In my many years of teaching handstands and in my own practice, I have experienced how shoulder pain is an all to frequent occurrence in athletes practicing handstands. My own passion for handstands also lead me to experience shoulder pain and this was part of the reason I decided to focus my research on injury prevention and specialize in shoulder pain for my final thesis.
Although the causes of shoulder pain in the “overhead athlete” are believed to be complex and multifactorial, the solution for treatment and prevention of pain in the shoulder region is simple! This post is a simplified summation of current research into shoulder pain prevention.
The main focus in shoulder injury prevention and rehabilitation is on strengthening the muscles of the rotator cuff, specifically strengthening the external rotator muscles like Teres minor, Infraspinatus, and Supraspinatus, In simplified terms these muscles are responsible for the overall stability of the shoulder.
Strong but unstable shoulders
Especially for the handstand, shoulder stability is a crucial factor!. In my experience teaching and training handstands, most of the athletes I come across have strong shoulders with well developed muscles, but they are limited by unbalanced and unstable shoulders.
The explanation for this is that these big muscles are the prime movers, the big shoulder muscles like the deltoids and the pectorals, and more often than not the underlying smaller stabilizing muscles of the rotator cuff,like the aforementioned Teres minor and Supraspinatus, are weaker and underdeveloped leading to an unstable shoulder.
Apart from preventing injury strengthening these muscles and creating a more stable shoulder will tremendously improve your handstand, and is a key element in the journey towards a one arm handstand.
Start working on shoulder stability
To begin stabilizing your shoulders and prevent injury, you want to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles especially Teres minor which is responsible for external rotation of the shoulder, In the video below my colleague from Sports Science and personal trainer Rasmus Thoroe is showing an exercise that is targeting the Teres minor, several EMG studies have shown that there is a high level of Teres minor activation with this exercise. Use a rolled up towel to support your arm on the side of your body and ensure a good position for the head of the humerus (upper arm bone). Try to use only external rotation of the shoulder (the upper arm rolling on the towel) to perform the exercise.
(“Teres minor exercise” shown by Rasmus Thoroe)
Supraspinatus and stability
Another important muscle of the rotator cuff is Supraspinatus, responsible for the positioning of the head of the humerus. In simple terms the Supraspinatus muscle is important for the stability and positioning of our shoulder during movement. The “Full Can” exercise, named by the action of holding the thumbs up like a full can, is an effective exercise to improve Supraspinatus activity in early phases of arm elevation.
(“Full Can Exercise” shown by Rasmus Thoroe )
Range of motion
Another key factor in handstands and shoulder health is range of motion, and hanging from an overhead support will significantly improve shoulder health and prevent injury.
We want to increase the length of our pectoralis and subscapularis muscles to promote a good range of motion, and position of our shoulders by hanging from an overhead support:
(“Hanging Pectoralis muscle stretch” shown by Rasmus Thoroe )
It is important to respect the effect fatiguing these muscles of the rotator cuff has on the positioning of the shoulder! These exercises should ideally be done only at the end of the day or at least after any other training that requires shoulder stability. The exercises are done with relatively low weight and high number of repetitions for consecutive sets in combination with other shoulder pre- and rehabilitation exercises. I recommend consulting with a good personal trainer or physiotherapist, or contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org to get a complete shoulder pre- or rehabilitation program taking your specific condition into account.
Master of Science in Sports, Martin Kvist.
Highly educated in the field of sport science, neuroscience, and motor learning. Martin’s ability to provide injury prevention support, inspire healthy movement, and passion for acrobatics is essential for students who want to delve deep into their bodies for maximum strength and healing.
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