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Shoulder Health and Injury Prevention in Kayaking

Just about every kayaker knows someone who has injured their shoulder in some sort of way, if that person hasn’t injured a shoulder themselves. What are we doing that causes these shoulder injuries and how can we prevent them?

Super Quick Physiology Lesson:
The shoulder is a non-weight bearing, ball and socket joint that allows for much more mobility at the expense of stability. It is not enough to keep the major muscles surrounding the joint strong, you must keep the smaller, stabilizing muscles surrounding this joint strong as well. These smaller muscles are known as the rotator cuffs. Keeping the shoulder stable in combination with good form on the river is the key to injury prevention of the shoulder while kayaking.

Common Shoulder Injuries from Kayaking
The most common shoulder injuries experienced among kayakers are torn rotator cuffs, torn biceps tendons, torn labrums (SLAP tears), and shoulder dislocations. Many of these occur among paddlers during a brace or a roll when your body weight is placed on top of the shoulder. What happens is that the individual loses their form, taking their shoulder out of the “box” that we’re all taught to stay within when first learning to roll. Instead of keeping the head down and using the trunk and hips to roll, the sweeping hand moves outside of the “box”- usually further out and above the shoulder joint- placing all of the body weight on the unstable shoulder joint- which again is designed more for mobility, not to bear weight. This puts your rotator cuffs in a compromising position and strains them. Either the rotator cuffs- most likely the supraspinatus or the subscapularis- strain or tear, the biceps tendon will strain or tear, or the labrum itself will tear.

Shoulder Injury Prevention
There are exercises that you can do on and off the water to keep the shoulder strong, stable, and injury free.

Off the water shoulder stability program:
This program will contain exercises designed specifically for shoulder stability. You can add in chest press, rows, shoulder press, and lat pull downs (or pull ups) to these exercises and you will have targeted both the major and minor muscles surrounding the shoulder joint. There are all levels of exercises to target stability, so find the ones that you are comfortable preforming. Please watch the attached video and review the photos for further detail on proper form. You will need a resistance band, small towel, and a box, step, or something that you can make into a small step (books..)

With the Band: Wrap the band around a pole or beam or tie a knot on one end and close it in a door for an anchor point. Place the band at the height of your elbow.
External Rotation, 2-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions. Place the small towel between your elbow and your trunk; use your elbow to hold the towel there throughout the duration of the exercise. This is to ensure that your elbow doesn’t move during this exercise, allowing you to keep proper form. Hold the elbow at 90 degrees with the free end of the band in your hand and the anchor point on the opposite side of your body. Pull away from the anchor point, externally rotating as far as you can comfortably, then return to the start position.

Internal Rotation, 2-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions. Keep the towel in the same position. This time rotate your body so that the anchor point is on the outside of your pulling arm. The elbow should still be at 90 degrees. Start with your arm externally rotated then pull in towards the midline of your body.

Shoulder Flexion, 2-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions. Face away from the anchor point with your arm extended by your side. Keeping your elbow straight, raise your hand in front of you as high as is comfortable, not raising past the height of your shoulder.

Shoulder Extension, 2-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions. Face towards the anchor point keeping your arm straight and slightly lifted with tension on the band. With a straight arm pull behind you as far as is comfortable.

Shoulder Step-Ups, 2-3 sets of 8-10 repetitions. In a plank position (can be done on your knees) raise one arm to “step” up onto a platform (bench, book, ball..) then walk the other hand up. From there, take your leading arm down to the other side of the platform onto the floor following with the other hand. During this exercise try to keep your elbows as straight as possible using your shoulders and spine to rotate. One repetition is onto the platform, down to the other side of the platform, back onto the platform, then onto the floor where you started.

Plank Walks, 2-3 sets of 8-10 repetitions. Start in a full plank with arms straight- this can be done on your knees. In a controlled manner lift one hand off the floor and place the elbow of that arm to the ground, then follow with the other arm. From there, take the elbow of the leading arm off of the floor and place the palm of your hand on the floor, then follow with the second arm. That is one repetition. Half way through the set switch leads.

On the Water
The best way to ensure proper technique in kayaking is to practice your skills and concepts on the water. Roll practice is a great way to practice proper rolling and stroke techniques. I recommend working on a flawless on side and off side roll, hand rolling, sweep strokes staying in “the box”, and sculling.