Strong stable shoulders: How to grip the bar and why your head position matters

This month, things are going to get practical, comprehensive and maybe a little bit controversial. Over the past two months, I’ve focused on anterior core control with a view to establishing a base for assessing—and ultimately improving—shoulder mobility, stability and strength. With any luck, I’ll be able to provide you with some insight into the functioning of your magical shoulder joint and how truly difficult it is to have a simple and straightforward conversation about your shoulders. All of this in the name of keeping you strong and healthy while you train on your aerial apparatus of choice.

This post is coming right on the heels of Eric Cressey’s recent post on the importance of anterior core control, so I’d like to begin by pointing out that, in addition to Cressey, there are a number of great minds out there doing some incredible work on educating and training people on the subject of overhead performance. The tricky thing is that in most cases, overhead performance refers to lifting overhead and in aerials and flying trapeze, you’re not so much lifting overhead as you supporting your own bodyweight while in an arms-in-full-shoulder-flexion, overhead position. This is a critical distinction because in the one case, you’re lifting weights overhead, pressing them upwards. Having full, functional overhead range of motion should be considered a prerequisite for this kind of work. In the other case—aerials, flying trapeze—you’re hanging and what is required of your body is to resist the downward pull of gravity. Full, functional overhead range of motion is also an important prerequisite (from an optimal performance standpoint as well as an injury-prevention standpoint). What follows may be considered part informal literature-review and part translation and interpretation of the work of others. I mention this because in many ways, what I’m about to say here isn’t new and I’d like to give credit where credit is due.

With all of that out of the way, let’s talk first about what functional shoulder range of motion looks like before we get into some practical ideas about how to reinforce this when you train (and how to get there if you’re finding that you don’t currently have the best range of motion in your shoulders).

First, the core.

Optimal shoulder function when hanging from things (as flying trapeze and aerials often require you to do) begins with anterior core control. This means not only strength, but appropriate engagement. In short, if you’re going to train aerials or on the flying trapeze, you must have a strong and active core the whole time you’re in the air.

Why such a big deal about your core? Because your core musculature stabilizes and protects your spine (which houses your spinal cord…essentially, your Central Nervous System). On the most elemental biological level, this is of prime importance to your body. If your spine is not adequately stabilized, your body sees this as a threat to the spinal cord. In response to the threat of damage to your CNS, the force production ability of your limbs is reduced as a protective measure. This is because by stabilizing your spine, your core musculature facilitates the transfer of force through your core from your lower body to your upper body or vice versa. If the conduit for force transmission is not stable, attempts to exert large amounts of force with your limbs (e.g., your arms and therefore shoulders) put the spine at risk. In practical terms, that means not only is your pulling strength lower than it could be when your core is not strong and connected, but also your rotator cuff muscles are unable to generate as much force as they need to. If you’ve been around aerials or flying for any length of time, you know that less than optimal functioning of your rotator cuff is bad news.

Let’s take a moment to make that practical:

Before you hang from something (let’s say it’s a trapeze bar), you need to have your core switched on or engaged such that as you bring your arms overhead, the distance between your bottom rib and the top of your hip bone does not change. You can practice core engagement all day if you like: gently pull your belly button in towards your spine and imagine your pelvic floor drawing up and in.

The take-home message here is that in order to maximize your ability to perform well (and minimally, in order to reduce your risk of injury in the long run), your core needs to be strong and under control and “switched on” before the start of any given movement.

Spinal positioning determines scapular positioning.

Speaking of going overhead, having your torso stabilized also means that your ribcage (particularly at the level of your thoracic spine) will be in a good position for facilitating movement of your scapulae (your shoulder blades). Moving your arm overhead results from a combination of thoracic extension (that’s where your upper back bends back slightly to allow/help the scapula move into the best position for overhead movement), scapular upward rotation and slight posterior tilting and, of course, flexion of the glenohumeral joint.

This is where it gets interesting because if you are lacking in one area (thoracic mobility, scapular positioning or stability, or even glenohumeral range), your body will find a way to work around that—and any or all of rib flare and/or lumbar extension and/or forward head posture are popular compensation patterns. Locking down your anterior core control (and thus, eliminating those extension-based compensations) can be a great way to clearly expose limited shoulder mobility. If you’ve done the back-to-wall shoulder flexion exercise (and diagnostic) and found your shoulder range of motion is lacking, what you really need to do is find yourself a good PT or Strength Coach who knows how to assess such things, because it could be a number of things and the smartest way to go is to get yourself assessed by a pro.

