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Rotational Training and Arm Care for Healthy Shoulders

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

Guest Author: Tim Kelly (BS, CSCS)- Strength Coach at Virginia High Performance

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(*NOTE: This is one of the featured articles included in our recent eBook, Restorative Shoulder Series)

One of the bigger misconceptions of rotational training is that it should only be reserved for those who are classified as rotational athletes. This is simply untrue, as rotational and anti-rotational concepts should be included in almost any athlete or individuals training. There are several foundational concepts I try to include when programming for my athletes. These can be categorized into the following:

The most common rotational and anti-rotational movements tend to be chop and Palloff variations, respectively. While these are fantastic starting points, it should be understood by the coach that they are not the panacea for rotational-based training. Appreciation for the vast nature of the core musculature, as well as the motor skill requirements for optimal rotational force transfer require training concepts that extend beyond basic, contemporary band or cable movements. In this article, I would like to go into more detail regarding the list of parameters outlined above. Additionally, we’ll examine coaching cues or observational key points, improperly performed variations, and programming considerations regarding shoulder health.

Ground Reaction Force and Foot Placement

Obviously, an athlete with a 200lb lift versus a 400lb lift can fare better in a rotational sport simply because they can both produce and absorb more force that the weaker athlete when throwing an object or striking an opponent. However, a fair amount of power is a result of biomechanical positioning, kinetic sequencing, and elastic/fascial properties. Stiff swings and stiff strikes lead for inefficient energy usage and diminished power. We can help bridge the gap from a max lift and the actual skill of the sport be it throwing a ball or striking an opponent by giving the athlete proper coaching in some of our exercise variations. Here is a video depicting poor foot placement or sequencing when doing anti and rotational exercises.

Pillar/Core and Motor Control

The core/pillar is the main variable to achieve optimal force transfer, this is especially the case for throwing and/or rotational athletes as ground reaction force through the arms in a subsequent throw/swing/strike is the lynchpin for performance. One of the main observations that suggests inefficient force transfer is poor rib positioning. Moreover, the presence of general muscle mass ratioed with t-spine mobility can be a more precise analysis for pillar function. For example, consider a 225lb athlete with a bench press 1-RM of 315 lbs. On paper we would assume this is a positive quality for sport but if their lats are so tight they cannot get into overhead flexion without gross compensation or pain then what good is the anterior strength? A combination of soft tissue and overhead core work must be done in order to regain function and balance the system. Eventually, appropriate frequency of each modality will likely minimize anterior shoulder pain.

If there is presence of pain or something just doesn’t look right in sagittal-based movements, risk will likely be amplified when we add complexity, multiplanar and rotation into the mix. We want to establish proficiency with simple, controlled movements in single plane actions before we progress forward. We touched on Palloff presses earlier, but there is a lot of detail to this movement that are commonly overlooked. Palloff variations (my progression chart shown below) are conventionally applied to emphasize the core, however, there are great benefits for the shoulder as well. If the athlete has known shoulder pathology, then there are several things that need to be addressed. By slightly modifying the movement, the scapula/shoulder girdle function can be addressed accordingly.

In addition to the anti-movements like the Palloff, generally any contralateral emphasis, or pattern involving the intricacies of the spiral line will be a great place to spend a bulk of your secondary and accessory blocks. If you need further convincing, reread Danny’s sling articles.

Glenohumeral Stability

Keep the ball on the socket. Sounds easy right? Well there are a ton of exercise variations and levels of intent that go into building girdle muscular balance and the kinesthetic sequencing that allows for most of the energy to transfer from the ground through the legs and core then whip through a wildly articulating shoulder complex then cleanly rotate/release the energy through the distal limb. Where to start?

Throwing specific? Or Rotational Core Specific? Arm Action Drill? Lower Half Drill?

For those of you in the baseball and softball world, I assume you have heard of Driveline if not other baseball performance companies like 108 Performance, Top Velocity, or Tread Athletics. There are countless more. While I certainly could go into more detail regarding programming and training a baseball athlete, my main focus is on what we can take from the sporting world and directly apply to strength and conditioning. Particularly, the area between rehab and full training; hence, Restorative Shoulder Strength. While the average person does not need to throw implements incredibly hard to have healthy shoulders, in fact it usually causes the opposite, there are some derivatives that we can use to further shoulder health with the right application. Plyo care balls have their place in a rehab setting, but also work great as movement prep on upper body intensive days.

This is the least addressed in the weight room because of the plethora of other exercise that we deem more fruitful in our efforts. A great opportunity to emphasize/experiment varying hand position is during movement prep and accessory work. Not only does each plane of the body rotate to create athletic power, but the joints also are rotational in nature and receive a fair amount of torque in high speeds during sports. The least we can do as strength coaches is briefly touch on these end ranges of stability. Training grip work also has big carry over.

Rotational exercises are where a coach can test the efficacy of their prior periodization cycles to see if scapular dysfunction or global movement patterns are continuing to irritate or present risk for the athletes’ shoulder pathology. Furthermore, a variety of the exercise variations demonstrate d have a plethora of implementation and will need to be programmed to best fit the athletes needs and placement during their competitive season. Considerations for implementing rotational and shoulder-focused variations in general health are important as well when training general population.

Now in a general population we most like aren’t getting to true dynamic based excises by weeks 8-12. However, I encourage the primal patterns and VBT based lifts in those that are capable. Some people may take 2 to 4 meso cycles of 12 weeks before they are ready for dynamic exercises.

Big Picture

To understand what a complete training cycle looks like, and the variety of modalities used to build resilient shoulder girdles please watch this video (via Chris Herman YouTube).We must remain cognizant of the complete chain linking the shoulder to the lower halves during force transfer. Training the body accordingly is what allows for fluent and efficient shoulder health. Not everything is CAR’s like YTW’s. That is one spectrum. Likewise, not everything should revolve around throwing an implement. Notice how in the above Javelin video they train hip mobility, t-spine mobility, sprints, plyometrics, MB work, max bench work, and gymnastic work like handstands, planches, iron cross/ring ups.

There is a wide berth of training that allows these humans to hurl spears the length of a football field. Appreciate how they are attacking a variety of angles and planes, utilizing a spectrum of velocities and tempos, and variations of positions and loads. The spectrum applied elucidates what’s required of shoulder that can withstand max effort hurling attempts. I’m not saying that all of these should be sampled by everyone nor required to attain healthy shoulders, but it should illustrate the necessity of utilizing a wide spectrum of exercises to periodize and program.

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