Why anterior core control matters for your (aerial) shoulder health

There’s so much I want to share with you and, for now, just the one blog post. The goal of this month’s post is to illustrate the importance of anterior core control for you, the flyer and/or aerialist, and your shoulder health. Shoulder health has become somewhat of a buzz word (or phrase) in the world of circus arts. Very much like the core in the fitness world. The trouble is that both of those terms have become so overused as to become nebulous and difficult to define. As an aerialist (or flyer), it’s up to you to make sure you’re taking good care of your body and the trick of it all is making sense of the information that’s out there because some of it is very useful…and some of it, quite simply, is not.

Now, the good news is that many of you out there have put in the effort to find ways to take care of your shoulders and the rest of your body. As I’ve said over and over in the past, strength and conditioning matters. If you happen to be in the habit of doing some conditioning work and you haven’t been injured, that’s pretty much ideal. For many of us (myself included), the impetus to begin properly taking care of your body comes as part of the rehab process after an injury. Again, the key lies in doing things that actually work.

So if any of what I’m about to write is old news to you, I would be absolutely thrilled to hear that. Please help me to spread the word. You see, the underlying point here is to equip you, the aerialist, with knowledge—and then give you ways to do something with that knowledge—so that you can have a long and healthy flying trapeze and/or aerials (recreational or professional) career. And therein lies the real rub and, ultimately, the whole point to every exercise-related post I’ll write: you’ve got to educate yourself on how to take good care of your body…but that’s not as easy or straightforward as we’d all like it to be.

As I said above, depending on where you look, there’s a wealth of great information out there on the topic of shoulder health and overhead lifting.

There are some incredibly smart people doing incredibly smart work to prepare athletes of all levels for overhead lifting. That’s an amazing thing. (Check out Eric Cressey and Kelly Starrett, for example). It’s upsetting to me that their ideas are not mainstream ideas yet…but I digress. Overhead lifting is slightly different from the kind of overhead work involved in flying trapeze and aerials because the forces are applied in the opposite direction. (Overhead lifting means compression on your joints. Overhead aerial work means tension.) There is scant information out there on good shoulder mechanics for overhead activities like aerials and flying trapeze so the following is my effort to begin the process of remedying that.

For the purposes of this and the next couple of posts, I’ve decided to address shoulders starting from the foundation upward. In this case, the foundation I’m referring to is your core. At the risk of pointing out something that I hope is patently obvious, your core is like the fuselage of a plane. It holds the wings in place. If the fuselage of the plane were flimsy and unstable, the wings would probably tear off at some point during flight. Kelly Starrett likens it to the chassis on a car: it’s got to work like a strong and stable frame in order for the engine to transmit torque through the axles into the wheels (and make you GO!).

The stronger and more stable you are able to make your core, the more force you will be able to produce with—and transmit through-your arms and legs.

For flyers, a strong stable core means more power in your sweep back and break. It means you’ll be much better able to drive your legs up and out as you force out. It means you’ll be able to pull in your forceout more powerfully. The list goes on.

For everyone (aerialists and flyers), it means greater pulling power from your arms and more control over your entire body.

But that’s not all. In fact, it’s not even what inspired this post. In the most basic of ways, your chosen circus activity probably calls for you to raise your arms overhead, grab on to your apparatus and hang.

The most basic prerequisite for getting your arm all the way overhead is adequate shoulder mobility. But what if you don’t have adequate shoulder mobility? As Mike Reinhold has said, the body is pretty smart and will find a way to get from A to B. From arms down at your side to arms overhead…regardless of whether there is sufficient mobility and stability in the right places.

So what are “the right places”? Well, there’s glenohumeral range of motion. This is what you probably think of when you think of raising your arm over your head. It’s where your upper arm bone (your humerus) moves within the socket of your shoulder (the glenoid…hence, glenohumeral). However, glenohumeral movement only accounts for part of the trip from neutral to overhead. There’s also the part of the movement that is facilitated by the elevation, upward rotation and protraction of your scapula. Now the trick is that your scapula is actually responsible for stabilizing your shoulder. Look at how the muscles of your rotator cuff all originate on (or around) your scapula.

