T Nation

Shoulder Woes (Fatigued Traps)

Hi all. I have had numerous shoulder woes in the past - impingement (in the left and right), clavicle osteolysis in the right, surgery on the right (resection) etc. I have since been trying to get back into things with both shoulders. I am now back in training at near full swing, using good form and control in lieu of excess weight.

The one thing which I still suffer from though is a fatigue in the traps which regularly kicks in, in particular the right trap. I am not sure why this is happening, and various strengthening exercises do not seem to help. It is particularly prevalent when I do exercises involving chest (e.g. BB or DB bench) and chest (e.g. BB/DB rows). Two additional “symptoms” I have are severe winging - I have done, and continue to do, many of the strenghtening exercises suggested in the great articles here. The second is that I feel that the shoulders (right one especially) sit forward, in front of the body, and not held back.

I am thinking it could be due to a number of causes:

  • some weak muscle in the shoulder complex causing the right trap to take over / overcompensate and thus prematurely fatigue. For example, weak infrasprinatus
  • weak traps which are causing them to tire out far too quickly
  • traps too strong relative to the other muscles, hence taking over the load and thus being worked excessively
  • something to do with flexibility, rather than strenght/weakness. For example, if the chest is too tight, the neck/traps not flexible enough, the rear delt / upper back muscles too tight.

I am at a loss right now and would appreciate any advice. I have consulted a biokineticist and chiro, neither of which could pinpoint the issue or solution. The one additional piece of info I have is that, when I had physio sessions post-surgery, the physio said I had very laxe joints, in particular in the shoulders.

Any advice will be very welcomed.

Regards,
X

I met and did a basic program for a lad who seemed to have a similar problem, in that his shoulder (LHS i believe) sat in front of his body when relaxed, and when i watched him using the hammer strength chest press i noticed that shoulder raised significantly when under stress of a challenging load. The following worked for him in regards to form during the exercise, not in regards to his shoulder positioning when at rest - this had been an issue since birth.

Some basic advice, reduce the loads, and concentrate on pressing with both shoulders as depressed and protracted as possible, (i am aware this will be difficult for you, but do the best you can) and raise the resistance slowly from there, if that means a partner to watch, or even push down on you as you do this exercise then so be it.

I cannot pinpoint the issue, but i think we all can safely say it is an imbalance thang…!
I feel confident that your problem is similar enough to what i have seen before, to advise that course of action in this 1 particular movement.

I do hope this helps a little… It is very basic, and maybe you need a more of a physio answer…!

Joe

Sounds like the issue is weak lower traps and possibly weak or non-firing rotator cuff muscles. The consequence is that your scapula fail to stay down and back when you are pressing.

Consider eliminating pressing moves for a few months and adding in a lot of scapula retraction moves, T3 raises, 30, 45, and 70 degree Y raises.

Joe’s advice to lift lighter weights is right on the money - lifting the weight and not focusing on the movement will often lead to sub-par form. This is particularly important given that you have had surgery on your shoulders.

Hi guys. Thanks for the responses so far.

“…I noticed that shoulder raised significantly when under stress of a challenging load…”

Yes, that happens to me. Unfortunately it is not only when the load becomes high - often even with a simple, warm-up load it feels as if the trap is being targeted or taking over the movement. That shoulder is then raised, almost as if I was doing a shrug movement.

“Sounds like the issue is weak lower traps and possibly weak or non-firing rotator cuff muscles. The consequence is that your scapula fail to stay down and back when you are pressing”

Correct, and the shoulder also have troubles staying down/back in general (sit forward of the body and scapulae wing).

“Consider eliminating pressing moves for a few months and adding in a lot of scapula retraction moves, T3 raises, 30, 45, and 70 degree Y raises.”

Thanks, will try that. I was unclear as to what it was I needed to lay back from and what I needed to focus on. That is, did not know if I should try eleminate pressing and work more on the back, traps and rear delts? Or do the opposite and focus on shoulder and chest pressing movements and lay off excess back/delt work.

What about flexibility - any specific area I should try and target?

Cheers,
X

Joe’s advice to lift lighter weights is right on the money - lifting the weight and not focusing on the movement will often lead to sub-par form. This is particularly important given that you have had surgery on your shoulders.

Thanks Patrick, good work mate.

Joe

[quote]xenithon wrote:
Thanks, will try that. I was unclear as to what it was I needed to lay back from and what I needed to focus on. That is, did not know if I should try eleminate pressing and work more on the back, traps and rear delts? Or do the opposite and focus on shoulder and chest pressing movements and lay off excess back/delt work.

