Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What does it mean to have an active shoulder?

Danica Rue busts out a 120 jerk at the 2005 National Championships. You don't see her shrugging up, do you? But you can be damn sure her shoulders are "active."
Photo by Bruce Klemens.

The shoulder is a marvelous thing. Designed for maximal mobility for our bipedal, upright selves, it lacks the bony stability of the hip. Thus, it relies on active (muscle, tendon) and passive (ligament, joint capsule) structures around the joint to provide maximal stability with the overhead lifts; there is no ball/socket mechanism to rely upon. For the upper body to receive heavy overhead loads, we need to optimize the shoulder position to support not only the weight, but also put the wrist and the elbow in a strong, safe position. This is especially important in the snatch, with the wide grip.

At a weightlifting meet, you'll hear coaches yell "push" or "reach" to their athletes. The athlete must aggressively resist the downward forces of gravity and barbell to successfully receive the bar and complete the lift. Many people confuse this aggressive "push" with a shrug of the upper trap. Yes, the upper traps are strong, but we do not want to elevate the shoulder girdle and decrease approximation of the scapula on the rib cage; nor do even want to think we can hold that weight up with upper body muscular strength. We receive the bar at arms length, lock the wrist and elbow in a fully extended position, and maximize contact of the scapula with the thorax via serious isometric contraction of scapular stabilizers. The human body supports the overhead load with the greatest area of bony stability possible, and transfers that force over the entire musculoskeletal system.

The "active shoulder" musculature used by competitive weightlifters is the serratus anterior, the rhomboids and the middle traps. These aren't big, sexy muscles, like the upper traps are, so it might be more difficult for some of you to see and appreciate what is happening. But these little guys are the muscles you want to engage when receiving a snatch or jerk. These muscles also help the scapula upwardly rotate, rather than elevate, to give the rotator cuff room and seat the humerus in the glenoid cavity of the scapula.

Think of it as supporting the weight from the bottom of the scapula, not the top. Resisting the downward push of the weight with an isometric hold, not a concentric shrug up. Remember, we are stronger eccentrically and isometrically. The only way a human being can support 2-3x bodyweight overhead is to create a platform of maximal musculoskeletal stability, and that means keeping as much of the scapula as possible on the rib cage.

More on the shoulder and proper overhead positioning later this week.

8 comments:

Jeff said...

"maximize contact of the scapula with the thorax via serious isometric contraction of scapular stabilizers"
Please elaborate in lay terms. Is this something like the "downward shrug"?

Dan Hubbard, M.Ed., CSCS. said...

Great review of the functional anatomy of the scapula with overhead lifting. I look forward to more on this topic.

Aaron said...

As a recently certified USAW Club coach having come from a CrossFit background, I can say we had a LOT of discussion on this since CF tends to emphasize the shrug and even the turning forward of the shoulders. Helps for high rep moderate weight work, not so much for heavy single attempts. A very interesting topic. For me, the shrug and turn of the shoulders is largely compensation for my inflexability. I'm still working on fixing that.

Anonymous said...

I disagree: serratus anterior are dead sexy.

FWIW, though, I find I have to shrug with one-handed overhead lifts (one handed OHS, e.g.).

Erik said...

Fantastic. I have been teaching this to my clients and athletes for some time now. I have always been a fan of the non sexy muscles. They are the one's that do the work. All guts no glory. Keep up the great work Maven.

Anonymous said...

"These muscles also help the scapula upwardly rotate, rather than elevate, to give the rotator cuff room and seat the humerus in the glenoid cavity of the scapula."


So sexy! Love when you talk that way! You know you're stuff.

Keep up the good work!

Alex

kim said...

"serratus anterior, the rhomboids and the middle traps"

I know of some exercises that work these muscles but for someone with no weightlifting knowledge/background (me) could you point me to a good resource for developing these non-sexy muscles?

(a coach would be ideal, but my current posting has me in the middle of nowhere with minimal resources)

kim

Robert said...

The rhomboids rotates the scapulae downwards, not upwards.