Rotator cuff muscles

 Your scapula is positioned mainly by the trapezius muscle but it is also heavily influenced by its connection to your thoracic spine (referred to as the scapulothoracic joint). Your thoracic spine must also have an adequate amount of mobility in order for it to extend and help put the scapula in a good position.

In order to raise your arm overhead, you need to flex, abduct and externally rotate your shoulder. It’s interesting to note that your latissimus dorsi muscles (your lats, the big pulling muscles of your back) extend, adduct and internal rotate your shoulder. Those three actions are all in direct opposition to shoulder flexion (putting your arm fully overhead). So if your lats are tight, that could be problematic. Similarly, if your lats are overactive—meaning they’re working too hard to stabilize your shoulder (too much back and down), then they could actually be interfering more than they’re helping.

Latissimus dorsiAnd just like that, we suddenly have several things to take into consideration: are your traps helping to position your scapula well when you raise your arm overhead? Is your thoracic spine mobile? Are your lats tight or overactive?

And you thought it was just a matter of working on your rotator cuff! (We’ll talk about that later…)

So what can you do?

There are a number of things, but for now I would like to offer an exercise that can serve as a bit of an assessment tool for yourself and an exercise to help.

Check out the video below. (Apologies for the paint all over our hands and arms…we had been painting all day in preparation for opening TSNY Boston).

Which brings us to the whole point: in order to perform the exercise from the video, you need to have your core under control. Specifically, your anterior core. If you’re lacking in overhead range of motion, chances are your body will compensate by extending through your lumbar spine (arching your lower back)…which creates a “break” in your “chassis”, dramatically reducing your force generation capability and puts you at risk for developing lower back pain, rotator cuff injuries and labrum tears.

So, test yourself by performing the exercise from the video. Be strict with your form. You can’t accurately assess your range of motion unless you keep your core engaged and your lower back pressed flat against the wall. Also keep your head back against the wall (think of tucking your chin back or making a double chin).

If you can do it with ease, that’s excellent. If you feel like the muscles in your mid-back are working hard, include a set of 10 in your warm-up before you train. If you can’t make it all the way overhead, try doing this exercise daily…but remember: don’t force it. Only go as far as you can without significant discomfort. If you feel any sort of pain, back off and take that as a cue to get your shoulders looked at by a physical therapist.

Try adding this to your warmup and let me know how it goes.


8 thoughts on “Why anterior core control matters for your (aerial) shoulder health”

  1. Oh, I love this stuff. 🙂 This is a good exercise! There are so many variations as well. If you can’t perform this exercise (but do not have pain), it is also possible to start to distinguish where you are experiencing dysfunction. If you can’t do it standing, try the same exercise, but lying on your back. Can you do it now? If yes, it is likely a strength or muscle coordination issue. If you still can’t do it, it is probably a mobility issue–which, like this article starts to talk about, can be related to muscular tightness or joint stiffness. When I used to teach a body mechanics segment at work, I always used a fun example to show how posture affects glenohumeral and scapulothoracic mechanics, not just the spine. Sit in a chair with really bad, slouching posture. Lift your arms as high as you can. Then, without changing the position of your arms, sit up tall and see how much higher you can raise your arms. And…. now I’m off topic, because I know the point of this post was more the anterior core activation as a base for movement. Looking forward to more posts on this page! (And if you need more info from awesome PT’s other than the ones listed, Brent Brookbush has some good stuff, too.

    1. Thanks, Jen! I think you’ve touched on an important point: self-care is an amazing place to start (and I wish more flyers/aerialists took a greater interest in doing so), but when people encounter a roadblock that they can’t seem to figure out on their own–such as being unable to find their way to good, clean overhead ROM–it’s time to see a pro and get a more comprehensive assessment done. Seeing a PT who is familiar with flying and aerials would be, in my mind, ideal…
      Like yourself, for example 🙂

  2. Pingback: Strong stable shoulders: How to grip the bar and why your head position matters | Flight | A blog about Body, Mind and Flying Trapeze

  3. Pingback: Stopping the flinch: getting serious about core control | Flight

  4. Pingback: Coping with Injury – Quirks and Inklings

  5. Pingback: Coping With Injury – Wright Way Up

  6. Pingback: Stopping the flinch: getting serious about core control | Get Circus Strong

  7. Pingback: Strong stable shoulders: How to grip the bar and why your head position matters | Get Circus Strong