Cross training for overhead athletes


by Rob Haddow, RMT, Dip.SIT

This is one of those times that while stressful, can also afford a unique opportunity for those with a more athletic inclination (not me). Musculoskeletal health is dependent on a balance of physical input and output, work and recovery. We can break down work into range of motion, resistance applied throughout that range, and rate of resistance applied. Most of us are currently experiencing reduced work output relative to our physical maintenance needs. For specialized movers like overhand athletes, that disparity is even greater.

So what?

I’d like to address some simple cross training for those who are accustomed to regular overhead activity - the volleyball players, swimmers, climbers, etcetera. Some overhead athletes maintain a flexed or abducted shoulder for prolonged periods with moderate stress and low demands on acceleration/deceleration (think hand balancers, or climbers). Others may regularly challenge an overhead range for only a brief duration, but through very high speed or resistance (consider olympic lifters, or volleyball players), so the dosage for each person is incredibly variable.

Some people will find more benefit with more general mobility, and others will gravitate to greater stress through a small range. Just about every conceivable combination of range/resistance/rate could be meaningful. These tips are based on examples that I’ve used with athletes in the past, as are the accompanying video links. They’re not perfect, but they cover a decent amount of bases. What I’m trying to say is that there is no panacea dosage.

Note: Everything can be scaled by changing range/resistance/rate of activity.

Range Training:

We all know what range of motion is. It’s the path of movement an object travels through in terms of distance and direction. If we want to look at the most concise overall way to explore gross movement through the shoulder complex, we’re looking at circumduction.

Shoulder dislocators can be great for simple exploration, while Shoulder dislocators with an upward reach add greater specificity and challenge. Alternatively, we can focus on a more proximal approach with Scapular mobility. 

Resistance Training:

Another key concept that many of us address regularly with our patients is basic strength training. If you want to help a person in pain, you can’t go wrong getting strong. Resistance training should be range specific. If you’re going to train for strength in overhead range, train it overhead. There are of course hundreds of exercises to choose from, but I like to try to keep things simple. Applying resistance on-axis with the humerus will allow for a simple line of force across the glenohumeral joint, minimizing dependency on the rotator cuff muscles.

Y, T, I, W exercises are simple and effective, and generally focus on both GH and retroscapular structures, while Serratus anterior isometrics focus on more of the anteroscapular structures. It should be noted that nothing here is strictly focused on any structure as our nervous systems will recruit anything helpful.

By using a flexed elbow, we can create a greater rotator cuff challenge with Overhead rotation control in simple isometric contraction, or add some complexity with Wall walks for progressive (widening the walk) or constant (maintaining constant width) eccentric/concentric loading.

Rate Training:

Something we rarely give thought to is the time dependency of movement. Performing any exercise overhead in a faster (more sport-specific) manner can get the job done for the most part. Exploring slow coordination can also be helpful.

A simple 6x6 shoulder mobility drill can be a great way to explore full range, and can be performed quickly to challenge acceleration/deceleration or slowly (loaded or not) to challenge planar control. Finally, PNF patterns can be used quickly, slowly, loaded or not, to explore control over combined movements.

In closing:

I suspect very few of us would say that social distancing has been beneficial for our physical health, but the situation does create an opportunity. There’s a certain freedom to focus on things that normally fall to the wayside. And for those of you who clicked on the links above, some of them are older

Tags: covid-19, athletes, training