Valkyrie Fitness Bit #16: Shoulder Work

Valkyrie Fitness Bits is a twice-weekly series of videos and blog posts covering a single exercise each. Learn to build strength and mobility for your martial arts training, and mix and match your favourite exercises to build a workout that fits your goals and training style.

Working on the Shoulders

In the third part of our prehabilitation mini-series, we’re focusing on the most vulnerable of a fencer’s joints: the shoulder. All swordplay is tough on the shoulders, and rapier is particularly so, as it uses a single arm. There’s a lot of work you can do on grip and alignment to ensure that you’re not taxing the shoulder of your sword arm more than necessary, but careful warmups and prehabilitation also play an important role in maintaining long-term shoulder health.

Today’s post showcases a few good warmups and movement exercises for the shoulders, and an alignment/relaxation stretch that will help loosen up tight shoulder muscles and help you diagnose areas of excess tension or pain.

Deep Shoulder Warmup

Still sequence showing the shoulder warmup

To warm up your shoulders before a training session, work through this progression. Begin on your hands and feet, with legs as straight as you can comfortably get them, and your back extended so that your shoulder blades lie flat and your arms are aligned with your spine (the middle position, above). Rock gently forwards, backwards, and side to side, pushing a little deeper into the back position each time. From there, you can progress to free circling movements that are driven by the arms and shoulders. Increase the size of your shoulder motions until your hips move in time with your shoulders, letting your whole body move in unison. After 1-2 minutes of continuous movement, your feet should be lifting off the floor (or at least rising up onto their toes), to accommodate your body’s motion. Aim to keep your movement smooth, comfortable, and steady. Spend as much time in this movement exploration as you need to get your shoulders feeling loose and mobile.

Scapular Isolation and Movement

Still series showing full protraction and retraction of the shoulder blades

Our shoulder blades, or scapulae, are integral drivers of a lot of our shoulder motion, and play a vital role in gymnastic positions such as the hollow and arch. It’s important to understand how to initiate an action using the scapula, and to make sure that they can move freely and smoothly.

Begin on your hands and knees, with your lower back straight and your shoulders positioned over top of your hands. Slowly begin protracting your shoulder blades, pulling their upper edges forward and flaring their bottom edges upwards strongly. This action should round your upper back, without changing your lower back or hip position. Keep going until you reach the limit of your range of motion in that direction. Next, slowly retract your shoulder blades by pulling their bottom edges down along your spine, as if you’re going to put them into your back pockets. Once again, make sure you’re not changing your lower back position or tilting your pelvis. Slowly alternate between the two positions (fully protracted, and fully retracted), spending about 30 seconds getting from one to the other. Repeat for 3-5 sets.

Shoulder Alignment and Relaxation

Still sequence showing the alignment and relaxation progression

To relax after a long day, diagnose tight spots, or as part of a dedicated prehabilitation session, try this alignment series. Begin lying on your back, with your knees bent and pelvis tilted to flatten your lower back against the floor. Spend a couple of moments letting your back relax as much as possible into this position. Lift your arms straight up over your shoulders, and let their weight press your shoulder blades gently into the floor. After a few moments, begin slowly lowering your arms backwards. They should take at least 30 seconds to lower down to their final position, with the backs of your hands on the floor directly above your head. From here, begin slowly moving your arms outward along the floor, circling them down to your hips. The journey should take 1-2 minutes. If you feel pain, tightness, or numbness, hold your current position for a few seconds, breathing slowly and steadily into the discomfort.

There are many shoulder exercises that are designed to address particular issues, imbalances, or instabilities. These three are a good, general starting point for your exploration of shoulder mobility and health.

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