My mentor, the US-based therapeutic and conditioning coach Paul Chek, says “big bench equals bad shoulders". Translated for people who don’t frequent gyms, it means that the bench-press exercise, almost a gold standard routine in most gyms, is not good for your shoulders.

The bench press was never intended to be a benchmark (excuse the pun) for man- (or woman-) hood. It is an exercise for improving the size and strength of the chest, anterior deltoid (shoulder muscles) and triceps, nothing else. Why should the “non bench-pressing" reader or those who do not visit the gym be concerned about this danger? That’s because it mimics the same anatomical position that we are used to in daily life: using the computer, driving a car, or huddled over a file. All these activities internally rotate (move towards the centre of the body) and anteriorly migrate (move outwards) the shoulders, exactly the same way that a bench press does in the gym.

All these activities, done over sustained periods of time, weaken the rotator cuff muscles (the muscles that stabilize the shoulder joint) and upset the shoulder blade to such an extent that it can result in chronic shoulder pain.

Not in use: A musculoskeletal component that’s undergoing the most serious devolution is the shoulders—we hardly ever use them nowadays. Photo: Thinkstock

I look at the shoulders as the hips of the upper body. In many ways, both these joints are similar in their movement patterns. If I were to single out one musculoskeletal component that is undergoing the most serious devolution, it would be the shoulders. We hardly ever use them nowadays. Our world of effective motion, using the keypad or the TV remote, manoeuvring our car, etc., has been restricted to an invisible 3x3ft chamber that hangs in mid-air directly in front of us, roughly covering an area from the mid-thighs to the armpits. We do little else outside this chamber, we carry it with us wherever we go.

Restricted by this imaginary self-created space that guides our motion in this industrialized world, we have simply lost the muscle memory to use 50% of the shoulder’s functions. When a task comes along which forces us to cross our restricted world of motion, like retrieving a piece of luggage from the overhead cargo bin or hitting a tennis ball during a weekend tennis match, our shoulder goes for a toss. What we lack is a fully functional range of motion, a capability that we were born with and developed as young children, but then lost as we became more and more sedentary.

Rediscover motion

The key to beating shoulder pain, or keeping it away altogether, is to rediscover function. I say “rediscovering" because functions are never totally lost; they are merely temporarily misplaced, sometimes for half a lifetime or so, but can be found again. This gets us back to our bench-pressing friends.

The bench press is described as a horizontal pressing movement. When you do this repeatedly, the shoulders slowly develop too much pushing strength in comparison to the pulling ability of the upper back muscles or the scapula (shoulder blade). This mismatch slowly tightens the muscles in the front of the body, namely the chest and anterior deltoids, and weakens the muscles at the back of the upper body, namely the rhomboids and the rear deltoids. The shoulders slouch or migrate forward and ultimately get injured.

A thumb rule for shoulder safety: Develop more pulling strength than pushing strength. Loosely translated, it means that if you can push 50kg for a certain number of repetitions (reps), then you should be able to pull the same weight (or ideally, even more) for the same number of reps. But sadly, in the gym I notice the same people who bench almost 100kg struggle to do a barbell row (a pulling movement) with good form of anything more than 60kg.

Do the pencil test. This is a simple check that reveals the status of your shoulder joint. Get hold of a couple of pencils. Hold them in your palms with the points facing out and your arms dropped by the side of your body. Do this naturally without getting conscious or tightening your hands and fist. Now, take a look at your hands—where do the pencils point? If they point straight ahead with your arms right by your side, your shoulder alignment is fine. If they point diagonally inwards, slightly facing the front of your thighs, you need a minor correction. If, however, they point almost directly towards each other, as if you are about to poke yourself in your family jewels, then you have a severe problem in your shoulder joint alignment and need to take corrective steps immediately.

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Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

• Sitting scapular contractions

Sit on the edge of a bench or chair with your hips in extension, that is, with your shoulders rolled back and your lumbar spine arched back slightly. Slowly and evenly squeeze the shoulder blades together, then release.

Do three sets of 20 repetitions.

This exercise retracts the scapulae and pulls the shoulder joint back from its anteriorly migrated position.

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Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Lie prone on an inclined bench and drop your shoulders in front of the bench.

Hold a light dumb-bell in each hand, making a 90- degree angle with your elbows and shoulders (as shown).

Lift the dumb-bells straight in front of you, using the elbow as a hinge, so that the dumb-bells point upwards.

Return back to starting position. Do three sets of 15. This helps strengthen the rotator cuff muscles.

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• Static back

Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Ranadeep Moitra is a certified coach from the National Strength and Conditioning Association of America, and has worked with the Indian cricket team, the Bengal cricket team and the East Bengal Football Club. He currently coaches the Indian golf team.

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