How to avoid shoulder injuries in the martial arts, Part Two

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.

how to prevent shoulder injuries in the martial arts

Strong and flexible shoulders are fun...

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

Strength training

Your two main targets are the shoulder muscle and the rotator cuff.  Yes, you can focus on the trapzius too but I’m trying to keep this article short. :-) First the shoulder muscle:

  • 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.

How to avoid shoulder injuries in the martial arts

A dislocated shoulder aka PAIN!

Stretching

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.

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Comments

  1. Great post, thanks for a good review. I talked about shoulders and the Sabre form here (http://doctordilday.wordpress.com/2006/02/27/sabres-and-shoulders/).

    With the huge range of motion, terrible leverage that can occur, and the tendancy to overtrain, it can be tricky moving your training along without injury.

    It is very impressive to me how well tai chi works to train and especially rehab a shoulder injury. Moving from smaller, slower movements without any weights to larger, faster motions with heavier and heavier weights you can smoothly shift through a almost infinite number of progressions. (I am moving through that to rehab a shoulder as we speak because of a stupid move with Kettlebells which do not offer infinite gradations and seem to have zero tolerance for stupidity:-(

    • Thanks Dennis.
      I just read your post and it sounds familiar. When I started learning the weapons, I was a bit at a loss at first; it felt VERY weird. Fast forward a decade of practice and now it feels comfortable.
      Tai chi is indeed a great way to both stay in shape and rehab injuries. It’s versatile enough as a system that you can almost always practice, even when you’re seriously injured. IMO, the nei kung also has some very solid benefits to offer for shoulder health. I’ve been doing it more now my shoulder got messed up, along with stretching, and it helps immensely.
      As for kettlebells, I never bought into it. A lot of the exercises felt like an accident waiting to happen when I tried them. there’s plenty of other conditioning drills I can do that don’t carry that risk.

  2. Great post, thanks for a good review. I talked about shoulders and the Sabre form here (http://doctordilday.wordpress.com/2006/02/27/sabres-and-shoulders/).

    With the huge range of motion, terrible leverage that can occur, and the tendancy to overtrain, it can be tricky moving your training along without injury.

    It is very impressive to me how well tai chi works to train and especially rehab a shoulder injury. Moving from smaller, slower movements without any weights to larger, faster motions with heavier and heavier weights you can smoothly shift through a almost infinite number of progressions. (I am moving through that to rehab a shoulder as we speak because of a stupid move with Kettlebells which do not offer infinite gradations and seem to have zero tolerance for stupidity:-(

    • Thanks Dennis.
      I just read your post and it sounds familiar. When I started learning the weapons, I was a bit at a loss at first; it felt VERY weird. Fast forward a decade of practice and now it feels comfortable.
      Tai chi is indeed a great way to both stay in shape and rehab injuries. It’s versatile enough as a system that you can almost always practice, even when you’re seriously injured. IMO, the nei kung also has some very solid benefits to offer for shoulder health. I’ve been doing it more now my shoulder got messed up, along with stretching, and it helps immensely.
      As for kettlebells, I never bought into it. A lot of the exercises felt like an accident waiting to happen when I tried them. there’s plenty of other conditioning drills I can do that don’t carry that risk.

  3. I am down to having to use the wooden sabre on the right, but I can practice normally on the left. I can do the left handed spear, but not the right: this is what I mean by almost infinite progressions.

    As for the nei gung, I am beginning to think there is a hidden genius in the order and will have to stay with the static drills (and near neutral postures – Yin in other words) a while before I move back to the high reps of fuller range of motion exercises or awkward static postures – there is a lot of clunking and clacking in my A/C joint in particular that doesn’t seem good.

    I have wanted to ask your opinion on the KBs for a long time but never got around to it. I think Pavel is a genius with regard to fitness – I bought and read 13 of his books and I have never come across anyone smarter. But, his hard style approach violates two major tai chi principles of training and ups the risk so much that I should have known better: namely the very quick movements did me in when I went (too soon) from the 35# to the 50+ pound KB. While I was worrying about my back – old injuries to the shoulder gave way and created a whole new level of damage. Now I can’t do a push up a pull up or a hanging leg raise without set back.

