Cycling is a sport that is unquestionably driven by the lower extremities. Often the importance of the shoulder girdle is overlooked, yet it can be a large factor in comfort and performance on the bike. The inability to position the shoulders efficiently can manifest as performance reducing discomfort at best and ride reducing injury at its worst.
Shoulder position and stability is determined by the alignment of the scapula (shoulder blade) relative to the ribs. Some effects of poor shoulder position and stability are: strain on rotator cuff muscles; increased tension in cervical spine via the upper trapezius muscle; compression of the blood supply to the arm and hands via compressing shoulder toward chest; widening of elbows leading to increased angulations of the wrists and increased pressure on the carpal tunnels of the wrists; inefficient aerodynamic posture: pain, numbness and tingling in the wrists and hands; neck strain and headaches; and strain in the upper trapezius muscles (the muscles between the shoulders and neck)
The primary stabilizing muscle for the scapula when in cycling position is the serratus anterior. The serratus originates on ribs near the midline of the body and attaches to the underside of the scapula, thereby controlling the position of the scapula on the ribs. When the serratus and shoulders are properly engaged, weight is transferred efficiently onto the handlebar. This position also helps to create a stable torso and pelvis for efficient power in the hips and legs.
A properly engaged shoulder will be positioned toward the midline of the body with the outmost tips of the shoulders held at maximum width from one another. To find your stable shoulder position, lift and lower the scapula while noticing the widest point of the arc of this motion. Repeat this movement with bringing the shoulders forward and back, again noticing the widest point of the arc. The intersection of the widest points on these arcs is generally the neutral, stable shoulder position for cycling. When in this position, then focus on the muscles engaged between the ribs and scapula, these are your serratus anterior muscles. Be aware that often shoulder exercises are cued with ‘pull the shoulder blades down and back’. Literally adopting this position can lead to the error of holding the scapula at their most inferior and retracted point in the available range of motion, which is not the neutral, efficient, wide yet anchored position that you want.
When training the serratus for shoulder stability, keep in mind the principle of specificity of exercise application to event. In cycling the arms are fixed in space in a weight bearing position and held for a sustained time. Strengthening exercises should therefore focus on weight bearing through the arms and muscular endurance.
One simple progression of exercises involves what is often called the plank pose. The torso is lifted off the ground and held stable as if it were a plank. This exercise can be started with weight distributed on elbows, forearms and knees. Progression can be accomplished by moving to hands and feet, the addition of arms/hand or feet on a balance disc or ball, feet / knees on floor with elbows on a ball, hands on floor with knees / feet on a ball or extending one leg while bringing opposite knee toward the chest.
Explore improved shoulder stability slowly and steadily and hopefully you will soon find the miles easing by.
Ineffective scapula stabilization: Scapulae are elevated toward head, pulled in toward the spine and rounded forward toward the chest. The front of the chest is compressed, leading to increased forward bending of the ribs and thoracic spine and a shortened, compressed backward bend of the cervical spine.
Effective scapula stabilization: Scapulae are wide and anchored to the ribs, shoulder joints are aligned with the center of the torso, thoracic and lumbar curvature are decreased allowing for lengthening through back of the cervical spine and upper trapezius muscles are relaxed.