On a beautiful December day my husband and I drove two hours to paddle the Watauga gorge – a classic Class IV creek in the mountains outside of Boone, NC. On the way to the river I started experiencing pain in my left shoulder blade. It wasn’t the first time that I felt the cranky muscles in my left shoulder so I focused on sitting up and drawing my shoulder blades back thinking that the discomfort would go away with a little stretching and posture.
Unfortunately, when I lifted both arms to pull my drysuit neck gasket over my head at the put-in, something gave way in my shoulder blade. It was painful and I lost almost all strength and mobility in my left shoulder. That was the end of my paddling day. Big fat sad face!
It was the first time in my twenty + years of paddling that my shoulder felt so debilitated and sore that I decided not to paddle when I was already at the river. I ran shuttle and lay in the grass with a tennis ball stretching and rolling out my shoulder until my friends finished their lap.
Luckily I had already had already scheduled an appointment with my PT/Yoga Therapist the following Monday. Her diagnosis was a strain in my infraspinatus and rhomboid muscles. I didn’t waste any time in starting the exercises, the yoga poses and the ball rolling that she recommended and it started feeling better almost immediately.
I practice yoga daily and that injury was a big reminder that, even with a regular yoga practice, repetitive motions like paddling can take a toll on the body. I had been focusing on strengthening my glutes in my practice at that time and had neglected my shoulders.
Since then I’ve been diligent about including shoulder strengthening poses and exercises in my daily practice. I’m stoked to share my favorites with you with the hope that you can avoid similar injuries! Effective shoulder care does take discipline. If you’re an avid paddler I highly recommend making it a priority so that you don’t have to miss out on any paddling days!
Shoulder Blade Push-Ups
For a time I practiced this everyday and now I’m back at it! In forearm or full plank position on your elbows slowly squeeze your shoulder blades together on your back to strengthen your upper back. Next, press your forearms into the floor and stretch your shoulder blades apart pressing your upper back toward the ceiling. Repeat these motions x10 reps. Be sure that you’re only moving your shoulder blades and not lowering your body toward or away from the floor – these are shoulder blade push-ups, not push-ups. Also make sure that you’re getting the full range of motion – really squeeze your shoulder blades together and then stretch them fully apart. This exercises helps to get the shoulders moving and also helps to strengthen the upper back and the muscles in the shoulder blades that keep the shoulders in alignment.
One of my favorites for strengthening the upper back and giving a nice gentle stretch across the pecs and in the neck. Lie on your stomach with your hands way off your mat, up on your fingertips, elbows bent to toward the ceiling and forehead on the floor. Press your finger tips, especially your thumbs into the floor to squeeze your shoulder blades back on your back. Keep your forehead on the floor and practice deep and steady breathing through the nose. Keep the fronts of your shoulders back, lifting away from the floor. You can then use your fingertips on the floor to draw your chest slightly forward and slightly up to get a little lift, but don’t lose the squeeze and strength in your upper back. Some days I never lift off the floor because doing spider cobra with my forehead on the floor is all of the stretch I need. Remember, this exercise isn’t about how high you can lift, but how strong you can make your upper back.
Supported Chest Opener with Three Minute Eggs or Yoga Blocks
Supported chest openers are great for your shoulders and really good for your mind because they’re relaxing. Props are key and I like to use Three Minute Eggs or yoga blocks. The Three Minute Eggs are nice because they are contoured to your body so they are more comfortable than regular blocks. I also find that they offer more room for your shoulder blades to move back on your back because they are thinner than the blocks. It’s totally worth purchasing these props – a set of two Eggs is about $40 and worth the investment in shoulder health and longevity (click on the links to learn more). If you’re using yoga blocks (they run about $20 – $30 for a set of two good ones) place them in line with each other (see photo). Lay down on them with the edge of the lower block in line with the lower edge of your shoulder blades or a little lower. Your head should rest on the second block. If you’re using the Three Minute Eggs then place one length wise and place the other Egg perpendicular to the first to form a ‘T’ shape. Your head rests on the block forming the top of the ‘T’ and the second egg is under your spine supporting your lumbar spine.
Keep your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, take your arms out in cactus arms and allow your elbows to be heavy. Pause here and breathe deeply. Slowly start moving your arms up over head and then back down squeezing your elbows toward your sides. If you find a spot that feels really good then hang out there and breathe. Next move your elbows and forearms toward one another in front of your chest and then take them back to cactus arms again. You’ll find that the blocks, and especially the Eggs because they are narrower, give your shoulder blades a nice little massage. Repeat as many times as feels good. Next, allow yourself to spend a few minutes just lying on the blocks or eggs with your arms out relaxing and breathing. It’s wonderfully rejuvenating, calming and good for the shoulders.
There are many more stretches and poses that help to maintain shoulder health, but these are my favorites and the ones I find most effective. I’ve been doing them a lot lately so I know they work! Consistency is key so if you feel that you only have time to do one of these then focus on the one that feels best for you and try to do it everyday. You’ll feel the benefits and so will your shoulders.
If you use any of these stretches or exercises regularly and you find them helpful please let me know and leave a comment below!