Building a stronger upper body is essential if you want to feel confident in moves like planks and arm balances. And even if you don't aspire for acrobatic-like practice, let's face it, every down dog is essentially half of a handstand!
Our shoulders are very mobile! They are designed for reaching into the back seat and grabbing your purse while driving... not necessarily standing on your hands! But if we want to feel good in practice we have to take care of them!
Here are three basic concepts to consider when building stronger shoulders that are less painful in your practice.
1. Motion is lotion!
Because some of us might be simply muscularly 'turned off' and and not stimulated or ready for movement, or worse some of us may be chronically unstable it doesn't necessarily mean those muscles are just all loosey goosey. In fact quite the opposite. The tissues are often weak and a bit locked up. So start your upper body work first with dynamic, unloaded movement. This means movement through your fullest controlled range, continuously, without any added external forces. Here are some suggestions:
- Int & Ext rotation with arms reaching in front of you and again from down by your sides
- Shoulder rolls forward and back
- Arm circles, large and small
- Shoulder blade retractions (pinch them together and release)
- Overhead reaches
- Overhead reach across
- Horizontal abduction and abduction (swing the arms in front and across, and then out to the side)
2. Incorporate Stabilization Through Targeted Action
So often we need is to to build stability, but the thing we feel is that we want to stretch! Building stability in the shoulder joint is complicated because the shoulder itself is complicated. What we often think of as our shoulder is a convergence of several aspects of the body and many joints.
To make the shoulder less complicated start with basic actions you know, with simple stabilizing moves and perhaps the addition to manageable weights or tubing. This is where light to moderate weight resistance workouts can be very helpful!
Using light hand weights, here are a few to get started
- Plank holds
- Bicep curls & Tricep Extensions
- Overhead Press
- Narrow Rows
- Forward Raise
- Reverse Flys
- Chest Press
- Side Lying Rotator Cuff Int/Ext Rotations
3. Integrate Dynamic Strength Through Compound Motion
Most of life is not in isolation. So in addition to strengthening specific muscles its important to work the shoulder as a whole through complicated motions that utilize multiple joint actions at once, like flowing through class!
Mastering your comfort level in postures like downward facing dog, plank, low plank, and pressing up from cobra or up dog back to downward dog are important to understand before moving on to bigger poses that may be related like side plank, handstands, arm balances, and full wheel.
But allow things to develop over time. When your instructor tells you to drop to a kneeling chaturanga dandasana, it doesn't mean you're wimping out. It might mean you're saving your shoulders! Remember that just like weights, you need to progress to being able to hold more of your body weight through motions and build your tolerance and endurance to do this for longer periods of time! There's no shame in your modification game!
Go slow, be consistent, and practice patience. You will find that your shoulders can indeed get more stable and stronger over time.