…which brings us to a fun, yet potentially controversial idea: local versus global extension (or flexion) and head position in the sweep

Allow me to frame anterior core control another way: by keeping your core under control when you’re hanging from a bar (or rope or piece of fabric), you create a scenario where your body’s starting position is a smooth line. You allow yourself to initiate movement with your body as one connected whole. Conversely, if your core isn’t strong and stable, and your ribs flare or your pelvis tilts anteriorly, this creates breaks in the smoothness of the line. Kelley Starrett refers to this as a local extension fault. It means that at one point in your spinal column, the vertebrae are in extension while the rest are in neutral. In terms of force transmission, this becomes a fault in the line.

Let’s take this idea further and introduce movement. Aerials and trapeze always ask you to move into positions where your spine is either flexed or extended away from neutral. The example I’d like to look at is that of the sweep on the flying trapeze. This movement involves driving your legs behind you as you keep the bar in front of you, creating that nice arched shape. We’re now talking about going from that strong stable neutral spinal position into a position of global extension, meaning the extension runs throughout your entire spine, including your neck. The key becomes maintaining core muscular activation (staying tight) while moving into that extended spinal position. This is where the idea of your core remaining connected comes into play. If the extension that we’re talking about happens throughout your spine (which includes your neck), force transmission through your spine remains smooth and effective.

Central to the maintenance of force transmission ability is the thoracodorsal fascia through which the spinous process of each vertebra protrudes. This sheet of fascia runs from your upper spine all the way down to your sacrum and it creates a connection between each vertebra and between your upper and lower extremities. It provides tension and a sense of structural integrity to the spine. When the extension (or flexion) of your spine is global, this tension/integrity (tensegrity) is maintained. Happy spine, optimal force production capability. If, however, you are extending only in one or two places—à la rib flare, for example—it creates a kink in the system. Your body perceives this as a threat to the CNS, and your stability becomes broken (to borrow heavily again from Kelley Starrett).

Thus, when sweeping your legs back during your swing, in order to transfer the force generated by your lower body up through your torso and into your shoulders and arms (and ultimately, through the bar), you absolutely must maintain core control as you extend through your spine.

And here’s the controversial part:

This is where head position comes into play. Your neck is a part of your spine, so when we discuss neutral spinal position, that includes a neutral head position. If your head is down as you sweep your legs back, this represents an instance of local flexion (in your neck) during a global extension movement. Above, we looked at the idea of a local extension fault—an instance where a part of your spine is in significantly greater extension relative to the rest of your spine—and how this is perceived as a threat to the CNS by the body and results in decreased force production ability (i.e., decreased strength) in your arms and shoulders. Having the head down represents a local flexion fault in a global extension movement…which likely explains why most flyers look completely disconnected at the shoulders when sweeping with their heads down.

The following video is lengthy and worthwhile viewing if you’re interested, but check out what he has to say from 5:11 through to about the 8 minute mark.

Ending with the beginning: tweaking how you hold the bar

In Kelly Starrett’s book Becoming a Supple Leopard, he outline the laws of joint torque and stability. The basic idea that I would like to highlight here is that in the end-range position of shoulder flexion (which is the position you’re in when hanging from a bar), you can create additional stability by creating an external rotation force.

Consider the following:

The key points here are:

  • When you grab the bar, make sure your pinky knuckle is on top of the bar with your thumb wrapped over your index and middle fingers.
  • Think elbows and armpits forward and/or think about “breaking the bar” with your hands.

Please note:

  • I’m not saying this is the definitive way to hold the bar and engage your shoulders, but I do think it’s high time the world of aerials and particularly flying trapeze looked seriously at body mechanics for optimal performance and injury prevention. Carl Paoli’s hook grip idea comes from his gymnastics background and there seems to have been so much more study and dissection of technique and mechanics in gymnastics than we’ve seen in “mainstream”/”recreational” flying trapeze. The world of aerial arts is way ahead of flying trapeze in this regard, in my opinion.
  • As K-Starr and Carl Paoli mention in the video, if your overhead range of motion isn’t where it should be, this will be rather uncomfortable. Please don’t force it—especially if you feel any pain doing it. Instead, continue to do those deadbugs and back-to-wall shoulder flexion as part of your pre-flight warm-up. If you are experiencing pain, please go see a PT. If you are not experiencing pain, but your shoulder range of motion doesn’t seem to be improving, find a good Strength Coach and/or a good PT to figure out why.
  • Perhaps experiment with this on a static bar before introducing swinging. This represents a different way of thinking about how you hang and will need some practice to get it into your brain and body.

Ok. There’s quite a bit to chew on here. I’d like to finish by offering a general guideline for how to approach all of this: if something here causes you pain, stop doing it and then please have it checked out and assessed by a professional. If something here exposes an area of weakness, please use this as an opportunity to get stronger.

Until next month…train hard and have fun!