In part one of “How to avoid shoulder injuries in the martial arts“, I talked a bit about my personal experience with those and how I deal with them today. In this part we’ll look at how to prevent shoulder injuries. But before we do that, please allow me to make a simple yet important point:
Prevention only works if you make a long term commitment to it.
I’ve been a personal trainer for 16 years and have taught all sorts of clients: young and old, men and women, out of shape and in peak condition, healthy and recovering form their second heart attack at age 27. Regardless of these factors, there is only one that really matters in my experience: commitment. The clients who committed to their goals reached them. Those who started training and were in it for the long term are still working out today. Some of the clients I’ve had from day one are still training with me after 16 years. That’s the kind of commitment I’m talking about.
So if you want to prevent shoulder problems, you have to view training for that goal as a long term plan and integrate it into your training schedule. If you only do it sporadically, you’ll get mediocre results at best.
The biggest psychological mistake people make is this: They think they’ll always have to work as hard as they do when they start such an injury prevention program. That’s simply not true. When you start on a prevention program, you do have to take out some time for it, that’s true. But it won’t stay like that forever. In most cases, you can get good results with only 10-15min. of work every other day. Once you get the desired results, you go into maintenance mode and reduce the sessions to twice a week. Or you could incorporate them into your regular training (especially the stretching part). Then a month or perhaps two later, you increase the sessions again, back to three times a week if you feel your shoulders need it. Experiment and see what works best for you but just make it a part of your overall training.
The two pillars of prevention.
To have healthy shoulders, you need two things: strength training and stretching. Your shoulders have to become both strong and flexible at the same time. Just one or the other doesn’t cut it. You need both in the martial arts and combat sports and here’s why:
- If you’re flexible but not strong, you can easily injure your shoulders by placing them in an extreme position and then lacking the strength to resist a load bearing down on them. That could mean resisting a shoulder lock when it’s already stretched your shoulder to the limit. Or you might throw a sloppy punch that places the shoulder in a weak position and your muscles aren’t strong enough to handle the impact.
- If you’re strong but not flexible, your muscles can end up so tight they actually cause pain and discomfort when you train. This usually happens when you don’t stretch them enough. Or you use strength in every move you do, locking down your shoulder muscles all the time, which results in an even greater loss of flexibility. You pay for that when you accidentally move your arm in a larger range of motion and something snaps because it isn’t flexible enough.
A good prevention program works on both aspects. Here’s some of the things I like to do and have been doing for the last few weeks since my injury
- The basic exercises are the shoulder press, lateral raise, front raise and bent-over lateral raise.
- Don’t go for the bodybuilding-type training with these exercises, you don’t need it. Your goal isn’t to build huge amounts of muscle mass but to strengthen the shoulder.
- Take it slow at first, don’t go for heavy weights and tons of sets/reps right from the start. Again, you don’t need huge shoulders to strengthen them for your MMA or karate practice. It’s nice to have such shoulders and women might like it (yeah, I knew you were thinking that… :-)) but stay focused on the goal: strengthening your shoulders to avoid injuries.
- Focus on good technique instead of how much you lift or how many reps/sets you do. The clips above are just an illustration so you know what I mean. Find professional instruction to make sure you do these right.
Next, the rotator cuff:
- Instead of focusing on specific exercises, focus on the functions of the rotator cuff: abduction of the arm, internal and external rotation.
- Check out the clip here below. The trainer shows a lot of different exercises you can do to strengthen the rotator cuff.
- Go easy and do smooth movements. The goal is not to work on explosiveness but to stabilize and strengthen your shoulder.
- Pain means you have to stop. You do NOT want to tear off your rotator cuff muscles, believe me. So don’t train them with the “No pain,no gain” mind set.
- The most important piece of advice is this: don’t neglect the rotator cuff. If your shoulder muscles (deltoid) are strong, the rotator cuffs need to be strong too as they act as stabilizers. So add these exercises to your routine, even if you don’t like them.
There are loads and loads more exercises you could do but these are the ones that work for me and my clients. Feel free to give it a try and see if it helps you too. One word of caution: if you have a shoulder injury, go see an MD first, before trying any of these exercises; you don’t want to experiment with them and make things worse.
Martial artists and fighters are used to stretching their lower body all the time but often only gloss over the upper body, especially the shoulders. Over time, they lose flexibility and eventually become injured. Stretching the shoulder (both the deltoid and rotator cuff) isn’t all that hard to do. The hardest thing is reminding yourself to do these stretches. Here are a couple you can try:
- Build it up slowly. If you haven’t really stretched your shoulders a lot, don’t force it. As with all stretching, the key is to relax into it and not fight it. With new stretches, you have to learn that first before you can push it.
- Do these stretches every time you do the strength training for your shoulder. Strength and flexibility should go hand-in-hand.
Now I know you can do a lot more exercises to make your shoulders more flexible but that’s not the goal of this guide. The idea is to get you started right away, without having to learn some insanely difficult yoga pose first. If you’re looking for more information on shoulder health, try this book here:
I haven’t read it but have heard many good things about it.
That’s it for this guide. If you’re enjoyed it, check out the “How-To” Guides page here on my blog.