    • Sucks big time Dennis. I hope your shoulder gets better soon.

      Re. KBs, I haven’t read much of Pavel’s so I can’t comment on him. That said, if he says or writes “comrade” one more time I’m going to cry… :-)
      Seriously, I don’t like KBs all that much. Sure, you can get in great shape with them and there’s lots of benefits. But there are also some major risks. Like you said, messing up an exercise doesn’t forgive with KBs, you instantly pay for it. These days, I vastly prefer bodyweight exercises and TRX type training. I’ll also do a few weeks of lifting iron every now and then, just to mix it up. It’s always worked well for me that way.

  4. I am down to having to use the wooden sabre on the right, but I can practice normally on the left. I can do the left handed spear, but not the right: this is what I mean by almost infinite progressions.

    As for the nei gung, I am beginning to think there is a hidden genius in the order and will have to stay with the static drills (and near neutral postures – Yin in other words) a while before I move back to the high reps of fuller range of motion exercises or awkward static postures – there is a lot of clunking and clacking in my A/C joint in particular that doesn’t seem good.

    I have wanted to ask your opinion on the KBs for a long time but never got around to it. I think Pavel is a genius with regard to fitness – I bought and read 13 of his books and I have never come across anyone smarter. But, his hard style approach violates two major tai chi principles of training and ups the risk so much that I should have known better: namely the very quick movements did me in when I went (too soon) from the 35# to the 50+ pound KB. While I was worrying about my back – old injuries to the shoulder gave way and created a whole new level of damage. Now I can’t do a push up a pull up or a hanging leg raise without set back.

    • Sucks big time Dennis. I hope your shoulder gets better soon.

      Re. KBs, I haven’t read much of Pavel’s so I can’t comment on him. That said, if he says or writes “comrade” one more time I’m going to cry… :-)
      Seriously, I don’t like KBs all that much. Sure, you can get in great shape with them and there’s lots of benefits. But there are also some major risks. Like you said, messing up an exercise doesn’t forgive with KBs, you instantly pay for it. These days, I vastly prefer bodyweight exercises and TRX type training. I’ll also do a few weeks of lifting iron every now and then, just to mix it up. It’s always worked well for me that way.

  5. That’s a great share. This post is really helpful to us who want to prevent shoulder injuries in martial arts.. Prevention only works if you make a long term commitment to it.

  6. That’s a great share. This post is really helpful to us who want to prevent shoulder injuries in martial arts.. Prevention only works if you make a long term commitment to it.

  7. Good stuff Wim, and timely for this here cowboy. Lots of shoulder issues right now. I’ve incorporated all the stretches you have listed here. The towel stretch I find difficult, which explains why I always have a wet back.

    L

  8. Good stuff Wim, and timely for this here cowboy. Lots of shoulder issues right now. I’ve incorporated all the stretches you have listed here. The towel stretch I find difficult, which explains why I always have a wet back.

    L

  9. Chris Hanson says

    Awesome insights. If I also may add….another important muscle i think that is important for the shoulders in MA’s is the pec-delt tie in…you know that intermediate strand that forms the upper part of your pec and the front of your deltoid. From experience, i’ve injured this many a time…i find rotational type stretching along with fly related exercises helpful….pec flyes, lat flyes, slow punches with dumbels etc.

    Anyway, another humble tad from moi.
    Chris.

  10. Chris Hanson says

    Awesome insights. If I also may add….another important muscle i think that is important for the shoulders in MA’s is the pec-delt tie in…you know that intermediate strand that forms the upper part of your pec and the front of your deltoid. From experience, i’ve injured this many a time…i find rotational type stretching along with fly related exercises helpful….pec flyes, lat flyes, slow punches with dumbels etc.

    Anyway, another humble tad from moi.
    Chris.

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