Whatever badass fitness goals you’re working toward—whether that’s performing your first pullup, doing a handstand in yoga class, or crushing your tennis serve—success hinges largely on your shoulders.
“Even something like a deadlift, which you don’t typically think of as an upper body exercise, requires strong shoulders,” says Mike T. Nelson, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and adjunct professor of human performance at Carrick Institute in St. Paul, Minnesota. “If you can’t stabilize the load as you come up, you’re going to have some issues.” With weak or unstable shoulders, you might not be able to get the weight off the floor at all.
The shoulders are the most mobile joints in your body. But that mobility comes at a price: stability, says certified strength and conditioning specialist Matt Unthank, training director at Crossover Symmetry in Denver.
One in four women ages 20 to 55 complain of shoulder pain, per BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. And another study suggests that, at some point, about 20 percent of us will tear our rotator cuff.
As women, everything from how we’re built to how we live and train impacts our shoulder health. Here are the biggest everyday culprits and how to beat them.
When you hunch over a screen (be it phone, tablet, or computer), your head puts 60 pounds of pressure on your neck—rounding your shoulders forward and weakening the supportive back and shoulder muscles, Unthank says. Over time, they become weak and stretched out, and you start complaining about “carrying everything” in your shoulders.
THE FIX: In one study of female office workers, performing a 20-minute shoulder- and neck-strengthening dumbbell workout three times a week for 10 weeks significantly reduced pain and improved function.
Yep, the gender gap hits the shoulder too. The hormone estrogen affects collagen synthesis, making women’s joints laxer, easier to injure, and slower to repair, says physical therapist Jessica Hettler, D.P.T., clinical manager at the Hospital for Special Surgery Sports rehabilitation and performance centre in new york city.
THE FIX: If you’re on the Pill, good news: Hormonal contraceptives may significantly reduce the risk for ligament injury, per recent research in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine. Not on BC? Hettler says you are most prone to ligament injury in the luteal phase (from ovulation until your period starts), so keep an eye on your form and intensity during that time of the month to help avoid injury.
When you’re flexing (or selfie-ing) in front of the mirror, it’s natural to focus on what’s most visible. But that means we tend to forget about the smaller stabilizer muscles that we can’t always see—like your subscapularis, which stabilizes the shoulder and combats internal shoulder rotation (a.k.a. rounded shoulders).
THE FIX: Perform two pulling exercises (think rows and chinups) for every pushing exercise (like pushups and chest presses) in your workout routine, Nelson says. This will help strengthen those crucial anterior muscles (the ones on the back side of your body) while also helping to combat muscular imbalances that can make your shoulders more susceptible to injury.
“The tendons of the rotator cuff are like a pair of blue jeans: With poor care and a lot of use, the denim starts to wear out and become frayed,” unthank says. “If you’re carrying a bag the same way every day, especially if it’s superheavy, you add load to those torn blue jeans, causing them to wear down quicker.”
THE FIX: Realistically, it’s a big ask to downsize your handbag. Instead, opt for wider straps if possible, wear your bag across your body whenever you can, and switch shoulders every now and then, he says.
If you’re a C cup or larger, your bra straps may have created grooves on top of your shoulders. Well, if not corrected, these can become permanent, actually deforming the shoulders’ muscle fascia, explains sports physiotherapist Deirdre McGhee, Ph.D., a researcher with Breast Research Australia at the university of Wollongong. “They can also become very painful,” she says.
THE FIX: Consider investing in bras with thicker, or padded, straps to reduce the amount of downward pressure on your shoulders, McGhee says. She also recommends regularly switching between straight straps and racerbacks so you aren’t stressing the exact same spot on your shoulders every single day.
Striking a balance between mobility and stability is crucial for avoiding shoulder injuries.
This article was originally published by Women’s Health.
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