The human shoulder is one of the most versatile joints in the body, allowing humans the ability to throw with amazing speed and accuracy from a distance.
This was truly apparent in paleolithic times, during which our ancestors used a combination of clubbing and throwing to fend off adversaries, as well as to hunt for food approximately two million years ago (Roach, 2013). However, in modern times, many humans have restricted their ability to throw for fear of pain or injury, and have instead sought out traditional modalities for their shoulders such as isolated shoulder mobility exercises or stretches.
There are more effective and efficient ways to improve shoulder mobility, but before we get started, we must first ask ourselves how the shoulder joint developed and served us as early humans; how to determine what proper shoulder mobility even looks like; and whether shoulder mobility exercises actually serve a purpose, or only provide short term gains but long term pains.
In this article, we will address these concepts and hope to give you the tools to identify your own shoulder mobility issues. We will also explain how shoulder mobility may not be the only variable that is causing your shoulder issues in the context of running and throwing.
What Function Does the Shoulder Serve?
Image by macrovector
Between 1994 and 1999, early wooden spears were discovered in the U.K. and Germany that dated back between 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. This discovery brought about debates on how essential throwing may have been for our human ancestors. Our ability to survive in nature seemed to rely heavily on our ability to run and throw for self-defense against dangerous animals, cooperative hunting, human-human violence, and other necessary behaviours to increase the chances of survival (Milks, 2019).
Our shoulders were able to store elastic energy in the tissues of the shoulder joint and release that energy to propel objects with accuracy and precision from a distance (Roach, 2013). This ability to use our shoulders with the rest of our body like a sling-shot made us very dangerous in the wild because we didn’t have to be in close proximity to the animals we were hunting, thus giving us an extra layer of protection if the animals decided to fight back.
Imagine, if you will, that you could only eat animals that you were able to catch, wrestle, and strangle to death with your bare hands. That would be a very small list. We probably wouldn’t have become the dominant species on this planet that we are now.
Photo by master1305
Our evolution seems to show that the shoulder played an important role in the survival of the human species. However, many modern humans have lost the ability to throw properly. This is partly due to the heavy reliance on traditional methods of rehabilitation, such as passive shoulder mobility stretches to increase range of motion, or isolated shoulder mobility exercises in hopes of strengthening the shoulder joint without considering how the shoulder joint came to develop from a functionality aspect. Could focusing on the shoulder joint alone, without considering the role of the ribcage or pelvis, cause more dysfunctions later down the road?
Training System or Genetics?
How does one determine what proper shoulder mobility should look like? At Functional Patterns, we start by analyzing high-level athletes that compete in throwing sports who have had long careers with minimal to no injuries.
One important method of analysis is watching videos of these athletes and observing how they move. Keep in mind, though, that we are not advocating that you watch how these athletes train, but how they move in their sport.
The way an athlete trains is commonly associated with how the athlete achieved success at their sport. They might put in many hours every day in the gym lifting weights, stretching, and eating a nutritious diet but unfortunately, many don’t realize that these athletes, rather than having succeeded due to these methods, most likely succeeded in spite of the inefficient methods of training, due to their genetics.
Our position around this is based on the SAID (specific adaptations to imposed demands) principle. When there is a stressor being applied to an organism, that organism will adapt to that specific stressor. For example, if one performs push-ups every day for a year, their body will get better at push-ups the more they prioritize that movement. Therefore, if an athlete competes in the sport of running, lifting a barbell up and down off the floor in the gym will be unlikely to translate well to the way the athlete runs, and unless they were training the specific movements that are required in their sport, their genetics or utilizing performance enhancing drugs which allow athletes to recover from workouts that might otherwise cause injuries, are more likely to have carried them across the finish line, rather than the dysfunctional and non-specific training.
Image by Drazen Zigic
By analyzing slow-motion film of the athlete performing in their sport, you might start to pick up subtle patterns of movement that make them move efficiently and sustainably.
How Can I Develop Proper Shoulder Mobility?
Now that we’ve analyzed certain athletes and their ability to use their shoulders to perform the function of throwing, what are the most effective ways to train your shoulders and improve shoulder mobility to function like that of an athlete?
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Some might think that exercises like passively hanging from a bar will improve shoulder mobility. While this might be true from an isolated sense, it will be completely devoid of any integrated function in relation to throwing or running. This will cause more problems down the road as the body will have to adapt around this pattern of passive shoulder tension by developing over-lengthened ligaments and tendons which could lead to issues such as rib cage compression, scapular winging, thoracic outlet syndrome, neck, elbow, and/or wrist pain, just to name a few.
A better alternative is to develop the shoulders in relation to the gait cycle and throwing as they were the primary ways of moving and surviving in our early history. Sprinting seems to be inversely related to throwing as in, during the sequence of throwing, force transmission going through the body starts at the lower limbs and travels towards the upper limbs to propel an object through space while sprinting, force transmission starts at the upper limbs and travels down to the lower limbs to propel our body through space.
By incorporating exercises like the contralateral step-row and step-press from Functional Patterns, the body can begin to program a more correct sequence of movements to facilitate proper shoulder mobility in both running and throwing. This way, our joints will go through a range of motion with a muscle contraction driving that movement rather than creating a range of motion that lacks any muscle contraction resulting in over-lengthening of the ligaments and tendons creating passive laxity in the joint. As we discussed earlier about the SAID principle, our shoulder functionality developed from running and throwing over millions of years, so we should prioritize those movements to optimally rehabilitate and improve our shoulder mobility.
Our shoulder joint developed over millions of years through throwing as its main function. The early human species relied heavily on their ability to throw from a distance with accuracy and precision in order to survive the inherent dangers of living in nature.
While we don’t have to live through such terrible conditions as our ancestors did, we must consider the function of our shoulders when we implement passive shoulder mobility stretches or isolated exercises to improve shoulder mobility. Instead, we should spend time watching films of high-level athletes performing in their respective sports and observe how they move rather than how they train. This will allow us to be more specific in training our shoulders in a more correct context relative to how our shoulders developed over the evolution of our species.
Results by Jonathan Jovel from FP Oakland (From Chronic Shoulder Pain to Zero Pain)
With practice observing and applying Functional Patterns exercises that respect the SAID principle, you too can improve your shoulder mobility without suffering the pitfalls of isolated training and passive stretches, or resorting to the use of exogenous substances just to get by playing your sport or going through day to day life.
- Milks, A., Parker, D. & Pope, M. External ballistics of Pleistocene hand-thrown spears: experimental performance data and implications for human evolution. Sci Rep 9, 820 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-37904-w
- Roach, N. T., Venkadesan, M., Rainbow, M. J., & Lieberman, D. E. (2013). Elastic energy storage in the shoulder and the evolution of high-speed throwing in Homo. Nature, 498(7455), 483–486. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12267