I have taught in a lot of gyms all over the world. I can tell you that most of these places are littered with athletes who have shoulder and elbow pain. One of the common themes in the programming of these facilities is all the pulling is done with a pronated grip around a bar that is the dimeter of a barbell. They typically only use pull-ups (and literally only pull-ups, rarely do you see a chin-up) as a conditioning tool (many times the people can’t even do a pull-up but they want the conditioning stimulus so they give them a band to reduce their bodyweight). Rarely do these facilities program in any traditional bodybuilding work.
Show me a gym that only uses pull-ups for conditioning and I will show you a group of athletes with elbow and shoulder problems. I am not against the use of pull-ups in a way that provides a conditioning stimulus. I am against having people go fast who can’t show you proper motor control and strength of the the shoulder. I am against never working on tempo and weighted pull-ups. I am against the total neglect of chin-ups. I am against the lack of bodybuilding work in the programming and the absence of pushing and pulling movements with the upper body with different grips and various diameter of implements. If you are currently suffering from elbow or shoulder issues, look at the last three months of your programming. How many of the things I mentioned in this paragraph have you neglected?
This comes from the obsession with the barbell and the necessity to compare yourself to other people using the same implement and training. This is all well and good, and some competitiveness is important for effective training; it keeps things interesting. If you never change the stimulus or have people do things that their bodies really aren’t capable of handling structurally, you shouldn’t be shocked when certain issues start to pop up in the group you are working with (elbow “itis,” shoulder “itis,” shoulder labrum issues, biceps tendon issues, to name a few). If a person can’t reach their arms all the way overhead without make a series of biomechanical compromises, how did you think that story was going to end?
This is also an issue where people get trapped in a particular methodology or ideology and become convinced their way is correct and is all that is needed for a well rounded “fitness,” or that other ways to look at things are not correct or not “functional.” You have to understand how everything fits together instead of planting your flag in the ground and getting into a pissing contest with every other method. Methods are nothing. It is just your way of applying what you know to an overlying set of principles to get similar results. It is like in the world of clinical rehab. I can’t even begin to tell you how many methods there are in the world of chiropractic (I’m sure it’s the same in PT, they even went as far as to basically separate themselves into cliques during school) all claiming to be “the best way” when in reality everyone is just applying a different way to reach the same goal which is to apply some kind of proprioceptive input to a joint or soft tissue using manual therapy to create a response from the nervous system that leads to an adaptation.
One time I had a gym owner contact me. His athletes were feeling beat up from all the high intensity functional movement across broad time and modal domains they have been doing. I told him to do a block of bodybuilding. The people needed a different stimulus and a mental break from the traditional programming. This gives you an opportunity to work on some possible weak links in the kinetic chains and to get some blood flow into the tissues and put their joints and muscles into some different angles and positions to produce force. It will also be fun, a vital component of athlete retention.
As a gym owner, how on Earth are you going to put all this together? That is always the real question. If you run a CrossFit facility, The Open the last few years has forced you to purchase a pile of dumbbells you should have already owned. Time to put those to use beyond dumbbell snatches and dumbbell clean and jerks.
Step one is to start programming in blocks of strict weighted pull-ups and chin-ups. This is so obvious you should be ashamed of yourself for not doing it already. I know you have a gym full of people who think they are going to the Olympics in weightlifting but they are not. You need to take a break from those lifts and focus on some general strength. If a person can’t do a single strict pull-up and you have been putting their foot into a band so they can crank out a bunch of fast weird looking butterfly pull-ups, we have a problem. That person needs to develop isometric strength at the top of the lift (the old flexed arm hang from elementary school) and solid eccentric control. They will be able to fill in the concentric portion before you know it. Even if they don’t have the concentric yet, you can still do weight flexed arm hangs and weighted eccentrics to build muscle mass and strength. Progress them like you would any strength exercise. You will find that doing 21 fast kipping pull-ups is way different that doing a 5x5 with weight around your waist. Pro tip: Hang the weight from the belt behind you, not infant of you. It will feel way more comfortable and keep you from the inevitable overextension of the lumbar spine as you increase the weight.
I suggest you also, at the very least, invest in some sort of fat grips you can wrap around your barbells, dumbbells, and pull-up bars. If you have the extra money, get some different grips to hang from and grab some axles and logs or multi-grip bars (Titan has lots of low cost, high quality versions with no shipping costs, though they can frequently be out of stock of the more popular items). Fat bar deadlifts, clean and presses, and curls will do wonders for your athletes. For people to have overall elbow and shoulder health, they need to work on their pushing and pulling movements in supinated and pronated grips and with open and closed hands. It is also a good idea to have your athletes do some finger and hand opening exercises away from the gym (I keep a handful of the rubber bands that bundle broccoli and asparagus together in my coat pocket and desk drawer).
Now you have to add in some classic bodybuilding work. This can be done as its own training block or you can put a little of it in before or after the main strength work (pre or post exhaustion). Break out all the old dumbbell fun from your high school days. Crack open The Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding by Arnold Schwarzenegger and get after it. Chest flyes, dumbbell lateral raises, dumbbell rows, seated incline curls, wrist curls; they all are great ways to add a different stimulus. Use different grips and different angles. You can go heavy and do sets of 4 to 6 reps or you can go a little lighter and hit sets of 10 to 20. This is super easy to add into the training. For example, have the athletes do a 5x5 axle clean and press then superset some lateral raises with some lying triceps extensions (3 sets of 15 of each for example) and then finish with a typical met-con of your choice.
You will find that a lot of your athletes will have some nagging issues start to clear up and they will come back to the regular barbell work even stronger than before. They will also likely notice an increase in muscle mass and thickness (never a bad thing). Drop in some fat bar farmers walks, pinch grip carries, and hand over hand sled pulls with a rope and you will be set. While traditional high intensity functional fitness has its place, people really just need to move well, get a bit stronger, maintain muscle mass, have a decent level of aerobic and anaerobic fitness, and not get injured. There are a lot of methods to getting this done. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking the method you have attached yourself to is the only (or the best) way.
For more ways to help yourself and your athletes, check out the shop and the books sections of Clinical Strength. Want to check out what I have to say in person? Check the Clinical Strength Seminar tab. Always adding new dates.