February 19, 2018

A Riding Breakthrough in the Gym

For a few years now, I've had fairly minor pain in the front of my right shoulder when doing certain overhead lifts in CrossFit.  It didn't feel structural/wasn't chronic, and it came right back after a whole year off, so I knew it was something mechanical.

In class last week, part of our workout included a minute of light push presses every 5 minutes.  And one of the other movements we rotated through was kettlebell swings.

This is a push press.
This is a kettlebell swing.

The shoulder pain came back during the push press.  I asked that class's coach, one of our best biomechanics guys, to watch me for mechanical issues.  It took him most of the workout to figure it out, but finally, he said:

"When you put your ears through your arms at the top of the lift, you're looking down and pushing your head down and forward, which is putting a lot of stress on the exact spot of the pain in your shoulder.  Do you sit at your desk like this?"


"And I'll bet you ride your horse like that too," he said.

Oh my god.  I had a flashback to JenJ telling me to put my torso forward.  I suspected I was about to find out the thing that was causing my shoulder pain was also holding me back in the saddle.  The CrossFit coach doesn't know the first thing about riding biomechanics, he was just pointing out that this is probably something I do everywhere.

When I did my next push press looking "up", the shoulder pain went away, but it all didn't really come together for me until I did my next kettlebell swing, which, at the top of the movement is somewhat similar to the push press.  I used the same "look up" visual cue, and suddenly I FELT IT. 

I felt the whole front of my body lengthen, in a "zip up your abs" kind of way.  I felt muscles fire I  was pretty sure I'd never used before, like my upper back.  I felt my shoulders open up and my torso get through my arms.  And most importantly, I felt how much easier it was to go overhead when my shoulder girdle was on top of my torso instead of in front of my torso.

...and it hit me that this is what everyone has been trying to teach me in the saddle.  Thinking about it as "shoulders on top of your torso instead of shoulders in front of your torso" must have lit up some neural pathway in my brain that the cues of "shoulders back", "put your shoulder blades in your seat pockets", "stick your boobs out" and "torso forward" never did, because they're all trying to say the same thing, but nothing has gotten through to me like this did. 

(Or maybe it was doing it under weight that made it make sense in a way the same language would never have conveyed in the saddle, I don't know.  One way or another - this worked for me).

From the way way WAY back machine: April of 2012, shoulders "in front of" my torso.  PC: my mom 

(It should be noted here that I did this in conjunction with tensing my abs so that my pelvis stayed underneath me instead of becoming a duck butt.  Very important.)
APT = Duck Butt

Since then, I've been able to apply that both in the saddle and in CrossFit.  Keeping that in mind during things like front squats and overhead squats means my upper back muscles have been sore a lot (because I've never used them before!) but it also means that as those muscles develop this should become easier for me to hold both in the gym and in the saddle.

I have a long way to go before I have the muscles and the muscle memory to make this my default, but this way of thinking about it is finally sticking.

Where I am right now, for posterity.  I'm leaning too far back, but my torso is more forward than it usually is. (February 12, 2018)
And - my shoulder hasn't hurt since!


  1. OOoh, so awesome! I love it when you end up having a lightbulb moment outside of the saddle! I'm excited to see how that concept affects your riding... I expect you'll be really happy with it!

  2. Everything is so interconnected, isn't it? Crazy!

  3. Working out has done so much for my riding. One thing I've enjoyed doing lately is getting my abs quite sore in the gym before riding. Not so sore that I can't function but sore enough that I can tell when I'm using them or not while riding.

  4. Biomechanics ftw! My trainer (incessantly) chanted - chest through shoulders, hips through hands...

  5. My desk job causes problems for me and a trainer definitely knew right away I worked at a computer. I laughed when I saw your xray pic. So many everyday activities effect our riding.

  6. Wow, you can really see the difference. Love when disciplines intersect.

  7. I know when I've been on the computer too much (and not using any semblance of decent posture) when I get a similar-sounding pain in my shoulder... it also means I need to get myself moving more. Awesome that this should translate pretty quickly in your riding though!

  8. Desk jobs generally just suck for working out and riding, hah.

  9. You guys look so great in that picture! It’s so much fun reading your explanations of these things because it helps me figure things out. I have APT pretty bad and the opposite problem so I need to zip up the front of my body and move my torso back. Somehow there’s a good spot in the middle :)