1. You are mis-aligning the spine.
If we look at joint mobility, we are reminded to explore it from a core-to-extremity approach. This means that if your shoulders are hurting, rather than look at the shoulder itself which sometimes is the symptom of the problem, we look deeper into what’s happening from the trunk. The alignment of the spine is crucial as we spend most of our time in a day not in training but in our jobs or daily activities. Training usually only takes up a small percentage of our day.
So if we are not appropriately aligned in the majority of it, our first instinct is to correct it in training. So when we are lifting, we try to adopt better posture which we don’t practice in most of our day. Why I bring this up is because if you are not in an ideal position with your spine, you end up overloading the shoulders and hips when placing an external load through the system. Understanding the actual curvature of the spinal column along with what is your natural curvature and applying that to your movement is how you keep or allow your body to take the loads going through your body well.
2. You are breathing poorly.
Funny enough, people still don’t see the connection of breathing to the movement of the upper body. The thoracic region consists of the thoracic spine as well as the ribs? So how we breathe affects how our thoracic mobility is established. If we are not able to move the ribs or thoracic region well, we are creating a block in the trunk which doesn’t allow force to dissipate through.
When the breath is not established right as well, we end up losing the ability of the diaphragm in assisting to create stability in the trunk. We can usually see this in movements where the upper body looks disconnected from the lower body (such as in squats). So imagine if this disconnect occurs within your weightlifting movements where the barbell is overhead, the instability caused can place the shoulders in a position having to work extremely hard to bring balance back to the system.
3. You are lacking rotation in the shoulder joints.
The shoulder joint is a ball and socket joint which means it is capable of a whole range of different movements in different planes and usually in combination of planes. But within the movements, the important one in regards to the weightlifting movements is usually in rotation. The lack of rotation means that there is more demand on the scapula to move the arm into overhead position or into the rack position.
And in today’s society, our postural culture has led to a position where the scaps are also lacking the ability to move much due to the lack of thoracic movement. So when partaking in the weightlifting movements, the lack of rotation is similar to having a door hinge that is too tight and forced into position each time you are opening or closing the door. When that happens over time, the joint ends up straining to gain the required range or shifts that demand to somewhere else down the chain.
4. You are using the shoulders to generate movement.
This is one of the common mistakes made when first learning the lifts. This comes from the notion of flipping the arms around to bring the bar overhead. This idea of positioning the bar overhead and placing it there probably involves using the shoulders to literally lift the weight and pull it into position overhead.
The turnover is more of an action of re-establishing the body under the bar. So instead of having to move the bar around you and up to the overhead position, after generating adequate momentum on the bar and it begins its trajectory towards its peak, you are meant to move around the bar and under it to be ready for the receiving position.
That way, the shoulders act more as a stabilizer in the movement than to physically act upon the weight of the bar to bring it overhead.
5. You are locking them down too much in the set up.
You are always told to stay tight through the lift and the interpretation of that is to create as much tension as possible probably through the feeling of contracting muscles. By doing so, you end up stiffening the musculature around the shoulder joint and when the shoulder joint and scapula (they do move in sync with each other), the “tension” you are creating locks the joint down and having to turn the bar over means fighting against the tension you have created with the intention to keep the joint safe.
In fact, the shoulder joint is stabilized by the rotator cuff muscles and act in a rhythm to keep the joint in position. By creating tension on muscles which you are not meant to be using, you end up straining the rotator cuff muscles and the firing pattern to properly stabilize the shoulder joint is lost.
6. You are locking the shoulders too much when catching a weight overhead.
On the lines of staying tight, we are also reminded to stabilize the shoulders when we are going overhead. This is to prevent the shoulders from giving way to the overhead position which could also be a risk to injury. This usually ends up being locking the shoulders in position when receiving overhead. However, many focus on that where they miss the need to stabilize the lower body and trunk before it happens at the shoulders.
If we are creating no movement on the shoulders when catching a weight overhead, the momentum of the bar coming down on us (mostly vertically but possibly with a slight vector of horizontal movement) will have to transfer away from the shoulders to the trunk or lower body. The way I would describe this would be like a spinning top where the weight is heavier on the top than the bottom which would then be struggling to maintain balance. To fix this, the shoulders need to be able to resist movement but not block it. At the same time, learning to absorb weight in the catch from the lower body or trunk first needs to be established as well.
7. You are doing too much for your shoulders trying to get them strong.
The muscles supporting the shoulder joint plus the rotator cuff muscles are all very small muscles compared to the others within your body, but their demand within the weightlifting movements are one of the highest. When we think about our training and programming, we actually look at trying to build them up so that they are strong and conditioned enough to handle the toll of snatches and jerks and even cleans.
However, we fall into the fallacy of thinking that more is better but in fact, better is better. Doing the correct things at the appropriate time is what will get your shoulders to work better in the movements. If you are trying to improve mobility, don’t end up doing more work like heavy presses which will then cancel out all the mobility work you are doing. Or if you are trying to train for stability in the shoulder joint, you need to understand what kind of stability you need to build. Whether it is eccentric loading or just isometric stability which you are trying to establish.
These are just the common issues that affect the shoulders in the weightlifting movements. Some of them can lead to acute injuries but most of them brew over time into a ticking time bomb in your shoulder. Due to the complexity of the joint, there are many factors which can lead to the increased risk of injury. But understanding the main components to establishing good position of the thoracic spine, the correct breathing mechanics and the correct movement mechanics of the shoulders can perhaps help you relief that aching and more importantly, sharp pain which you commonly get in practicing the weightlifting movements.
If you need more help with understanding the dynamics of the shoulder and its application to the weightlifting movements, we have our in-house experts within our team who are very familiar with the weightlifting movements and the injuries associated with the sport to help you. Find out more about them below!