Shoulder stability and its importance in sports performance
At O+A we believe that the clothing people wear for sport and training should do more than simply cover the skin. It should provide some functionality, working with your body to actively enhance aspects of performance or recovery. Allowing athletes to train and perform to their absolute maximum, and not letting anything hold them back.
As a major part of our Reflex range, the short and long sleeve tops are focused on the shoulders and upper back, working with your body to stabilise this area, as well as support posture and muscular control.
But why is shoulder stability so important to sports performance? In this article we explore the function of the shoulder in sport, as well as how you can improve shoulder stability for your sport.
Why is shoulder function so important for sport?
If you think about it, so many of the sports we love require the arms to generate powerful and coordinated movements, often under heavy load or in response to something that is happening around us. Just for a second picture the strain put on the shoulder during a baseball pitch or cricket bowling action, the force applied during a rowing stroke or tennis serve, and the range of motion required under load during a Crossfit lift or rugby tackle.
Each of these movements has specific requirements of the shoulder complex and takes years of training to master. Stability and control of the relevant areas, in this case the shoulder and surrounding musculature, is fundamentally the foundation upon which these movements are built. Without this stability athletes struggle to generate force and effectively control their movements.
Shoulder injury and instability in the athletic population
Shoulder pain and instability is a common and disabling complaint, particularly amongst overhead athletes, often as a result of repetitive stress during sporting actions. In fact, according to a series of published population surveys, shoulder pain affects 18-26% of adults at any time , making it one of the most common pain syndromes.
Instability is defined by the abnormal movement of the shoulder beyond its normal physiological range, or a lack of control within its normal range. This can result in pain, joint laxity (a looseness of the joint) and eventually injuries including subluxation and dislocation.
Three extremely common shoulder injuries amongst athletes are SLAP tears to the ring of cartilage around the shoulder socket; instability due to reduced tendon & ligament function, often leading to subluxation or dislocation; and rotator cuff muscle injuries. Generally, these are caused by repetitive overhead motions or high impacts, and are typically characterised by pain, weakness, and reduced shoulder function.
Interestingly, shoulder dislocation type injuries have been found to be more than twice as likely to happen to men , and most commonly in athletes aged 30-40. Over 80% of all dislocation type injuries occur anteriorly  and at least partially as a result of trauma, although structural deficits and poor muscle recruitment have varying effects for each individual case.
Laxity is a common issue amongst athletes in overhead or throwing sports, including tennis, baseball, cricket, and swimming. The repetitive overhead activity often results in reports of shoulder pain and injury. With an ever-increasing training load, the shoulder is given very little time to recover and rehabilitate, commonly leading to laxity and general wear of the surrounding structures.
The structure of the shoulder joint
As we probably all know, the shoulder is a ball and socket joint . This is formed where the head of the humerus meets the glenoid cavity of the scapula.
The shoulder joint is inherently unstable, as the head of the humerus is far bigger than the glenoid cavity, giving the shoulder joint its wide range of motion. This is most easily pictured as a golf ball sitting on a tee. Without additional support the ball is easily knocked off. The shoulder relies on several structures to provide some stability, including ligaments, the glenoid labrum, the biceps tendon, and the rotator cuff muscles. These either work to compress the humeral head into the glenoid cavity or deepen and reinforce the capsule itself.
A simple way to think about the muscles of the shoulder is as either prime movers or stabilisers. Prime movers are the muscles that perform the actual movements of the arm, and include the pectorals, lats, and deltoids. The stabilisers, which include the muscles of the rotator cuff and scapula, primarily function to position the scapula and centre the humeral head in the glenoid cavity.
How does shoulder stability affect sports performance?
Skilled movement relies on highly developed prime movers, built on a strong foundation of effective stabilisers. Stabiliser function is commonly one of the most important components for injury prevention, longevity, and ultimately athletic performance. Underperforming stabiliser muscles require the prime movers to effectively pay more attention to stability, either decreasing performance or wasting energy. This predisposes an athlete to shoulder injury as a result of poor biomechanics.
Unfortunately, the shoulder is a vulnerable area, and once injured the likelihood of injury recurrence does increase. However, this is something you can minimise the risk of happening, and ideally prevent in the first place.
How can I improve shoulder stability?
The good news is there are plenty of ways to improve your shoulder stability and help prevent future issues or injury. Although a number of the common risk factors for injury are unavoidable, including gender, external workload, level of competition, and shoulder structure itself, there are still several aspects we can all work on:
Shoulder injuries occur predominantly through overuse, and athletes undertaking repeated high-velocity overhead movements are likely to suffer shoulder pain or injury at some point in their lives. So many of us are guilty of ignoring the warning signs, and often a period of rest or overhead workload reduction will significantly reduce injury risk in the short term.
2. STRENGTHENING EXERCISES
Ultimately there is no substitute for strength, and improving the function of both your prime mover and stabiliser muscles is generally your best option. We’ll cover these in detail in future posts, but spending time on specific exercise programs for scapular and rotator cuff function is very much worth your time. This type of conditioning will never be a replacement for sport-specific training, but is a fantastic addition to a complete program, particularly for those in sports predisposed to shoulder issues.
3. A PROPER WARMUP
Again, this shouldn’t be news to anyone who’s got this far. A thorough warmup is vital for upper limb dominant sports and could easily include specific exercises to target the common risk factors for shoulder injury. Consider incorporating exercises for internal and external rotation, scapular mobility, as well as thoracic mobility and kinetic chain activation into your warmup routine.
4. IMPROVE YOUR POSTURE
Yes, you read that right, your posture can dramatically affect shoulder function. Sitting or standing with rounded shoulders puts the rotator cuff muscles in a position of stretch. This is a poor position for them to function effectively, and greatly increases the likelihood of injury. By improving your posture, you can reduce the load on the rotator cuff muscles and improve scapular stability, which is a fundamental component of a healthy shoulder.
5. TAPE, STRAPPING, AND BRACES
Many athletes rely on external support to add some level of stability and give them confidence in a joint or muscle. The shoulder is no different, although due to its fairly unique structure it can be harder to effectively support. Some taping strategies are effective for giving an athlete a feeling of stability and confidence around the shoulder, and wearable braces for specific support do exist. However, these are often cumbersome, short-lived, and employed as a direct result of injury rather than as a preventative measure.
6. REFLEX TOPS
The Reflex short and long sleeve tops can form part of a solution for those seeking shoulder stability and confidence in both sport and daily activity. Our patented Neuromuscular Performance System provides support over the shoulders and upper back, also interacting with your body to enhance proprioceptive feedback, postural awareness, and ultimately muscular control.
Although Reflex should never be used as a replacement for strength, posture, and healthy joint function, it is perfect for providing additional support, stability, and confidence around the shoulders no matter your activity.