There are no bad movements - just poor understanding, shitty implementation, and even worse execution. Just because YOU don’t completely understand an exercise, or can’t communicate effectively to teach and coach your athletes to do something proficiently, doesn’t mean that a movement or exercise is worthless, has no purpose, and lacks validity in the training of athletes.
For whatever reason, there are some circles within the performance and sport world that have demonized overhead movements, especially those with a barbell, for throwing athletes. Baseball is the most common sport associated with throwing athletes, but others include softball, water polo, and the quarterback in American Football. To me, most of the “negatives” that are brought up about implementing overhead movements are simply just excuses, and making them underscores both a lack of understanding of the mechanisms that cause pathologies in the shoulders of throwing athletes, and of how these overhead movements can be tools in safeguarding and reducing the risk of these nearly ubiquitous pathologies - ultimately benefiting, not hindering, performance.
As we know through the SAID Principle, the first step in designing effective training programs is analyzing the demands of the sport - this includes studying common injuries in participants and the mechanisms that contribute to these injuries. This analysis then provides us the necessary information to reverse engineer a program that will allow the athlete to unlock their true athletic potential while staying healthy.
The overhead thrower exhibits range of motion (ROM), postural, and strength changes, which appear to be adaptations from the imposed demands of throwing. Because of these demands, the most glaring injuries revolve around the shoulder girdle and throwing extremities. While previously reserved primarily for older players at the collegiate or professional levels, these injuries have now become an epidemic at the youth level due to the obsession with early specialization!
In Part 1 of this two part series, I’m going to first go over the mechanics of what’s going with throwing that can lead to the common pathologies we see with these athletes, and then provide a solution on how to reduce the risk of suffering them, especially at the developmental levels.
SO WHAT’S GOING ON?
The overhead throwing motion is a highly skilled movement performed at extremely high velocities requiring flexibility, muscular strength, coordination, and neuromuscular control. It’s because of these high forces, done repetitively over time, that the shoulder and throwing extremities are the most commonly injured joints in throwing sports.
Due to these demands, a thrower’s shoulder requires a delicate balance between mobility and functional stability. As we often say at Power Athlete, mobility without stability equals injury! Additionally, a proper balance between the agonist and antagonist muscle groups is profoundly important in providing dynamic muscular stabilization.
The very nature of throwing requires excessive external rotation at the glenohumeral joint (the ball and socket). Greater external rotation naturally creates less internal rotation in the throwing arm, creating major ROM and muscular imbalances.
These major imbalances start to show up in the movement and stability of the scapula. The ability of the scapula to function as a cohesive unit with the upper body is essential for the overhead athlete. The repetitive nature of throwing will eventually fatigue the scapular musculature; when this happens, the scapular position tends to worsen, resulting in greater scapular protraction and anterior tilting, which correlates with a loss of internal rotation. Additionally, the posterior musculature of the shoulder along with the posterior capsule of the glenohumeral joint, may become tight because of the intensity of muscle contractions during the deceleration phase of throwing.
So, when you see “droopy” or “rounded” shoulders (scapular protraction and tilt) in younger throwers, it is associated with muscle weakness of the scapular retractor muscle, due to an imbalance of the anterior force producing throwing muscles in the front of the shoulders and the posterior scapular stabilizers (force reduces) during the release phase of the throwing motion.
“Rounded shoulder” can also be associated with perceived tightness in the pec minor and weakness in the lower trap. Tight pecs can lead to occlusion of the axillary artery and neurovascular symptoms, such as arm fatigue, pain, and tenderness. The lower trap muscles, on the other hand, are important in arm deceleration and force reduction. It controls scapular elevation and protraction, so weakness in this muscle may result in improper throwing mechanics, further exasperating any pathologies in the shoulder girdle.
JUST TELL ME HOW TO PREVENT AND FIX THIS SHIT
Now knowing what the problem areas are and what causes them, it’s time to outline a general plan of attack to reduce the risk of these shoulder pathologies.
The first goal is to reinstate muscle balance in the shoulder girdle. This should include a focus on developing the stability of the external rotator cuff muscles, the strength of the scapular muscles, including the lower trap muscles, since those are the areas that take the most stress from throwing.
In addition to muscle balance in the shoulder girdle, exercises and movements that develop scapular stability will be important. While having excess external rotation is needed to be successful in throwing, stability helps to counter the repetitive high velocity forces from throwing.
As strength and stability of the shoulder girdle are being developed, getting the shoulder to move as a coordinated unit is important – this is called motor control. Exercises need to facilitate agonist/antagonist muscle co-activation, or intramuscular coordination - in other words getting the shoulder girdle to move seamlessly and effortlessly together like a synchronized and well-oiled machine.
The second goal is to develop leg and trunk strength. In sport, the legs are the power house, and in order to maximally tap into that power house, a strong and stable trunk is needed to serve as a conduit to transfer that power throughout the rest of the body!
The third goal is to get the lower and upper body to move together. It’s important that throwing athletes develop the ability to transfer energy from the lower extremities and trunk to the upper extremities.
The last goal is to improve the muscular endurance of the shoulder girdle. As mentioned previously, as the scapular musculature gets fatigued, the scapular position tends to worsen, creating the dreaded “rounded” shoulder. Therefore, improving muscular endurance is important in challenging the posture and position of the shoulder girdle under fatigue.
THROWING IT HOME
Knowing the demands of the sport, the mechanisms behind the common injuries within that sport, and what is needed to reduce those injuries, can better empower your decisions when it comes to mapping out a training program with specific exercises and movements to maximize performance. With shoulder and throwing extremity injuries becoming an epidemic, specifically at the youth and developmental level, the current paradigm of how we train and develop throwing athletes in the weight room is broken and/or none-existent. This is bullshit and we need to battle it to enact change.
In Part 2 of this series, we’ll dive deeper into how to go about accomplishing the goals we outlined above. If you couldn’t tell from the title of the article, here’s a hint - it’s by incorporating overhead movements with those throwing athletes. In mapping out a more specific game plan, we’ll also battle the bullshit by dispelling any excuses coaches use as to why overhead movements are bad for throwing athletes.
In the meantime, empower your performance as a coach and help us in battling the bullshit and change the paradigm - get signed up for the next semester of the Power Athlete Methodology - Level One!
EDUCATION: Power Athlete Methodology- Level One
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- Wilk, K.E., Obma, P., Simpson, C.D., Cain, E.L., Dugas, J., Andrews, J.R. (2009). Shoulder Injuries in the Overhead Athlete. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 39(2), 38-54.
1. Wilk, K.E., Obma, P., Simpson, C.D., Cain, E.L., Dugas, J., Andrews, J.R. (2009). Shoulder Injuries in the Overhead Athlete. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 39(2), 38-54.
Don was a two time National Champion and All-American water polo goalie at the University of Southern California prior to getting involved in coaching strength & conditioning and weightlifting. As the owner and Head Coach of DELTA Weightlifting in Sacramento, CA, the Power Athlete Methodology has been a crucial component in developing better overall athleticism with his competitive weightlifters with international level athletes and national medalists to show for it. In addition to proudly being a Power Athlete Block One Coach, Don is also a USA Weightlifting Level 4 International Coach, a USA Weightlifting Lead Instructor for the Level 1 & 2 Coaching Certification Courses, and a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA). Don has coached and trained athletes from virtually every sport at levels ranging from youth beginner to National Team level.
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