The shoulder pain of a paddler

In this article, I’ll bring you toward a better understanding of your shoulder and its role in stand up paddleboarding.

The shoulder has a fundamental role in daily activities of the human body, but in paddling it becomes the key to propulsion. It’s also a fragile structure, and it deserves attention to keep it healthy and functional, especially when it’s the driving force in your sport.

As I showed in another article speaking on injuries (find it here), shoulder pain is one of the most common physical issues related to paddleboarding.

As a physical trainer working in SUP since 2007, part of my training program focuses on this joint and the way to get the best performance from it without any damage.

I started focusing on the shoulder during my experience in an Olympic kayak team here in Italy. At that time, we had many priorities to work on, and one of these was the shoulder.

Kayakers, like other kinds of paddlers, need a strong, mobile and stable shoulder.

Easy to say, not so easy to get.

Let’s get a quick view of the anatomy of this joint first.

The shoulder has a wide range of motion, which allows for excellent mobility, but also causes instability. The reason for this is the structure of the joint itself.

It connects the humerus (the bone of your arm) to the scapula (shoulder blade), and its shape has an almost entirely open profile.

This structure makes the humerus free to reach wide angles of motion, but it also requests more effort to maintain the joint’s alignment. This means that the muscles of the shoulder are needed to keep your humerus centered.

You’ve heard of rotator cuff injuries: when these muscles are unbalanced, it leads to a wrong alignment of the segment, causing stress to the joint once the shoulder is moving.

That could happen when you paint the walls of your house, or during easy overhead duties like changing a bulb in the kitchen room.

In those cases, the time spent and the effort of the activities do not generate an issue, but if you’re involved in stronger and longer actions like paddling, it’s a different story.

[tweetshare tweet=”Paddling requires a certain amount of strength, that’s for sure, but it also needs some mobility and coordination as well.”]

Unfortunately, not everyone shows the right level of these capacities, and this leads to injuries. 

If your strength is not enough, for instance, you’ll use compensatory movements to help you paddle.

A good example is what I call whipping.

If you think about it, when you’re tired during a race or training, or if your technique is poor, one of the ways to push the paddle in the water is with a whipping motion coming from your back and ending at your shoulder.

With this movement, you get two main results: overload of your lumbar back and strain of your shoulder cuff.

Moreover, depending on your habits, your posture, your sports past and so on, you could have developed an unbalanced shoulder without even knowing it.

Let me explain myself better.

Look around when you’re in a room full of people. How many people with rounded shoulders do you see?

Those persons show poor posture, bringing their shoulders forward, moving the head forward as well, and increasing the lumbar lordosis to keep their stance.

For most of them, it comes just from a bad habit, nothing else.

However, this way to stance has a long-term consequence: a unbalanced shoulder. 

What happens is that the six muscles supporting the shoulder show an incorrect ratio between strength, flexibility, activation, and length.

Basically, some of them are too strong and tight, while others are loose and weak.

This situation changes the way the shoulder acts.

In the case of a rounded-shoulder guy, any movement of his arm, especially overhead activities, would involve compression and strain of the shoulder structure.

If this guy starts paddling, the movement of his shoulder wouldn’t be correct, start getting overloaded. This would lead to discomfort at first, and eventually if not corrected, significant pain.

Luckily we can fix most of these shoulder unbalances just with the right training, involving strength, mobility, control, and coordination.

First of all, we need to understand more about our shoulders.

That’s why I propose three simple tests.

Two of them are about your shoulder mobility and control, the last one is specifically designed for stand-up paddlers and involves the way you use your shoulder related to the rest of your body and the paddling.

Leave your email address in the following box, and you’ll receive the three tests with instructions and videos directly in your mailbox.


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