Fixing Shoulder Impingement with Matt Unthank

The shoulder joint is the most mobile joint in the human body. It's tasked with a variety of challenges in daily living that require both a large range of motion and high levels of stability. In sports like baseball, volleyball, and swimming, high degrees of force are generated through the shoulder. Well-developed and balanced musculature is needed to keep a healthy and fully functional shoulder for competition. The shoulder joint is highly predisposed to injury due to the demands placed on it in everyday life, throwing and overhead actions in sports, and performance training. 

Many demands are placed on your shoulder joint, which makes it the most frequently-injured joint in your body.

Many demands are placed on your shoulder joint, which makes it the most frequently-injured joint in your body.

One of the most common types of overuse injury is referred to as Shoulder Impingement Syndrome (SIS for short). Impingement refers to the compression of the muscles and soft tissues between the humerus and the acromion process. This compression can lead to pain, inflammation, and reduced ability to effectively use the shoulder in its full range of motion. The causes of impingement can vary from poor postural control and awareness, to imbalances between the anterior and posterior muscles of the shoulder, to injury to the actual physical structure of the acromion process. SIS is a roadblock on your path to achieving your full athletic potential, and appropriately addressing your training methods with regard to shoulder function is key to progressing as an athlete.

To give us deeper insight into shoulder health and impingement syndrome, I approached Matt Unthank of Crossover Symmetry. When it comes to scapular strength and rotator cuff health, Crossover Symmetry—a medically-designed system engineered to enhance shoulder health and performance—is the gold standard. In this post, Matt highlights the methods, strategies, and tactics that can be implemented to develop the strength needed for competitive athletes to guard their shoulders from SIS.


The Crossover Symmetry Guide to Fixing SIS

Crossover Symmetry was initially developed with baseball players in mind—however, we have found the issues related to the shoulder joint are relatively consistent across all sports. Below are our top four tips for correcting common dysfunctions that lead to shoulder pain and injury:


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1. Fix Your Forward Shoulder Posture

Forward shoulder posture is caused by a lifestyle that lends itself to a combination of tightness and weakness, which carries over into our training and competition. Whether it is texting, driving, eating, or working on the computer, much of our day is spent seated with the shoulders rounded forward. Fortunately, the fix to the forward shoulder posture is easy, with a little work. First, it is necessary to correct the lifestyle habits that create bad shoulder posture. Specifically, we advocate standing whenever possible and adding in short bouts of physical activity throughout the day. We have also found that dedicating five minutes of every hour towards activating muscles that are typically shutdown throughout the day does wonders for keeping the body primed to hit max capacity when needed. The Crossover Symmetry Activation Program is a three-minute routine that can be used multiple times during the day to eliminate forward shoulder posture, fast track shoulder performance on the field, and help end shoulder pain.

Strengthening the muscles that surround the scapula is key for proper shoulder mobility and stability.

Strengthening the muscles that surround the scapula is key for proper shoulder mobility and stability.


2. Build Scapular Stability

The scapula is frequently referred to as the shoulder blade and forms the foundation for the arm. Whether it is throwing a fastball, spiking a volleyball, the power phase of your swim stroke, or blocking a 300lb lineman, it is absolutely necessary to have a foundation that is both mobile and stable at the same time. This is essential to not only prevent injury, but to achieve peak performance as well. The term scapular dyskinesis describes the dysfunction that occurs when the scapula is not supported in good position, which many times results in shoulder impingement. While the issue of scapular dyskinesis can be complicated because there are so many muscles involved in supporting the shoulder blade, the primary culprit is often weakness in the middle and lower trapezius, as well as the serratus anterior. A specific focus on strengthening these muscle groups will help correct scapular dyskinesis, and for this we would definitely recommend the Crossover Symmetry IRON SCAP and Plyometric programs. Not only do these programs work on strengthening the muscles that typically limit shoulder stability, but they also focus on the timing of muscle contractions which is crucial for maintaining a solid foundation for fast and powerful arm movements.


3. Correct Muscle Imbalances

The shoulder is an incredibly complex structure that requires a combination of strength, balance, and flexibility between its supporting muscle groups. Many athletes develop muscle imbalances through their training programs and hours of practice for their sport. Specifically related to overhead sports is a relative weakness of the rotator cuff compared to the bigger muscles of the shoulder joint. Many times athletes can power through overhead movements with the stronger muscle groups while allowing the rotator cuff to lag behind. Not only does this lead to an increased risk of injury, but they will never reach their full potential without training the rotator cuff to be the primary shoulder stabilizer. The Crossover Symmetry and IRON SCAP programs place a heavy emphasis on training the rotator cuff through various motions needed for sports performance.

4. Professional Training Programs

The final issue frequently related to shoulder impingement is poor exercise programming. Strength and conditioning requires a fine balance between pushing an athlete beyond their threshold while maintaining good mechanics. A professional strength and conditioning program leads an athlete through a progressive and calculated overload system rather than slamming them at max capacity every day. Not only does this result in greater gains in the long run, but it keeps the athlete continually working at max capacity while staying away from injury. A second priority is sequencing exercises to address muscle fatigue and its effect on later exercises. For instance, as the rotator cuff fatigues, its ability to stabilize the shoulder decreases. Large supersets on the shoulder can fatigue the rotator cuff and result in shoulder impingements. While it’s important to challenge the endurance and strength of the shoulder, going overboard can result in pain and decrease in athletic performance. Volt Athletics provides advanced strength and conditioning programs at an affordable price for athletes of all ages and skill levels. Strength and conditioning should be incorporated for all athletes, but without a properly designed program it can set an athlete back rather than moving them forward.  

The shoulder is a tricky joint—but it doesn’t have to be mysterious. Working to develop and maintain stability and mobility in your shoulders will help you succeed athletically, and avoid potentially career-ending injury. 

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Jace Derwin, CSCS, RSCC, is the Head of Performance Training at Volt Athletics and is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. Jace manages Volt program design, content development, and educational resources for schools, clubs, and organizations. Jace is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® (CSCS®) and holds a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science from Seattle Pacific University. Follow Jace on Twitter @VoltCoachJace.