5 Ways to manage a niggling shoulder

G’day everybody and welcome back to the more you know with SOF.

There is no denying a niggling shoulder is one of the most annoying things to deal with when it comes to trying to stick to a decent training schedule.

Be it a dull ache, neural symptoms or sharp pinching, shoulders are susceptible to a number of issues because of their frequent use and complex structure.

Today we are going to break down a few things, first we’ll describe a few instant ways you can manage shoulder pain/niggles.

Second, we’ll dive into some of the crucial elements causing your shoulder issues and ways you can fix them.

The beauty about this is using any one or a few of these will be a perfect way to create instant relief, but more importantly, generate long term change so shoulder issues are a thing of the past for you. We’ve broken up the approach into two phases for simplicity. First is instant but not long term. Second is a little less instant but more effective after a while.


Tissue Release

Although we don’t always stand by trigger release work, for instant relief of aches and pain it serves as a decent tool to provide some relief to tightness that causes pain.

It is important to remember that although released, appropriately strengthening the specific joint will be the best way you can set up a body to be pain and injury free.


1. Release teres minor & major

Teres minor and major are two small muscles that is under and slightly behind your arm pit. The origin (where it starts) of the teres major is on the upper surface of the inferior angle of the scapular (for you anatomy buffs out there) and the insertion (where is finishes) is on the medial lip of the bicipital groove (inside of the arm/just under your armpit).

The origin and insertions of teres minor is the inferior lateral border of your scapula inserting on the greater tubercle of the humerus.

Why would we bother boring you with such specific jargon? Well now that you know where the muscles are you can get stuck into them.

The way to do this is as follows:

  • Grab yourself a ball - tennis ball, golf ball, spikey ball, hockey ball etc.
  • Hug the arm of the tight/sore shoulder across your chest to the opposite armpit.
  • Lie on the ground/lean onto a wall with the ball wedged underneath the armpit of the sore shoulder.
  • Move around slightly looking for the tight/sore spots.
  • Find the juicy bit, breath and put as much pressure into it as you can.


2. Release your pecks and lats.

Similarly to the small little muscles that are teres minor and major, tightness in the bigger guys such as your pecs and lats are often reducing the smoothness in movement of your shoulder joint.

Compared to the little ones, these muscles are so hard to find.

To release your peck:

  • Grab the same ball you used before
  • Lay face down with the arm of the sore shoulder open out @ 90degrees
  • Place the ball underneath your collarbone on the armpit end of your chest.
  • Bend the knee of the opposite leg up to the side (your right knee if the ball is under your left arm) and transfer as much of your weight over to the ball as you can.
  • Move the ball inward and outward to your sternum.
  • Breathe and soak in the pain.

To release your lats:

  • Grab yourself a foam roller
  • Laying on your side, place the roller underneath your armpit with your arm reach over your head.
  • With all your weight on the roller, move your body over the roller until it gets to you bottom rib.
  • Once at your bottom rib, open your chest slightly to the roof and continue rolling over until the roller is in your lower back.
  • Once at the bottom repeat the same movement in the opposite direction until your back on your side with the roller under your armpit.
  • Repeat a handful of times, breath and soak in the discomfort.

These few release techniques will help, but doing the work to have better and stronger movement is the answer to a more robust and pain free shoulder.


And this is where part two comes in.


Improve your shoulder (blade) mechanics

The most abundant issue we see (yes this is anecdotal) with regard to shoulder issues, is poor movement of shoulder blades.

Modern lifestyles have led to us not moving our arms very much through the day, to then thrash them with chin up,  bench press, ski ergs etc. for an hour or two every week.

The general problem is, we are not strong enough (particularly in the scapular joint) to handle such a thrashing so regularly. What this leads to is the shoulder joint (and muscle around it – rotator cuffs) have to do all the work without any support from home base (the muscles that move your scapular).

If you think of it like this, the shoulder blade and its surrounding muscles are a play a crucial role in the transfer of force to and from our trunk/torso. The torso plays host to some of the biggest muscles in the body (pecs and lats) and if there is a lack of transfer in force from those big muscles to your arms, you end up asking a lot more (and often too much) of some the smaller muscles around your shoulder and arms.


Below are three movements that help smoothen out this relationship.


3. Shoulder protraction

Although you might think you round your shoulders all too much with regard to your modern lifestyle the truth is your shoulders are more “stuck” than just rounded.

As with most rules in life, what goes up must come down, yin and yang, hot and cold etc. If you want your shoulders to move properly the movement of your shoulder blades forward (protraction) and backward (retraction) is crucial.

The muscles that pull your shoulder blades forward (around your ribs) include the serratus anterior and pec minor. Learning how to turn these guys on is crucial to help stabilise the shoulder in a bench press, push up and rowing motion – to name a few.

By showing your body how to move your shoulder blades forward your body will get a better idea of how to move them backwards setting you up for the next point.


4. Improve ALL trap strength

If you think about the “sit up straight at the table” nagging you dealt with when you were younger, well these are some of the muscles that would have had to help you do that.

The muscles that pull your shoulder blades backwards include your rhomboid major and minor, your traps and your lats. What gets complex is that your traps also play a role in elevating (lifting up) the shoulder blade.

If you have the stooped rounding shoulder that gives you grief at the joint and up into your neck and head, it is a good chance the muscles that pull your scaps back and up are week.

Easy fix with these two drills:

Drill one:

  • Grab a water bottle and lay face down on the ground.
  • Without arching your lower back, hold the water bottle over your head with your arms our straight and your face 1cm away from the floor.
  • Reach as far forward as you can and shrug your shoulders up to your ears.
  • Hold for as long as you can. 60seconds should do.

Drill two:

  • Sit on your bottom with your legs out straight.
  • Throw a band length ways around your feet pulling the handles back to you (like you’re riding a billycart).
  • Sit up as straight as you can and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  • Try and pulse your sternum up to the roof for 30 to 60 seconds.

The strength of the muscles in the back of your body will do wanders for the shoulder joint (and your posture). Smoothening out a movement called upward and downward rotating and brining in your traps and lats to support this movement will bring a lot of relief to the little guys (particularly teres minor and major that you just released) when it comes to over head pulling and pushing exercises.


Which brings us to our fifth point.


5. Improve thoracic extension strength and lifting set up positions.

Thoracic extension is one of the most compromised and therefore under trained movement in modern gyms.

If you can extend your thoracic spine will, your shoulder blades have more room to move for better shoulder mechanics, your posture is better and your body will generate and distribute forces a lot better. If you want justification, just look at elite level Olympic lifters (arguably the strongest and most powerful athletes in the world pound for pound).

How should you increase this strength?

Firstly, consider your set up position on all your traditional strength exercises. Bench press, squat, deadlift and chin up all require thoracic extension which then allow for the shoulder blade to find its correct position relative to the movement.

Incorporate layers of Olympic lifting into your training. Start small and build your skills. Seek out a coach that can really help you learn the details. The art of generating large forces in the lower limbs, transferring them across your torso to the upper limbs, is probably the most complex movement journey one can take.

Build a body that can handle this and you’ll be heading in a positive direction when it comes to moving more efficiently and effectively.

To summarise, if you get your shoulder blade movement sorted your shoulder joint will be a lot happier.


So get to work.