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If you've got crappy shoulders, surfing is going to suck. You don't want it to suck, right?

If you’ve got crappy shoulders, surfing is going to suck. You don’t want it to suck, right? Photo: Ben Ginsberg


The Inertia

If you’ve got crappy shoulders, you’re not surfing, or at least not for long.  Shoulder health is paramount to your time in the water, and also your abilities.  If you can’t paddle strong, fast, or well, you aren’t going to be catching waves.  I’m sure many of you out there are familiar with the general rehabilitative shoulder exercises: external rotation, internal rotation, band pulls, etc. While these may be fine for someone immediately recovering from an operation, they are not going to fully prepare you for your time in the water. The demands placed upon the shoulders and shoulder girdle while surfing are extreme, and that coupled with improper postures and lifestyles that create improper postures will wreak havoc on your shoulders.  The overhead shoulder motion in paddling is repeated thousands of time in a good session.  When this motion is constantly repeated with bad postures and immobilities, microtraumas occur in the rotator cuff structures, which inevitably will lead to frustrating time in the water, and bills from an orthopedic specialist. That’s just an all around bummer.

So where should you start to improve your shoulder health and strength? At the thoracic spine. Basically, the thoracic spine is the middle of your spine, just below the cervical spine, and above the lumbar spine. This portion of your spine is built for mobility – rotation, flexion, and extension. It allows you freedom of movement through your upper torso, proper positioning of the scapula, and optimal overhead range of motion. How does this portion of the spine affect the shoulders?  It comes down to your thoracic spine mobility. If you do not have mobility in this portion of the spine, it offsets the natural motion of the shoulder girdle, primarily your scapulas, thus affecting your shoulder range of motion and limiting your ability to put your arms over your head. If you can’t put your arms over your head, how are you going to paddle? When your shoulder range of motion is not optimal, you’re opening yourself up to problems and pain. When that happens, you’re not paddling, or at least not optimally and pain free. The logistics of this can be quite in-depth and warrant a closer examination of what comprises the shoulder girdle complex, yet at this time it’s not that important for you. I want to give you a quick understanding of why thoracic spine mobility is important, and what you can to do improve it, in the end helping improve your shoulder mobility and then progressing to endurance and strengthening work.

Spines

Take a look at the image above. The spine on the left represents good posture through the thoracic spine, while the spine on the right represents offset thoracic posture, referred to as “kyphotic.”  The spine on the right has very likely lost much of its ability to extend and rotate, and represents what many in our society today displays. Now imagine trying to paddle and not being able to extend through your spine. Not real nice, is it? Then add on two hours of aggressive paddling with your scapula and shoulder joint completely out of alignment, and imagine what is happening within your shoulder joint. As your spine becomes more kyphotic and rigid, your body compensates by protracting (rounding forward) the scapula in order to try and maintain some range of motion.  This inevitably leads to impingement, pain, and at the far end of the spectrum, surgery.

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Try this out:

  • Round your upper back like you are slouching over your computer
  • While holding this position see how high you can raise one arm overhead
  • Next sit up really tall and raise your arm up again.

What do you feel or see (you can also do this standing sideways to a mirror). Do you notice your ability to place your arm overhead increased when you put yourself into proper thoracic posture?  You should have. At this point, you should have an understanding of the importance of the thoracic spine related to the shoulder, and begin to see the need for proper posture for optimal shoulder health. While we can address posture and how to improve it in another post, we can start with a movement that will help restore thoracic spine to its regular mobility.

Work on these drills before you train, or before you surf.  Be consistent with them.  You’ve spent years developing bad posture and stiffness, so it may take a bit of time to improve, but if you stay diligent, your shoulders and your surfing will benefit.

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To make faster Improvements, add upper body stretches and tissue release to the key areas that limit shoulder range of motion.  Find them here: UPPER BODY FLEXIBILITY DRILLS

If you found this to be helpful, you can find more stretches, flexibility drills, and training at www.surfstrengthcoach.com

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