Think Your Shoulders are doing the Work? You May Be Breathing Your Way to a Shoulder Injury.

Think Your Shoulders are doing the Work? You May Be Breathing Your Way to a Shoulder Injury.

An Article from the Catalyst Athletics Performance Menu

By: Chad Seltzer, M.S., USAW2, PES, CES, Pn1

If you tuned in to last month’s Performance Menu, you may have noticed an article on breathing technique and bracing for bigger lifts. What you may not know is that breathing technique goes far beyond bracing and increasing internal pressure to help your squats and other bigger lifts. In fact, breathing technique and bracing can help during any lift where you are loading your spine with weight. This includes shoulder presses and other overhead movements.

Information delivered here will relate more to your accessory work as opposed to your bigger lifts but don’t neglect this fact. After all, there are a ton of heavy squatters and deadlifters out there but when you see someone shoulder pressing or push pressing over 100 kg or 150 kg respectively, that’s some really impressive weight. You too can move weight like that, it will simply take time and practice, just like bracing. Additionally, the best part of this lesson is that everything will translate over to your bigger lifts due to the discipline it will take to perfect your overhead lifts and other accessory shoulder work with proper core positioning.

The question is, how does breathing technique translate to potential injury? The answer may surprise you. As always, I will dive into the anatomy and physiology of the question at hand and then bring a practical application that you can use on a daily basis with your accessory lifts during training.

Anatomy and Physiology

This may be review for some of you but for those who were not paying attention last time, the diaphragm is a breathing muscle attached to the bottom of the rib cage. The pelvic floor is a membrane lining the bottom of the pelvis. These two surfaces can be aligned with each other to create the ideal pressure in the abdominal cavity for better stability and create an environment that is perfect for improved strength in all lifts, big or small. In the Thoracic cavity above the diaphragm, there are other respiratory muscles called intercostals. These are the muscles between the ribs that allow the rib cage to expand and contract during deep mouth breaths before a maximal effort squat, for example. All of these anatomical structures work together to create pressurized environments in the abdominal and thoracic cavities.

Here is where athletes go wrong when it comes to shoulder based movements. Think about the most recent heavy strict shoulder press you performed successfully. What did your body do to compensate for the amount of weight you were pushing? You may have gone up on your toes, one arm may have pushed a little faster than the other while the other struggled to catch up (figure 1), your hips may have pressed forward and a slight lean back may have started while you simultaneously arched the middle upper back and “flared” the ribs on the front so more of your pecs or chest muscles were recruited to continue to push the weight (figure 2). Sound familiar? If so, this is where your diaphragm is starting to act as a stability muscle for your ribs and shoulders as opposed to the muscles around the shoulder girdle really doing their part to stabilize and push weight.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Let’s rewind and throw a belt on, just as an example. When you perform the same movement with the same weight, but are wearing a belt, you have more contractile force produced by the muscles of the abdominal cavity such as the rectus abdominus and the transverse abdominus. The belt can give your body feedback and tell your body where to contract the most as a reminder. While this occurs, the body is less likely to lean back because the amount of contractile force produced by the abdominal muscles literally won’t allow stretching in the opposite direction (a backward lean). How does this increased contraction of the abdominal musculature help your lift? First of all, your diaphragm and pelvic floor stay aligned with each other causing a continuous pressure system in the form of a square when utilizing a deep bracing breath (figure 3). Next, your spine stays stacked with each vertebra in line with each other. Due to the posture your body is able to maintain, all muscles from the base of the hips all the way up to the top of your ribs are able to better control and stabilize your trunk.

Figure 3

Now is where the source of injury or lack of injury occurs. When the body works in sync like this, the shoulder girdle (also known as the junction of the acromion process of the scapula and clavicle where the humeral head sits) is able to move properly, just as joints do. They are built for movement, not for stress. The surrounding muscles such as the three deltoids (anterior, middle, and posterior), rotator cuff (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis), pectoralis major and minor, latissimus dorsi, and rhomboids will be able to sufficiently stabilize the joint so the muscles are able to properly contract to produce power and subsequently take the stress associated with the weight moved to produce microscopic tears. This microscopic tearing leads to a healing process over the next couple days, when paired with proper nutrition, and will then grant you what is commonly known as gains. During the compensatory pattern mentioned two paragraphs ago, your body is pushed out of alignment and joints are then placed under unnecessary stress due to the force of the weight moved and the angles of which that force is applied to the joints.

Now we need to look at taking a tool away from this equation and see how we can use our own body’s mechanics to maintain this positioning. Let’s take the weight belt away. Now the body relies on its own movement patterns and ability to create contractile force on the muscles surrounding the core. As a side note, I highly recommend using a weight belt only when lifting in a higher range of volume, such as 85+% or more. When going for a maximal or near maximal lift, adding a weight belt at around 80% may be a good option though as using a belt changes your body’s process of pattern recognition.

I would argue that hitting a huge push press directly translates to bigger jerks so here are two ways you can put your muscles to work for bigger accessory lifts leading to PRs in your main lifts.

  • Prep the body with prone (lying on your belly) breathing technique. Place a 5 kg/10 lb change plate half way on your lower back and half way on your hips. Place your forehead on the backs of your hands while staring down to the ground. Take a deep breath in the nose attempting to make the change plate rise toward the ceiling. This being said, you should feel the hips rising toward the ceiling too and the lower abdominals contracting into the ground. This allows the diaphragm to contract and push down on the abdominal cavity as well as pressurize the fluid ball (referenced from last month’s breathing article) down into the pelvic floor. As mentioned before, this technique will prep the abdominal muscles for your training.
  • Another thing you can do for better core stacking during any overhead lift is to start with a light strict shoulder press. Ensure that as you progress in weight during presses your body continues to stay in proper alignment by controlling your hips and ribs in relation to each other. A cue I use with my athletes that works 99% of the time is to point the bottom of your ribs toward the hips throughout the entire range of motion of the press. As the amount of weight goes up, this will be harder and harder to maintain. For the sake of practice and preventing overall injury over time, whenever you start to compensate in this movement, drop weight by 2.5-5 kg/ 5-10 lb and continue to train at that weight for your working sets.

To wrap up this lesson on injury prevention and how to increase your overhead lifts, the joints are meant to move and muscles move said joints and take stress while tearing microscopically to relieve that stress on the tissue. When the body is not in proper alignment, especially during a lift that is considered heavy for the athlete in question, the joints and some of their surrounds ligaments and tendons will take an unwelcome amount of stress causing compensatory patterns and, eventually, injury. Whether big or small, these injuries are always something we want to avoid as coaches and athletes. They are bothersome, annoying, and sometimes debilitating. Movement at a lesser weight with proper mechanics opposed to slightly heavier weight with compensatory patterns will yield longer lasting results, bigger strength gains over time, and a longer career in the sport of weightlifting.

 Author Bio

Chad Seltzer is the owner of Top My Workout, a Weightlifting gym, in Long Beach, CA. He has competed and coached Olympic Weightlifting for 4 years and loves the extremely technical aspects of the lifts as well as the additional strength components that go into an athlete’s success in the sport. As a personal trainer and coach for 15 years, his main focus is on body mechanics, proper technique, and sound program design. Chad has participated in a variety of sports but none have caught his eye as much as Weightlifting and the amazing community that surrounds the sport. For more information and additional educational topics, check out his Instagram @TopMyWorkout or the Top My Workout website.


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