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NEVER Let THIS Happen To You As A Calisthenics Athlete!

2020 was a far worse year than 2019 for us all really but for some the discrepancy wasn’t huge. For me though, it was worse in many departments. It was even worse in the one department that theoretically, shouldn’t have been as I had control over it, my training.

I had many issues, injuries and setbacks in 2020, physically. Most of which were probably preventable and many down to over-doing it.

I had a strained teres minor in March, I tore the skin completely off my hand in June, strained my bicep in August and suffered a mild shoulder impingement in December.

A lot of this was down to not knowing when to stop, or rather, knowing when to stop but not actually stopping. Some of it was down to less than ideal conditions too; rings in trees, rings hung off wonky basket ball net frames and other times it was conditions that were simply too cold for the difficulty I wanted to work at.

Coming full circle, it got me thinking: what was I doing in 2019 that I’ve not been doing through 2020? Was there something I stopped doing then that may have cost me?

The answer = shoulder mobility work.

Sounds obvious but I had let this slip throughout 2020 massively. I achieved a rings shoulder dislocate out in Barcelona in June 2019 and was getting close to being able to lift a broomstick behind my back to 90 degrees (hands shoulder width). Along side this I was working on overhead mobility in the form of thoracic mobilisation and active strengthening of the lower traps and scapula muscles.

I did this like clockwork and enjoyed some nice improvements. But like most people when they hit their goal, they take the foot off the gas and have a break. That’s fine, it’s normal. The issue arises when we wrongly assume we’re cured or fixed and therefore never have to work on this again.

Interestingly, I indirectly worked on my more natural weakness – overhead mobility – a lot throughout 2020 and that stayed at a decent level, especially in active range. Where shoulder extension (behind the back) came easier and was naturally more present anyway, I kind of put it in the cupboard and locked it away. Like the train set you find in the loft you forgot you had as a kid.

And as a result, it sucked come the end of 2020. You might read this and think it seems obvious but I’d not kept on top if it, despite having a slight inkling it was worsening. It’s laziness really. Your ego wants you to be cured so you no longer have to put in the groundwork over and over. But there was me also hammering my overhead strength this year and my dip strength, and my pull up strength. All without keeping on top of my shoulder extension mobility.

And now even a basic German Hang was intense and this is from a guy who has done back lever raises with 2.5 kg on his ankles for reps! Worse still, I had a pain in the front of left shoulder that I knew all too well, IMPINGEMENT. I’d had it on my right shoulder years back, as I’ve documented on this site……..

Ankle weighted back lever work, May 2020

My left bicep felt super tight and locking it out in extension was painful and felt like the muscle was ripping. This was the price to pay for loads of muscle ups, pull ups, dips without ample amounts of retraction work and rear delt work etc…..

Don’t get me wrong, I did it. I just didn’t do enough of it or did too much of the pull ups, dips, muscle ups etc – stuff I’m already good/strong at. All I was doing was facilitating the imbalances further and it caught up with me.

So, as of Christmas 2020 I’ve been working on my internal rotation and shoulder extension once again. Now I’d been working on my internal rotation in summer that year with noticeable results, it just hadn’t stuck long enough and again, I took my foot off the gas thinking I’d ‘got there’ but I hadn’t, clearly.

At the time of writing, Jan 3rd 2021, I’ve been ‘rehabbing’ for 9 days or so courtesy of many drills from Kelly Starrett’s book Becoming A Supple Leopard (which I will write on in the future) as well as applying the principles for mobilisation outlined in the book. So far it has been a GAME CHANGER. I am out of pain, can train muscle ups with less pain and feel like I’m standing taller already.

Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing  Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance: Dr Kelly  Starrett, Glen Cordoza: 9781628600834: Books
Becoming A Supple Leopard – a great read so far and one that’s been pivotal in improving my shoulder function!

The sad reality is it should never have got like this and the only reason it did was because I wasn’t disciplined to keep up with it back in the day. And many people I’ve worked with and spoke to, have said similar things: they got to a nice standard with a flexibility position, only to lose it once they reduced the frequency.

It sounds obvious…….do it less, lose more of it. Do it more, lose less of it. But in this case it’s hammering home the necessity of continuing when you feel you no longer need to. Your ego and body is lying to you. As much as it may be boring, you need to keep going longer as the new ranges haven’t been in place long enough for your nervous system to not lose them, if they’re left un-solidified.

Interestingly, Christopher Sommer, the famous gymnastics coach and founder of Gymnastics Bodies is a big advocate of the importance of shoulder extension when it comes to bodyweight strength training. I’ve heard him mention this on numerous podcasts – how poor the average adults’ shoulder extension mobility is and how they need to address it before embarking on gymnastics strength training.

Chris Sommer is pretty controversial in the training world but this is one area I’d have to completely agree with him on, based off my own experiences.

