the anatomical planes of motions in which the arm moves. The musculature of the shoulder joint has a network of attachment points between the shoulder blade, arm, ribs, upper neck, and spine. These unique attachment points allow the arms to move side-to-side, up-and-down and to reach in front and behind the body.

A simple way to ensure these movements remain strong is to stimulate these movement for repetitions in an exercise session. We teach our personal training clients in Napa to perform 10 repetitions of these movements before every training session to keep the should area activated, coordinated, and allow sufficient blood flow to the intricately placed muscles of the shoulder joint.

Examples of shoulder strengthening techniques in which only gravity and your own body are necessary to perform include shoulder protraction and retraction, supination and pronation of the forearms, and internal and external rotation of the shoulder.

Scapular protraction and retraction: This is a fancy word for moving the shoulder blades forward and backward along the ribcage. To perform, raise your elbows to where they are just below your armpits and elevated from the side of your body. Bend your elbow at a 90-degree angle with your fingertips projecting forward. Glide the shoulder blades backward, as if feeling the shoulder blades get closer to the spine and the muscles surrounding the shoulder blade contract. Reverse the motion, moving your arms forward and feeling the shoulder blades separate as your pectoral muscles are engaged.

Supination and pronation of the upper arm: With your arms by your side, rotate your arms to where the thumb side of your palm is exposed. Your elbow pit and palm should be facing forward. Rotate the arm enough to where a brief stretching sensation is felt in the upper chest and armpit region. The area between the should arm pit and chest should start to feel opened up. Kind of like how a rooster walks around the coop to show his machismo.

After the stretch is achieved, reverse the motion, and rotate the palms and elbow the opposite direction. Your knuckles and tips of the elbows should now be exposed. This will narrow the space between the shoulder joint and chest while opening up the shoulder blade region.

Shoulder internal and external rotation: With your arms bent at 90-degree angles and elbows tucked in by your side, point your fingertips forward. While maintaining this 90-degree bend in your elbows, rotate the arm inward, giving yourself an ergonomically sound hug.

After you feel a brief muscular sensation in your pectorals and shoulder joint, reverse the motion until a stretching sensation is felt in the deep internal attachment points of the rotator cuff. It is imperative that the elbows are pinned to the side during this movement.

Many exercise participants “flare” their elbows away from the sides. The tendency to let the elbows move away from the side during the external rotation of this movement indicates that the lateral attachment points connecting the outer arm to the shoulder blades are not being properly activated. To get the most of this technique, go by the “less is more” principle. Fasten the elbows to your sides and stretch as much as possible rotating the arm outward.

These exercises will make your shoulders feel limber, alive and strong. However, they are useless if performed on a random occurrence. To get the most out of these simple and effective exercises, it’s critically important to perform them on average twice per week. All you need to do is 10 repetitions of each movement. Just like learning how to crochet, play Yahtzee, or master the art of cutting an onion, the body will master these movements with adherence to consistent practice refining these techniques.

Sean McCawley, the founder and owner of Napa Tenacious Fitness in Napa, welcomes questions and comments. Reach him at 707-287-2727, or visit the website

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