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Shoulder Strength, Stability, & Injury Prevention For Combat Athletes

Shoulder Strength, Stability, & Injury Prevention For Combat Athletes

By Justin Snead, DPT

Calling all combat sports athletes…Have you ever been doing any grappling or ground fighting where you've had to post on your hand to keep your balance? There is a reason for that...

This is an unnatural movement for your shoulder, because you are putting a lot of pressure and force down through those shoulder muscles. It forces the ball, from the ball and socket joint in the shoulder, backwards and can cause a series of different injuries.

While it is a bad position, it is also a very necessary position, in order for you to do your grappling moves. 



  • The two most common shoulder injuries that combat athletes experience
  • Three self-tests to assess where your shoulder pain may be coming from
  • The top three warm-up exercises to properly prepare your shoulder for exercise and grappling
  • The best stretch you can use to rehab from a shoulder injury or prevent future shoulder injuries
  • The number one exercise for shoulder injury prevention and  shoulder rehabilitation purposes


Let’s look at a couple of different injuries that can occur in the shoulder when posting.



The first type of injury we are going to talk about is what we call posterior (backside) shoulder instability. This can occur when you go to post and the shoulder gets forced back in the socket -- so more specifically, the ball of your shoulder is what gets forced back in the socket. 

When this occurs, you are likely going to experience pain in the back part of the shoulder. That pain can be because you are pinching cartilage between the bones in the back of the shoulder.


The next most common type of injury that can occur, is what we call anterior shoulder impingement. An anterior (frontside) shoulder impingement occurs when the ball is coming too far forward in the socket, which causes pinching to the tissue in between the bones and the shoulder 

An anterior shoulder impingement usually happens when you get caught in something where your arm is taken across your body, like in head and arm chokes. With this injury, you will experience pain in the front of the shoulder.




Are you experiencing shoulder pain and wondering where is is coming from?

There are a few different self tests that you can perform to see if you're having these types of problems. 


Self Test #1: Painful Arc of Motion

The first one is what we call a painful arc of motion. So what you are going to do is just take your arm out to the side and raise it all the way up over your head. 

As you raise that arm, if it's okay, okay, and then, OUCH! you get a little pinch as you come up, and then it feels better at the top, here’s what might be happening: There the bones are coming together and they are pinching the tissue in between in that arc of motion. That's going to cause you pain and can lead to further irritation and even damage. 


Self Test #2: Impingement Test

The second one is what we call the impingement test. So with the impingement test, all you are going to do is take your arm up in front of your body and bring it down by giving a little bit of what we call over pressure with the opposite hand to push it down. 

 Similar to some of the jiu-jitsu moves that you might be caught in.

 If you get that same type of pain as you do that motion, once again, you are getting a little bit of an impingement where the structures are coming together and pinching the tissue.


Self Test #3: Resistance Test

Finally, you can check to see if the tissue is irritated by doing a resistance test for your rotator cuff muscles. 

All you're going to do is just bend your elbow to about a 90 degree angle and use your opposite hand as your resistance. From here, keep your elbow pinched into your side and rotate that arm out, almost like you are going to backhand somebody, or throw a back fist. From here, push into your left/opposite hand and apply that resistance.

If that's painful, that's a sign that that tissue beneath there is being irritated.


The best ways to prevent shoulder injury is to properly warm up before workouts or doing any sort of grappling, properly stretch (without over-stretching), and increasing your strength and stability within that shoulder joint.


Let’s look at the top three warm up moves you can do to help prevent shoulder injuries. These warm up techniques will be done before you start your activity or your exercise.



The first thing we're going to do is what we call a swim move. All you are going to do is take one arm at a time and make big circles with it all the way around your body, just like you were doing a full swim stroke. 

You want to go in a clockwise direction and then a counter clockwise direction about 15 to 20 times each way.



The next one you're going to do is what we call a field goal. Bend your elbows to a 90-degree angle, then raise them out by your side so that your elbows are parallel with your shoulders.

From here, rotate through the shoulder, brining your hands back and down, rotating throughout that full range of motion each way. Remember to keep your elbows parallel with your shoulders! Once again, perform this move about 15 to 20 repetitions.



Lastly, you're going to do what we call a pendulum exercise. Get a slight bend in the knees, lean forward through the hips, and place one hand just above the knee so you have a little bit of stability. Next, let your opposite arm completely relax and extend towards the floor. Then using your body weight and gentle movement, make circles with that arm. 

Once again, going in a clockwise direction and then a counterclockwise direction for 15 to 20 repetitions each way.


Shoulder stretches may feel good, but can actually cause more harm than they help. Overstretching the shoulder muscles and shoulder ligaments can reduce strength and stability, and thus increasing the chance of injury.

There is one active stretch you can use to rehab from a shoulder injury, or prevent future injuries. It's called the sleeper stretch. 

You want to do it lying on your side. Whatever side you are lying on is the side you are also going to be stretching. Let’s use the right side as an example…

  1. Lay down on your right side with your right arm extended out in front of you so that your elbow is even to your shoulder.
  2. From here, bend your elbow to a 90-degree angle
  3. Next, roll over towards that right side keeping your right arm relaxed. This will allow you to use your body weight to hold the shoulder blade in place in the back. 
  4. Use your left arm to gently press your right arm down until you feel a gentle stretch in the back part of your shoulder
  5. Once you feel that stretch, hold it for 30 to 60 seconds, let off, and repeat
  6. Repeat this exercise on each side 3 times


Keep in mind, this is a stretch and should feel like that. If you have any increase in your pain or discomfort, then back off.  

Now let’s look at the number one shoulder strengthening exercises that you can do for rehabilitation purposes, as well as helping prevent future injuries.


You're going to need a couple of things:

  1. A small towel; rolled up - We always recommend using a towel underneath the arm that you are working to help isolate the muscles as you pinch that towel to your side.
  2. A very light weight for resistance - Don't be macho with it. Just grab something light. This is a smaller muscle, so you don't have to have a real heavy weight with this.


We are going to work your left arm first. While holding the small weight in your hand bend your left elbow to a 90-degree angle, place the towel in between the left elbow and your left side, and lay down on your right side. 

Your left forearm will lay across your torso with your weight in hand. While pinching the towel with your left elbow, rotate the weight up as far as you can. Hold it for a second and then let it come down to the starting position, nice and slow.

With this exercise you are working smaller muscles, so you want to work them with more repetition, so you will want to perform 20 to 25 reps. 

This should be done on both sides and can be performed once or twice a day. 

As a reminder, when you do these exercises you should not experience any pain, but you should get that good muscle burn that you get when you go to the gym and work out.