Part two in our series of overcoming flexibility issues in gym sport athletes looks at shoulder flexibility and thoracic mobility. There is a lot of overlap in these two areas and both hugely affect overhead movement, handstand positions as well as posture and body lines. Like most sports gym sports involve a high volume of repetitive sport specific movement patterns. As a result there are muscles which become hugely over dominant and if the opposing muscles aren’t given some consideration in the strength and conditioning programs and appropriate mobility exercises aren’t implemented. When these areas aren’t accounted for postural changes can occur injury risk increases and skill execution and performance can also be affected.
THE BASICS: (Recap from part one)
General principles to consider are that mobility issues generally arise from either shortening of muscles being created by:
- Sports specific repetitive movement patterns
- Muscle imbalances: expected in almost all athletes – but must be managed if excessive to what’s required.
- The body’s protective mechanism if it detects an unstable joint (very important to increase strength and stability and keep stretching to a minimum here).
There are many skills in gymnastics that require fast and forceful shoulder flexion (or ‘closed’ shoulders). This movement contributes to the overdevelopment of the chest and anterior (front) shoulder muscles which can cause the humeral head to shift forward creating the rolled shoulder posture that is all too common in gymnastics. As well as possibly leading to shoulder pain, stability issues or other movement dysfunctions this can also lead to poor thoracic mobility which creates further in achieving an open shoulder line in handstand positions. With the right approach to strength and conditioning and flexibility/mobility programs these issues can be addressed which will both improve performance and reduce the risk of overuse injuries of the upper limb and lower back.
Shoulder flexibility is a very important for gymnasts given that the handstand is the most fundamental body position required by the sport. When a correct handstand line cannot be achieved the gymnasts ability to perform a skill correctly is heavily compromised. Poor shoulder flexibility contributes to deficiencies in technique, deductions in competition and often creates compensations elsewhere.
As mentioned in part 1 in this series muscle tightness and joint restriction and flexibility issues can be caused by strength imbalances OR by the neuromuscular system protecting an unstable joint. When trying to overcome shoulder flexibility issues with athletes it is very important to determine the underlying issue to ensure it can be addressed both effectively and safely.
Shoulder flexibility issues can be caused by 3 main areas in gymnasts:
- Shoulder stability issues can be the cause
- Tight Lats – can be purely due to volume or can be due compensatory movement patterning
- Pecs – over-dominant in gymnasts affecting humeral head position and posture
Performance and Skill-related Issues:
- Poor handstand lines
- Poor bridge position
- Decreased repulsion off hands in tumbling, vaulting etc
- Decreased power in release skills on high bar and uneven bars
- Tendency to bend elbows
- Tendency to throw head when trying to open shoulders
- Shoulder instability and rotator cuff issues
- Shoulder pain, overuse injuries and acute shoulder injuries
- Wrist and elbow pain
- Increased stress on lower back in back handsprings and other skills involving shoulder and hip extension
The shoulder joint is structured to allow movement through a very large range, as a result stability is compromised. When the following principles are implemented gymnasts can actually be among the best athletes when it comes to achieve a balance between the strength and range of motion in this challenging joint.
Strength and Conditioning Programming:
- Rotator Cuff Strengthening and shoulder stability work
- A balanced strength program including a strong focus on posterior shoulder strengthening (I.e Tricep and Posterior Deltoid strengthening)
- Perform strength exercises through their entire range of motion with good form
- Eccentric strength exercises to lengthen muscle fascicles (i.e Overhead straight arm skull crushers with slow eccentric phase)
- Strengthening overhead movement and strengthening end ranges of motion
Flexibility, Mobility & Self Release strategies:
- Soft tissue self release: for example trigger ball Pec release, foam rolling Lats etc.
- Stretches that increase muscle length but limit the strain on joint capsule, ligaments etc.
- Stretching shoulders in more than just the extension and flexion plane of movement
- Incorporating isolative lat stretches, pec stretches as well as Scapular mobility work
Thoracic mobility is slightly different to shoulder flexibility and refers to the mobility and range of motion through the upper back. Poor thoracic mobility is common in gymnasts and contributes to the rolled shoulder and rounded back posture. It can cause issues in skills requiring trunk rotation and/or extension and affects handstand lines.
Limited thoracic mobility can place excessive strain on the lower back in skills that require extension as the body has to compensate for the lack of movement further up the spine. When the extension is isolated or concentrated to one region of the spine the risk of issues such as lumbar stress reactions and fractions, facet joint irritation and other injuries increases.
Performance and Skill-related Issues:
Refer to list above as there is significant overlap for thoracic mobility and shoulder flexibility issues and the affect that they have on skill acquisition and execution. In addition to this list poor thoracic mobility can create additional shaping issues and can lead to slight deficits in twisting skills as well.
There is considerable overlap in injury risk for both thoracic mobility and shoulder flexibility.
- Lower back injuries such as lumbar stress reactions, stress fractures, facet joint injuries etc.
- Overuse injuries of the wrists can occur due to poor overhead positions and altered joint angles in contact positions.
- Shoulder pain and overuse issues
- Poor Scapular mobility and function
- Neck tightness or pain
When trying to address this area there is a need to incorporate rotation based thoracic mobility exercises as well as extension based ones; this is an area that tends to be a bit overlooked in some programs.
- Thoracic extension over foam roller (foam roller sitting under shoulder blades)
- Pec stretch and chest openers laying long ways on foam roller
- Pec, lat and abdominal stretches
- Quadruped thoracic spine mobility exercise
- Windmill and Archer rotational stretches
As gymnasts hit the age of accelerated muscle growth it is important to ensure that the gain in strength and muscle mass is complimented by adequate flexibility and mobility work as this is when they become more susceptible to the types of issues outlined in this article. It is important to look at what can be improved both on the team and individual level as there is huge variation between athletes based on factors such as body type genetics and individual skill sets.
Investing the time to work on implementing these things into the S&C and flexibility and mobility programs will improve aesthetics and body lines, strengthen handstand positions and will create a more coachable body to learn new skills and fine tune technique.
For more information on this topic please consider reading part one in this article or contact Sami at the clinic.