Whether it’s during your workout or after a lil too much (and unavoidable) ZOOMt time, sore + stiff shoulders are a thing and if you’re a member of the chronic hurty shoulders club, you might be wondering what gives and what can I do about it?
First, know that short of sharp/stabby pain or some sort of obvious trauma, pain is often not indicative of tissue damage, but if you suspect that you might have an injury or you’ve been experiencing pain for a while, then I’d suggest that schedule an appointment with a medical professional for evaluation and treatment. 😉
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s have a quick chat about common causes of shoulder stiffness + discomfort and what you can do to address it.
Your ribcage and upper back are stiff AF.
I’ll spare you the biomechanics lesson and leave it at this. Your ribcage and upper back (aka the thoracic spine if you speak anatomy) are the foundation for your shoulders. Where your ribs go, your shoulders go. If your ribs are stiff (and there’s a good chance your ribs are stiff!) because you’re a modern human who spends your day staring at screens, sitting or standing in static positions then your shoulders might not feel so hot.
When the shoulders are held in a funny position due to upper back stiffness, the discomfort can be compounded during more loaded or challenging exercises like push-ups, planks, or overhead presses. This is one reason why your shoulders might feel weird during or after exercise.
The solution? Move your ribs and upper back in lots of directions (rotation, side bending, flexion, extension) if you’ve been sitting a while and BEFORE doing more challenging exercises, since it’ll prepare your body for movement and will help you get more out of your workout.
You may need more control/awareness around the shoulders.
Fun fact, your “shoulders” are actually not one joint, but a series of joints that each have complicated actions. For the shoulders to move well, you need to be able to move your shoulder blade relative your rib cage, your upper arm bone relative to your shoulder blade, AND that doesn’t even include the movements that happen at the collarbone.
The ability to coordinate all of these actions with control under various loads is sometimes called stability.
Stability requires being able to sense how things are moving, which is called proprioception.
Lots of things can reduce stability and proprioception, including hypermobility, injury, or using more weight/resistance than you have the strength to control. Beyond that, sometimes stability is compromised, because there is too much movement at a joint. Sometimes it’s because there’s not enough, but the bottom line is that when there isn’t stability (aka control) or proprioception, we can experience feelings of stiffness or pain.
How do you address this? By practicing exercises and techniques that help you sense where your joints are and teach you how to control your movements. For example, foam rolling may help you sense where your shoulder blades are and shoulder work with a band can help you improve stability, strength, and awareness through larger ranges of motion. Then as you get stronger, you can start integrating what you do at a slower pace with less resistance into bigger movements.
These bigger movements often fall into the category of strength work, which brings me to my next point…
Strength can make shoulders feel better!
Sometimes even when we have good stability and body awareness, we still feel discomfort, stiffness, or pain. In some cases, this may be because we don’t have the global strength to navigate the movements that we are asking our bodies to do.
In this case, general strength work under loads that you can control (aka push-ups, hanging exercises, rows) may reduce feelings of stiffness and discomfort.
However, what if you have the STRENGTH and the STABILITY to perform a movement BUT it still hurts?!
Well…let me introduce you into a rather complicated, but important thing called “pain science.”
Remember at the beginning how I mentioned that pain and stiffness don’t correlate with tissue damage? This is because lots of things can cause joints to feel ouchy, but the regulation of how something “feels” is largely due to how your nervous system is interpreting the stimulus.
So, if your nervous system senses a “threat” even if there is no threat there, something may hurt. Potential “threats” that don’t include actual tissue damage or potential overload of a joint, include emotional stress, a belief that a movement is going to hurt, or simply not getting enough sleep.
This is to say that bodies are weird + complicated, but just because a joint is bugging you, it doesn’t mean that you necessarily were doing an exercise “wrong.”
The good news is that there are some general applications that you can to that for many of us will relieve discomfort – even if you aren’t sure where your individual experience falls into the needing stability/proprioception/strength/pain science spectrum.
Start with body awareness + move your spine
There is no one way to to do this, but I personally like to move the spine in a few directions first and then layer somatic movements, foam rolling, or exercises with light bands and props to help feel the connections between the shoulder blades and the rib cage + train the shoulders to move through larger ranges of motion.
This is also effective if you are experiencing pain due to your nervous system having a heightened awareness around a joint, because this type of work is often slower and relaxing, which reduces the threat response.
Then, layer in more challenge.
Once you can feel where you are and you’ve “warmed up” or “prepared” your body through diverse ranges of motion, you can start to build strength and increase the tolerance to “stress” placed on the joint, by increasing the amount of weight used or the complexity or speed of the movement.
In this case, stress is a GOOD thing, because you need to start to add stress get stronger and teach your body how to handle more loads and or difficult movements. The key is to not apply too much challenge to quickly!
Summary for practical application
- Move your spine first (aka exercises that include rotation, side bending, flexion, extension)
- If you can’t feel your shoulders try using props or techniques that help you feel them (aka lying on a foam roller, so you can feel the back of your body)
- THEN practice exercises that move your shoulders in all directions with lighter loads (aka lying on your back with a band or small hand weights)
- Finally ADD STRENGTH TO CART (aka challenge the movement with more traditional exercises, such as planks, push-ps, and rows) using that newfound awareness.
And if you want a little teaser of how I do it, check out this video with some of my favorite exercises to improve shoulder stability and awareness. It doesn’t have all the spinal mobility stuff I mentioned, but it will still feel really good. 😉