Shoulder extension is key to pain free and functional shoulders. Your bicep health is better, your shoulders feel and move better, and your risk of injuries in the form of shoulder impingement go down drastically if you have good function in this area.

What’s even more interesting is how quick you can lose this range of motion if you’re strength training regularly. And yep, even if you’re running a balanced program! It can still happen, particularly if you’re pec dominant like myself.

Restoring shoulder extension – My approach

Thankfully the process is simple and the only real challenge here is to be disciplined enough to be consistent enough.

Depending on how lacking you are here, you will either need to work on this daily, 3-4 times per week or a maintenance dose (1-2 times per week). Obviously if you’re working it daily you need to be careful not to work too hard; so definitely no 5 x 60 second German hangs 7 days per week.

Just like any other position, I like to break up the tension with some passive stretching and then activate the muscles responsible for shoulder extension, after I’ve relaxed the muscles responsible for flexing the shoulders forward.

Again, depending on your level, there are a few ways you can do this. The simplest starting point is grabbing a bar behind you at a grip width that works. Narrower is harder. Wider is easier. It’s important to keep a good shoulder position here – shoulders rolled BACK aka EXTERNALLY ROTATED. Otherwise you’re defeating the entire purpose of the stretch and likely making the problem worse!

Left: Ideal form; spine extended, shoulders externally rotated & chest up. Right: Sub-optimal form; spine dropped, shoulders rolled forward & chest sunken

The second option is a nice two in one; the forward fold with the arms behind the back. You can do this with many different bits of equipment – the easiest being a band where your body will find the best hand position to suit your flexibility level by stretching the band as much as it needs.

Behind back stretch with band – the band allows your shoulders to find the width they need in the stretch

The step up from this is doing the same but with a broomstick, PVC pipe or unloaded barbell. This will keep your grip fixed which will force you into a stronger stretch.

Behind the back stretch with stick – the fixed hand position forces a stronger stretch compared to the band

And the final version is holding a weight plate or loaded barbell behind the back. This allows you to scale the load and really force the shoulders into extension.

Although less is always more. If you keep using 10-20kgs behind your back to get the shoulders open, your body will have a hard time getting them open without the added weight.

And for the hardest, most calisthenics specific shoulder extension stretch, we have the infamous GERMAN HANG, where your bodyweight is passively pulling you into shoulder extension.

If you externally rotate your hands/shoulders (LIKE YOU SHOULD) this will put a naughty amount of pressure on your bicep and elbow tendons! This is why a move like this needs to be scaled and worked up to.

You can scale it by using the feet (shown below)………

Left: Full German Hang. Right: German Hang with the feet on the floor (weight on toes)

In terms of hold times, I like a total of 2 mins in the stretch. Now you needn’t be totally static in the stretch; I’m a big fan of moving around and trying to target your personal tight spots and lines of tension. Whether this is dropping the hips and lifting them in the first stretch, or moving in and out of the forward fold a few times to then settle into the stretch, it’s up to you.

Of course for the German Hang variations, we don’t need to do 2 minutes unless you want tingly arms for an hour after or to sever the nerve connections to your hands……..

2-3 sets of 10-30 seconds is fine – at a manageable intensity – meaning you’re not hanging on for dear life or screwing your face up big time.

The ACTIVE mobility side of the equation

Once the tension is cleared and you’ve freed up some space, it’s time to ‘own the range’. Which basically means get the nervous system to recognise it as a safe and accessible position.

We will do that with muscular contractions in the form of behind the back stick, band, plate or barbell lifts.

This is where you will work against gravity and call upon your rear delts, scapula retractors/depressors as well as your triceps.

Grab the bar, band, or plate (I recommend starting with either the band or broomstick if you’re new to this) with the hands EXTERNALLY rotated – palms forward/knuckles backward. Keep the pelvis tucked (glutes squeezed, abs engaged) and squeeze the band or stick up and behind your back while keeping the shoulders rolled BACK.

ACTIVE stick lift behind the back

If you let them roll forward you’re just further facilitating bad movement mechanics and will be wasting your time, to put it bluntly.

3 sets of 5-10 reps with 2 second pauses at the highest point each rep will work well. I also like adding a 10 second max squeeze on the last rep of each set.

This can be done 3 times per week or more depending on how badly you need range here and what you can tolerate. Keep in mind the level I had here, hence why I can attack this pretty frequently and still stand up to it. If this is your first time working on this, go slow and steady, please.

In closing, I guess you could say this is my new year’s resolution of sorts. But as you guys know, I’m no stranger to seemingly peculiar challenges that yield massive results. I’m confident this will be another one. I shall document my findings as always and share any knowledge I acquire along the way.

Thanks for reading and remember, your weaknesses are still weaknesses even when they seem to get ‘good’ for the first time.

JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All

The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.

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