The Fitness Fixer
The Fitness Fixer

Flasher Exercises Not Best for Shoulder Pain

In A Whole Big Fix Mike fixed several injuries and made the interesting statement, "I stopped cycling to improve my health."

Back in December, I asked Mike if he wanted to get back to cycling and about his shoulder. While we were working on his story, reader requests piled in by the hundreds. Stay with us and questions will be answered. If I only answer them in order, it will be hundreds more posts before I get to questions arriving today, so make your questions fun and helpful.

Mike wrote his update:

"The cycling didn't cause pain at the time, but created bad posture habits and muscle tightness (shoulder rounded forward after separating collarbone in a crash, tight psoas muscles and hamstrings) which led to pain later. I'm walking more human-like now. Also, the air and traffic around here has gotten worse because of the housing and population boom, so I was having horrible coughing fits. Now I don't, without the aid of any medicine and, I believe, by following your diet recommendations.

"Shoulder: The physical therapist had me doing the trench coat type exercises you've described in your books as not as effective or needed, in many different ways (pictured at right), especially the "closing of the trench coat" which didn't make sense to me because they said I was overly tight in the front and too flexible and weak in the back. The visits there didn't work.

"Instead, I used the two stretches shown by your husband - right angle elbow with hand in air in Fixing Upper Back and Neck Pain, and the hand in the opposite pocket behind the back while leaning sideways, in Nice Neck Stretch."

Standard physical therapy exercise for rotator cuff consists of keeping the elbow close to the waist and rotating the forearm inward and outward, like a flasher opening and closing a trench coat (photo). There are almost no daily activities that need this specific motion, not even opening a door. No one uses their muscles this way (unless you are a flasher I guess). People do these exercises then go back to daily bad overhead reaching and re-injure their shoulder, or wonder why it never heals.

The rationale for doing the trench coat exercise is that strengthening the rotator cuff will heal the injury. Strengthening is not the main issue in most shoulder injuries that I see. Misuse of the shoulder is the root cause. A common counterproductive scene is people "doing shoulder exercises" with their head and neck slouching forward, upper body rounded, which injures the shoulder with each arm lift.

Slouching the upper body forward when raising arms for any daily activity, stretch, yoga, or weightlifting will continue to injure the shoulder. What improvement are you making to your shoulder to do exercises in a way that will injure?

Mike wrote:

"I'm also concentrating on keeping my thumbs facing forward when arms are down in order to help prevent my shoulders from rolling forward. I'm feeling more upright and balanced when doing everyday activities."

I told Mike that the idea is not to hold thumbs forward. The idea is to get the purpose of the stretch so that the chest muscles lengthen enough so that the arm bone is not pulled into inward rotation. The post on this topic is listed at the end.

Mike was also "doing" one of the key stretches but not getting the stretch needed, so no benefit was occurring. He was going through a set of motions to achieve the set of motions instead of to achieve the purpose, which was to restore resting length to the chest muscles. Mike made us some photos of how he was originally doing the pectoral stretch and how he fixed the motion to get the purpose. I will post them soon so everyone can see the difference.

  • It is common to stretch in ways that does not achieve the purpose, or in injurious ways. Then news stories report on studies that stretching doesn't improve physical performance or help prevent injuries, and no one knows why. It is not difficult to see why: What Does Stretching Do?


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About the Author


Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.