Want to stay pain-free? Broaden your movement experience.
A good friend of mine started lifting a couple of years ago. He’s a smart guy; an engineer with a few patents to his name. If you’re reading this on an Android screen, he probably has something to do with that. There’s no question about his brains. But that doesn’t always mean that he’s making good training decisions.
“Knowledge is domain specific - or, if you like, smart people can do dumb shit.”
Recently, this friend and I - let’s call him Morris - sat down to lunch with me and started complaining about his shoulders hurting. He had recently begun to incorporate overhead pressing into his training. And things weren’t going according to plan.I asked him what he was going to do about it.
“Keep doing it until it doesn’t hurt?”
That’s definitely one approach.
Barbell work has become his one and only form of exercise. It has made him a stronger, happier person. And that’s why he’s confused. Barbell work has taken him far over the past couple of years. Why wouldn’t continue delivering in the same way?
I asked him how often he has his arms overhead outside of barbell pressing. He just sort of stared at me blankly over his sushi burrito (which is a thing).
I explained that only his sensory experience with a movement had to be more diverse than just loading it up aggressively. He went from staring blankly to giving me the full bug-eye treatment. He's an engineer and doesn't exactly revel in abstract explanations.
So here's a concrete explanation; for him and for you.
Take your arm and perform a big circle. Then a small circle. Then do that across your body. And then behind (up high and down low). Now fill in all the spaces.
Those are all the places your shoulder joint can take you.
Question 1: Do you regularly visit all those places?
Question 2: What does your day-to-day distribution of movement look like?
Question 3: Do you do anything to expand that range of motion (or otherwise increase strength at the far edges?)
Question 4 (bonus strength training round): If you visit these places during high-effort exercise, do you also visit them during low-effort exercise?
Let’s examine old Morris’ time in an overhead position for the past five years:
Five years ago: nothing
Four years ago: nothing
Three years ago: got something out of a high cabinet
Two years ago: nothing
One year ago: nothing
One month ago: as much weight as possible for as many reps as possible
Since this whole thing started with a conversation between friends, let's use that as a metaphor.
Imagine that you get together once a week with a buddy to work on an important project. And every time you see him, he's red-faced, exhausted, and looking dangerously close to meltdown. How will your conversations go? How will he respond to questions? And what if you want to take things in a different direction?
The prognosis isn’t great. Your mutual experience is limited in scope. And any little thing could cause a meltdown.
What if you sprinkled in some decompression time? Some beers … The odd movie… Fly fishing. Man, I wish someone would take me fly fishing. But I digress.
If light, low-pressure experience is added to the mix, you may find that the intense periods are better-balanced and less likely to end badly.
That friend, as I assume you’ve put together, is your shoulder. Order any joint. Periods of low-intensity, easy work allow you to map out range of motion, test out movement strategies, and generally just experiment. And that bodes well for your articular health and general movement fluency.
Most commonly, this process looks like active mobility work. It can also include manual therapy, and more individualized movement or awareness drills.
All of these things help to develop a more detailed map of the joint in your motor cortex. And that more developed map will improve your on-the-fly decision-making. Better decision-making means better movement and fewer explosive situations. So do the hard stuff, yes. But balance it with the soft stuff. A little yin for your yang. And better data for your brain. Even an engineer can get behind that.