Josh Pitzalis

Soothing painful shoulders

Spending a lot of time in front of a computer invariably leads to uncomfortable shoulders and a stiff neck. This post will show you how to perform 3 simple tests that will help you eliminate discomfort around your neck and shoulders.

I am not going to bore you with complicated muscle names; it is simpler to think about movements rather than muscle groups. For the purposes of this post, there are three movements that you need to be aware of: pushing, pulling, and rotating.

Each movement has a simple test that tells you if you are doing it correctly. The test is followed by a prescription of recommended exercises to help you correct the movement if you are not performing it correctly. Pass all three tests, and you will eliminate shoulder discomfort.

Before you start, you will need a broomstick, a chair, and a few books (as weights) to perform the following program.

The Push Test

The push test involves performing a 3/4 push-up. You will need to ask someone to place their hands on your shoulder blades as you perform the exercise. A healthy push will keep your shoulder blades flat on your rib cage. If either of your shoulder blades lifts away from your back, then you are not doing the movement correctly.

Josh Pitzalis

  1. Start in a pushup position but have your knees touch the floor rather than your toes. Place your hand directly below your shoulders (shoulder width apart), and your knees should touch the floor between your hips and your feet (not directly below your hips).

  2. To maintain proper alignment through the movement, ask a friend to place a broomstick along your back. The broomstick should touch your pelvis, the space between your shoulder blades, and the back of your head.

  3. Lower yourself to the ground using your knees as a hinge and then return to the starting position.

Prescription

A. If you cannot perform this movement correctly, then you will need to strengthen the connection between your arm and your body by starting at the beginning of the movement (in a 3/4 position) and placing your hands in line with your face. Push away from the floor (as opposed to dropping down towards it). Doing this will flatten your shoulder blades against your back.

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  1. Hands and knees on the floor in a kneeling push-up position.

  2. Maintaining a good spine alignment and straight arms lower your chest towards the floor between your shoulder blades.

  3. Push with straight arms to raise your chest up between your shoulder blades as high as possible and then return to the starting position (here is a short clip to clarify)

Aim for 10 consecutive repetitions. Once you can do this easily, move you knees further away from your hands. This will increase the leverage and make the exercise harder. Once you can do the exercise with your knees and hands as far apart as they can be, move onto your toes. If you want to make it even harder, return to your knees but perform the exercise on one arm. Then work your way up to doing the single-arm exercise on your toes.

The Pull Test

Ask someone to place their hands on your shoulders (or stand in front of a mirror) as you lift one arm to your side. If your shoulder elevates as you lift, then your pulling muscles are not working correctly. Perform the test on both sides separately.

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Prescription

B. Elevation means that you will need to start by stretching the overactive muscles of the upper shoulder.

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  1. Begin by sitting upright with your chest proud. Anchor one shoulder by taking your arm and grabbing the underside of the seat you are on.

  2. Move your head away from the anchored shoulder. Imagine the opposite ear trying to touch the opposite shoulder. There should be no twisting during this movement.

  3. Take your free hand and place it against the temple of the side being stretched. Reverse the movement and press into the hand on your temple for about 5 −10 seconds. Then relax and take the stretch further by gently using the hand on your temple to assist the stretch.

Perform this three times on each side.

C. Once the upper shoulders have been relaxed, you will need to strengthen the muscle that pulls your shoulders down.

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  1. Lie face down with your arms by your sides.

  2. Lift your chest off the floor and rotate your palms out so that they are facing away from your body.

  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and retract your shoulders to lift your chest as far away from the floor as possible while still facing the floor. Hold the contract for at least 3 full seconds.

Perform for 10 repetitions. When the exercise becomes easy, add resistance by placing books in your hands. If you can’t find two books of the even weight, then just swap the books around halfway through the set.

The Rotation Test

The rotation test involves standing upright with hands by your sides. Imagine that you are in a dark room and that you have a flashlight in each hand. If the beams of these flashlights are parallel, then your shoulders are perfectly calibrated. If the beams point away from each other, then you have externally rotated shoulders; if the beams intersect, you have internally rotated shoulders. The closer the point of intersection is to your body, the more internally rotated they are.

You don’t actually need to stand in a dark room to perform this test. You just have to estimate how rotated your hands are when they are by your sides. I recommend jumping up and down a few times with your eyes closed and then standing still (with your eyes still closed) before asking someone else to take the test for you. This will minimize how much you self-correct.

Prescription

D. Start by stretching the muscles that are pulling your arm into rotations. Do this by taking a broomstick (or a rolled up towel) and stretching it up and over your head.

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  1. Stand hip-width apart and grab the stick palms down.

  2. Pull your palms away from each other throughout the entire movement (this will activate muscles in your upper back). Keep your arms straight and your shoulders level as you move the stick up and over your head. If you cannot perform the exercise, you will need to hold the stick with your hands further apart.

  3. As you return to the starting position, slow down into the uncomfortable bits to stretch the muscles out. If the movement is painful, then you need to keep your hands further apart. If the movement is comfortable, then you should move your hands closer together to find the sweet spot that is uncomfortable but not painful. This point will continuously change as you get better at the stretch.

Stretching out the tight muscles needs to be followed by strengthening the weak muscles. If your deviation comes from spending too much time in front of a screen, then you are almost certainly going to have internally rotated shoulders (as opposed to externally rotated).

E. Lying on your side, use the hand that is furthest from the floor to lift a book. The rotation pivots on your elbow and your elbow by your side.

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Run through exercises A through E every day for at least one month to eliminate discomfort around your shoulders. You will need to continuously calibrate the program by using heavier books and stretching your muscles out further and further. You will need to do the routine at least once a day, but you must not do the routine the same number of times two days in a row. This means that you can do the routine once today, then at least twice tomorrow, then you can go back to once the day after, or you can do it more than twice…and so on.

Being able to look after your body is a basic skill that we should all possess. We all have one, we all need to look after it, and we always feel better when we do.

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