The shoulders are the most mobile joints in your body. But that mobility comes at a price: stability, says certified strength and conditioning specialist Matt Unthank. One in four women ages 20 to 55 complains of shoulder pain, according to BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. And another study suggests that, at some point, about 20 percent of us will tear our rotator cuff.
As women, everything from how we’re built to how we live and train impacts our shoulder health. Here are the biggest everyday culprits and how to beat them.
When you hunch over a screen (be it phone, tablet or computer), your head puts more than 25kg (!) of pressure on your neck – rounding your shoulders forward and weakening the supportive back and shoulder muscles, Unthank says. Over time, they become weak and stretched out and you start complaining about “carrying everything” in your shoulders.
The fix: In one study of female office workers, performing a 20-minute shoulder- and neck-strengthening dumbbell workout three times a week for 10 weeks significantly reduced pain and improved function.
Yep, the gender gap hits the shoulder too. The hormone oestrogen affects collagen synthesis, making women’s joints laxer, easier to injure and slower to repair, says physiotherapist Jessica Hettler, a certified sports and orthopaedic specialist.
The fix: If you’re on the Pill, good news: hormonal contraceptives may significantly reduce the risk for ligament injury, according to research in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine. Not on birth control? Hettler says you are most prone to ligament injury in the luteal phase (from ovulation until your period starts), so keep an eye on your form and intensity during that time of the month to help avoid injury.
When you’re flexing (or selfie-ing) in front of the mirror, it’s natural to focus on what’s most visible. But that means we tend to forget about the smaller stabiliser muscles that we can’t always see – like your subscapularis, which stabilises the shoulder and combats internal shoulder rotation (aka rounded shoulders).
The fix: Perform two pulling exercises (think rows and chin-ups) for every pushing exercise (like push-ups and chest presses) in your workout routine, Nelson says. This will help strengthen those crucial posterior muscles (the ones on the back side of your body) while also helping to combat muscular imbalances that can make your shoulders more susceptible to injury.
“The tendons of the rotator cuff are like a pair of blue jeans: with poor care and a lot of use, the denim starts to wear out and become frayed,” Unthank says. “If you’re carrying a bag the same way every day, especially if it’s super heavy, you add load to those torn blue jeans, causing them to wear down quicker.”
The fix: Realistically, it’s a big ask to downsize your handbag. Instead, opt for wider straps if possible, wear your bag across your body whenever you can and switch shoulders every now and then, he says.
If you’re a C cup or larger, your bra straps may have created grooves on top of your shoulders. Well, if not corrected, these can become permanent, actually deforming the shoulders’ muscle fascia, explains sports physiotherapist Dr Deirdre McGhee. “They can also become very painful,” she says.
The fix: Consider investing in bras with thicker or padded straps to reduce the amount of downward pressure on your shoulders, McGhee says. She also recommends regularly switching between straight straps and racerbacks so you aren’t stressing the exact same spot on your shoulders every single day.