Soft Tissue Care for Athletes, Part 3: Upper Back and Shoulders

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Soft Tissue Care for Athletes, Part 1 covered the feet and calves; Part 2 moved up the chain to the legs and hips. We now conclude with the final installment in the series, upper back and shoulders.

For athletes playing baseball, tennis, football and most other sports, shoulder health is critically important. Throwing, serving and tackling place a high demand on the shoulder's soft tissue. Without strong and healthy shoulder muscles, your chance of injury increases dramatically.

Shoulder injuries can be prevented. But first, you need to know exactly which muscles are involved. Below is a description of the three groups of shoulder muscles and how they affect shoulder movement.

Key Shoulder Muscles

  1. Pectorals (Major and Minor): The pectorals are often thought of as chest muscles, but they greatly affect movement at the shoulder. If the pecs are tight, they put unnecessary stress on the shoulder (glenohumeral) joint and increase the risk of injury.
  2. Rotator Cuff (SITS) Muscles: Four muscles combine to form the rotator cuff: supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis. They stabilize the shoulder joint as it moves. As tissue quality diminishes in these muscles, shoulder stability decreases and injury risk increases.
  3. Scapular Movers and Stabilizers: The technical name for the shoulder blades is the scapula. Muscles surrounding the scapula run in all directions, moving them through a large range of motion and also holding them still. These muscles are commonly known as the upper-back muscles: trapezius and rhomboids. Shoulder blade movement, or lack of it, directly affects shoulder health. If the tissue surrounding the shoulder blades is poor, they will not move well.

Since most exercises place stress on the shoulders, shoulder muscle care must be part of a daily training routine. Like caring for the rest of the body, caring for shoulder soft tissue requires only two simple tools—a foam roller and a lacrosse ball.

Pectoral Rolling
Place a foam roller under one side of your chest at a 30-degree angle to the mid-line of your body. Roll slowly, with a sweeping motion, from the middle of the pecs to the front of the shoulder and back again. Repeat for 10 to 30 seconds, or until tightness dissipates.

For deeper and more focused rolling, follow the above instructions using a lacrosse ball. When using the ball, focus on areas that are especially tight.

Rotator Cuff Rolling
The rotator cuff muscles are delicate, so extra care must be taken when rolling them. Lie on your side and place a lacrosse ball underneath the outside of your shoulder. It should feel like it is halfway between your armpit and your back. Rest your head on a foam roller. Be sure to keep your shoulder blade pulled back and down throughout the exercise. When you encounter a tight spot, gently press on the lower forearm with your upper hand. Focus on areas that are especially tight. Breathe deeply and relax, but do not place a great amount of torque on the arm. Take five deep breaths and switch to the other shoulder.

Rolling the Scapular Movers and Stabilizers
Caring for the scapular movers and stabilizers is the easiest of the upper-back and shoulder soft tissue exercises. Start by placing a foam roller on the mid-back, then lift your hips with your hands behind. Roll slowly back and forth from the starting position to the base of the neck. Cross your arms on your chest and place your hands on opposite shoulders halfway through the exercise. Perform each version for 15 seconds.

All team sport athletes need to care for their shoulders. Use the drills above daily to ensure shoulder strength and health.


Todd Bumgardner, co-owner of Beyond Strength Performance (Dulles, Va.), works with athletes both in person and online. He earned his master's degree in exercise science from California University of Pennsylvania, and he has served as a collegiate strength and conditioning coach and a high school football coach. He is an NSCA-certified strength and conditioning specialist, as well as an IYCA high school strength and conditioning specialist.

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock