Home Science Biology The Rotator Cuff: What It Is and How to Prevent Injury

The Rotator Cuff: What It Is and How to Prevent Injury

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During his artful domination of Glover Teixeira at UFC 172, Jon “Bones” Jones made effective use of an improvised crank while battling in the clinch. The hold put extreme pressure on the challenger’s shoulder and severely limited his offensive capabilities for the remainder of the fight. Teixeira’s trainers reported that the injury will necessitate an MRI due to likely damage to the rotator cuff and the surrounding ligaments.

With each passing month, the awareness of the sports of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Kickboxing and Mixed Martial Arts continues to grow, as do the skill levels of those who participate in it. With this evolution in ability and athleticism comes the need to further develop the training, not just to become better martial artists, but to decrease the likelihood of injuries from occurring in the first place.

This month, we will focus on the shoulder, more specifically, the rotator cuff. From Cain Velazquez to Anderson Silva, seemingly invincible fighters have been sidelined by injuries to this highly mobile, yet highly unstable joint. We will describe the anatomy in easy to understand terms, describe the most common means of injury, and describe exercises that can be used to decrease the chance of injury to the region.

So What Is The Rotator Cuff?

The rotator cuff is actually comprised of four different muscles, the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis (or S.I.T.S muscles). These 4 muscles come together as a mass of tendons that attach at the lateral (outer) aspect of the humerus (upper arm bone). Individually, three of the four muscles rotate the shoulder joint away from the body, but when acting together, the rotator cuff pulls the head of the humerus (the ball) into the glenoid (the socket), producing increased stability of the shoulder joint during movement. Picture 4 hands, interlacing their fingers over the ball of your shoulder joint. This is essentially what the rotator cuff does. Why is this important? Because if any one of these muscles are injured, the shoulder will become unstable, and with the right amount of force or trauma, can be dislocated. This can lead to tears of the rotator cuff muscles and tendons, damage to the surrounding ligaments, and even nerve damage.
RC_rotatorCuff

Prevention

Because the ball is significantly larger than the socket, even a shoulder with a healthy rotator cuff is inherently unstable. Whether you’re a weekend mat warrior or a professional fighter, you want to maximize your time in the gym and minimize your time in the doctor’s office. What follows are exercises designed to help you keep your insurance co-pay in your pocket and keep you training. Before beginning any exercise program, or if you already suffer from shoulder pain, consult your physician before attempting any of the exercises listed here.

Diagonals

In our daily lives, it is rare that we move our arms only straight up and down and side to side. Particularly in martial arts, the shoulder and arm are required to go through a combination of movements. It makes sense then, to strengthen the muscles of the shoulder while moving the arm through those combinations of movements. The following exercises should be performed with a light to medium resistance band to start, progressing to heavy resistance once 30 reps becomes easy. Start with your hand at your opposite hip, as if drawing a sword from its sheath. One end of the band should be under the same foot as the hip. Keeping your elbow straight, “draw the sword”, rotating your hand as you pull the resistive band across your body, bringing your arm over your head, a la He-Man. Resist the urge to shout “I have the power.” Slowly return your hand to the original position against the resistance of the band. Repeat on the opposite side.

To work the opposite diagonal, keep your right hand down by your right hip. Keep your arm straight as you pull the resistive band across your body to your left shoulder, rotating your arm so your palm faces you at the end of the motion. Slowly return your hand to your side along the same path, not allowing the tension of the band to snap your hand and arm back.

BOSU Hand Walks

Set a timer for 30 seconds. Assume a push-up position with your hands on the BOSU. Start the timer and walk your body around the BOSU on your hands in a clockwise direction. After 30 seconds, switch directions. Repeat 3 times in each direction. The compression of the shoulder joint coupled with the instability of the BOSU will send the muscles of your rotator cuff into overdrive. This is also a killer core workout, a fringe benefit.

DynaDisc Push Ups

Place a pair of DynaDiscs (or stability discs) on the floor. Place your hands in the center and perform 30 push ups. If this is too easy, place both your feet on a Swiss Ball while performing the push ups.

Adding these exercises to your routine will add strength and stability to your shoulders. This can result in increased speed and power in your punches, improved submission resistance, and more quality time on the mat.

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John Vercher
John Vercher is a physical therapist with over a decade of experience in orthopedics and sports medicine. Prior to becoming a clinician, John earned his Bachelor’s in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh. He has been instrumental in the rehabilitation of a number of professional and amateur mixed martial artists. John has fought as an amateur, both in the ring and in the cage, and continues to compete in jiu-jitsu tournaments year round. He has combined his intimate knowledge of combat sports and injury prevention with his writing pedigree to create programs that demystify anatomy and complex medical terminology for everyone from weekend warriors to elite athletes. John is currently working on earning his MFA in Creative Writing at Southern New Hampshire University.