Range of motion of the shoulder joint is not a simple matter… first, the shoulder joint is not a single joint, it is in fact comprised of four joints: the sterno-clavicular (collar bone to sternum), the acromio-clavicular (collar bone at the shoulder blade), the gleno-humeral joints or what is widely considered the ‘shoulder joint’, and last but not least the scapulo-thoracic joint (the shoulder blade against the chest).
The scapulo-thoracic ‘joint’ is not a joint in the same anatomical sense as other joints where two bones are held together by a capsule, ligaments, crossing a joint space covered with cartilage and filled with synovial fluid. The scapulo-thoracic joint has no capsule, no ligaments, instead the scapula ‘floats’ over top the rib cage (i.e. the thorax) suspended by the collar bone and a long list of muscles. The relevance of this joint to sport is made evident in the gif of Lesman Parades at 2015 Junior World Weightlifting Championships:
Note how Parades’ back remains flat, dead flat in fact: he has the ability to distinguish movement so that end range of the shoulder comes specifically from the the scapulo-thoracic joint, not the spine, and not the gleno-humeral joint of the shoulder.
Athletes with neck, back, wrist, elbow, or shoulder pain, rotator cuff injuries, and those who have difficulty with upper body exercises (e.g. plank, pushups, pullups) are generally unable to differentiate between movement which needs to come from the gleno-humeral joint, versus the shoulder blade/scapula, versus the spine. The outcome is that they move ineffectively with a variety of inefficient biomechanical compensations while attempting to obtain desired range of motion [ROM]. The typical compensation is to force movement into one joint instead of spreading the load across multiple joints, hence pain, stiffness and injury.
In addition to the loading of the extremity joints (i.e. wrist, elbow, shoulder), athletes with poor biomechanical patterns will arch their back in search of ROM. The problem is that arching the spine removes both the spine and all spinal muscles from providing rotational power as they become locked in their end range position (for more info on rotation refer to the Blog Library for all posts on Rotation). When the spine is locked, it cannot couple movement between the lower and upper extremities. In the case of Olympic lifting, if Lesman Parades arched his spine when lifting, then all the power his legs generate could not be transferred into his trunk or arms, his lifting technique would become ineffective, reducing his power and lifting potential. When the spine is used to compensate for insufficient movement in scapular movement, the athlete not only limits their maximum speed, strength, and endurance, they expose themselves to injury. To correct this pattern, significant retraining is required to develop both flexibility and neuro-muscular control.
The availability of full range of motion at the shoulder complex becomes clear when load is added to the equation as in the gif below of Parades’ performing the Snatch…
But what has Olympic weight lifting technique got to do with swimming? Biomechanics are biomechanics. Whether it is Olympic weight lifting, cycling, swimming, archery, gymnastics, ballet, dance, running, rowing, or whatever may be the performance art or sport… the basics of human movement are consistent across all sports, and the basics apply equally. If an athlete doesn’t have the ABCs (agility, balance, coordination which all rely on flexibility), then the starting point for training needs to be basic physical literacy, prior to any additional training of sport specific technique.
Without the ABCs, outcomes are predictable: limited athletic potential due to limited flexibility resulting in pain, stiffness, and soreness with training, lending itself to a pattern of overtraining, then injury, and illness, erupting eventually into frustration due to the lack of significant and consistent progress. In the end, the athlete gives up and quits, or presses on forcing progress by masking training side-effects through legal means (e.g. painkillers, anti-inflammatories, alcohol) or illegal means (i.e. PED).
For example, the overhead press position is no different between the Olympic lifter and the swimmer who stretches out at the entry and initiation of the catch phase of all four swimming strokes: freestyle, backstroke, butterfly and breaststroke, and during the streamline position maintained off of dive starts and each turn. Like Olympic weightlifters, swimmers need a straight line from the top of their head through their spine to ensure that their trajectory vector is perfectly straight. To accomplish this the extremities must rotate around the spine and its trajectory vector generating the power to provide propulsion (either the lift or the pull depending on the sport). Without the range to perform the overhead press, neither lifter nor swimmer can execute the technique of their sport effectively.
Watch the entry of the butterfly stroke – executed by Michael Phelps – and you will see the overhead press position translated into swimming…
What is critical is that scapulo-thoracic motion be controlled distinctly, so that the trajectory of movement is not compromised. End range arises not from hyperextension of the spine, nor from excessive movement at the shoulder joints, instead it arises from the scapulae being able to retract and depress fully. If that wasn’t enough to consider, the range of motion of the rib cage must be dynamically stable, and coordinated with breathing to allow the elastic properties of all the joints to be levered into generating maximum propulsion with minimal effort and resistance.
The similarity in range of motion and fundamental ability between different sports may seem surprising, but is not unexpected when rotation is understood as the basis of all movement.
Below Yuliya Efimova provides an opportunity to observe the range of motion of vertical movement of the scapulo-thoracic joint during the breaststroke: watch how low her shoulders depress to initiate the insweep and then how high they elevate exploding into the glide/recovery aspect of the stroke. The massive range of motion and her control over that range increases the amplitude of the stroke increasing efficiency and power.
Amateur athletes seeking to excel in their sport can do so by focusing on developing further their flexibility. This will provide not only the opportunity to prevent injury but to develop total body awareness of range and improve coordination of muscles providing the athlete additional sources of power to execute the technique of their sport with greater efficiency, uncovering new levels of speed, strength, and endurance.
The foundation of peak performance across all sports is flexibility.
With proper training, ROM and control become available in the delivery of technique leading to consistency in training and in competition. Below, Bruce Lee demonstrates exactly how much ROM and control are available to those who want to train to become Grand Masters of the function off their body…
With proper training, this is exactly how much neuro-muscular control is possible over the scapulo-thoracic joint…