What about flexibility - any specific area I should try and target?

[/quote]

Increase the back and rear delt work and be sure to add a number of external rotation variations to your workouts.

Lay off the chest work (the wording in my first post was poor). Avoid internal rotation movements.

Regarding flexibility - you need to release the tightness of the pec muscles. ART will work the best, but it can be expensive and very painful. PNF or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching is also very good, but a little hard to do by yourself. Then comes dynamic or static stretching; cheap, can do alone and will take a long time to impact the tightness. I don’t think you have any choice in this situation but to invest the effort to correct the tightness issue.

So, get rid of the tightness and increase the strength of the pec antagonist muscles and in 6 months you’ll have restored the balance to your body that will get it through whatever you throw at it.

Just throwing stuff out there, but almost eveyone has dominant trap function. You could focus on movements that focus the stress onto your rhomboids and serratus to control scapular winging. You could also look into getting some soft-tissue work done on your traps to relieve tension.

If your rhomboids suck, try doing movements that emphasize the eccentric ROM. Just thoughts…

Hi again. Patrick - thanks so much for that info, it is really appreciated. Just to ask a few follow up questions:

  • when you say external rotation variations, do you mean things like DB or cable rotations, and cuban rotations (like on this page here: http://www.bullz-eye.com/furci/2004/exercise_of_month/external_rotation.htm .
  • in terms of back / rear delt work, would you suggest doing direct trap work?
  • should I lay off chest altogether, or just keep pec training to a minimum? Should I perhaps do stretching types of exercises (like flyes) in place of pressing movements?

Unfortunately you do not get ART practitioners here in South Africa. Everyone I have asked gives me a blank stare :wink: . I have read up on PNF and perhaps I can try find someone who does that. I was thinking of finding a sport-specific physio who does deep-tissue massage in the neck/shoulders/back?

Stretching of the pec is something I will definitely start doing more of. Will try and have 1-2 sessions a day with stretches for the pec, neck and traps.

[quote]xenithon wrote:

[/quote]

Yes, among others - there are a many different variations (elbow on knee, low pully ext rot, flat lying on side elbow on hip (or 30, 45, 70 degree elbow on hip) ext rot.

You will need to do a lot of lower trap work (T3 raises, various scapula retractions) but my feeling is that the sensation you are getting in the upper traps is more a symptom of an imbalance vs. an issue with the muscle itself. You don’t need to avoid working this area of the muscle so long as you are mindful that the stronger upper traps are more likely to cause your shoulders to shrug during lifting - the strongest muscles tend to take up the work when weaker ones can’t get the job done. Also be mind full to keep the scapula retracted with rear lateral or rear delt machine moves - many tend to let their shoulder blades float up during these movements.

Stay away from ALL chest work. Until the tightness is gone and you are able to keep the scapula retracted under load, stay away from all pec work - I understand what you are getting at why suggesting flies to stretch, but an isometric contraction is still a contraction and it could keep prevent the muscle fibers from relaxing completely. I have read of people staying away from pec work for months to allow for the complete correction of imbalances. You will end up losing strength in the pecs. Accept this, but a muscle that can relax and lengthen completely will be better for you in the long run vs. a tight muscle that never really lets go.

Hmmm, there an opportunity there for an ART therapist…

I have had deep tissue massage that got my muscles to relax. But remember IF the problem is with tight pecs and internal rotators, treating the traps and back muscles is only going to help the symptom and not address the cause.

Awesome! Stretching is the one thing that we can all do that will make us stronger but it’s the last thing we tend to spend time on.

Scapula retractions I know and have done in the past (on the low row machine); not sure what T3 raises are though. Also, are scapular pushups a good option too?

Will do, thanks. Do you also think I should stay away from shoulder pressing movements (military, DB press, etc.) and stick more to laterals, bent laterals etc?

Point taken. The therapies would really only be for relieving some of the pains, as sometimes the traps really do get sore to the point that I need to take ibuprofen to help alleviate it. Hopefully these will start to dissapate as I lay back on chest exercises.

Two additional questions if you don’t mind (apologies in advance for all of these questions!)

  1. do you think a clavicle brace is worth looking into to keep the shoulder blades back (such as this: http://www.pezzi-med.co.za/clavicle_brace_.htm )?
  2. for those exercises to strengthen the rear delts and upper back, is there any preference for doing unilateral exercises (one side at a time)? If so, should I focus more on the trouble side (right) or should keeping it the same in both slowly bring back balance between the two?

Thanks again for all the assistance. Will keep you posted on progress.

X