Bulletproof Your Shoulders for Combat Sports (and Life)

Your neck hurts, your shoulders are tight. Maybe you had one of those "rotator cuff tears" years ago. You try to massage the sore spots, maybe throw around some dumbbells and do some shoulder exercises here and there. You find a popular rotator cuff exercise and do it.

No relief?

That's because you may be treating the wrong area. If your issue is scapular stabilization: it's all in the back. Specifically, the area and muscles around the scapula. 

As a "scapular sufferer" of many years myself, the following workout and video came from years of picking up little tricks from trainers, athletes, fighters, instructors and physical therapists.  What you see is a weekly little routine of mine to stay flexible, strong and healthy.

What's In A Scapula

The scapula refers to your shoulder blades, essentially. It's connect to the humerus (upper arm) with the clavicle.  In Latin medical terminology, it's referred to as "omo." (Probably where the word "omoplata" comes from, too.)

If you bust out an anatomy book or are familiar with anatomy yourself, it probably just clicked as why your scapula is involved with your shoulder pain: it's directly connected to it all.

Most importantly though (read carefully long-term shoulder injury sufferers): the rotator cuff muscles are indeed involved in scapular issues, but most of the time, they're only relevant in issues of internal and external rotation of the humerus/arm. Pictured above are the muscles responsible for scapular stabilization: the trapezius, serratus anterior, levator scapula, and rhomboid muscles. These are the muscles, if weak, cause you day-to-day issues because they physically cannot complete the job of maintaining your posture.

When the scapula can't be in a nice relaxed position, or better yet, in a nice state of retraction during movement, you begin to take on the T-Rex or Velociraptor pose. If your shoulder blades were wings, and you wanted to open them, you wouldn't stay hunched-over in those dinosaur poses, you'd be puffed up, chest out, shoulders back and proudly opening those suckers. 

This is how you want to think of your posture. If you're a forward head sufferer, internally rotated shoulder sufferer, are a boxer or kick boxer, or play a lot of butterfly and open guard in jiu jitsu/combat sports, you need this program.

Perhaps even more importantly, if you're a runner, you need a strong, stable upper back. You are physically unable to run with proper form without it. Ever have lower neck pain after or during running? My money is on this as the culprit. 

Let's talk solutions (I could talk science and anatomy all day, but most of you don't care/need that).

The Program

I've written out what you'll find in the video below for your quick reference, though I recommend watching for proper form demonstration.

Warm Up:

  • Indian Club Shoulder Rotation (straight arm) -
    • 3 x 12
      • If you do not have Indian Clubs, you can easily get them these days and they are well worth the investment for the constant shoulder-pain sufferer. HOWEVER, 2.5 dumbbells can be used for similar effect, but it's not the same asymmetrical weight distribution which really causes the deep stretch and work.


  • Kettlebell Arm Bars
    • 3x/side, 30 second holds minimum
  • "Scapular" Push-Ups 
    • 3 x 10 
  • "Scapular" Pull-Up 
    • 4 x 10
  • Deadlift
    • 3 x 10 to start*, light weight (~70% 1RM)
      • When using a main/major lift in a corrective manner, you're going for stability, not 1RM record setting days.  Let's be honest, your "record setting form" is shitty. Here, we're trying reinforce the positive attributes of proper deadlift form: retracted scapula, strong and stable trapezius muscles all stabilizing the load.  Aim for that. Secondly, we're after good, strong postural endurance. We have a higher rep scheme to test the integrity of your postural endurance. Start slow.

All of these exercises are demonstrated in the video above. You can also easily add this sequence to existing strength programs up to 3-4 times per week.

Say good bye to omoplata-like pain while you're laying on the couch and let me know how these exercises are helping you.

Finally, I'll close by saying I recommend following my Instagram and Facebook page, as I give daily updates on performance enhancing tips through simple, achievable measures. I'll always blog (I have the heart of a writer), but if you want more "constant attention," you'll find it there.

Take care.

The Number One Conditioning Mistake Every Jiu Jitsu Athlete Makes

Photo credit:  Leon Maia

Photo credit: Leon Maia

Sensational headlines deserve instant gratification. So I'll give it to you:

The number one mistake every jiu jitsu athlete makes is:



That is to say, they (we) don't value recovery as part of the training method. That's really the core issue here; recovery isn't something you do instead of training, it's a part of training.

You've heard it endlessly, and probably groan at the thought of hearing the following: "take a day off," "give your body a break," "don't run yourself ragged."

The sentiment is nice and intuitive, and comes from a place of concern, but the truth is: if you just stop dead in the water and do nothing as your only means of recovery, it's probably not doing you much good either. In some cases it may do more harm than good. 

Now you're probably starting to see why everyone does "recovery" wrong. Let's try to make it right.

The Basic Science of Recovery

I. Lymphatic and Immune System

The body has two organ systems that work synergistically: the immune system and the lymphatic system. The immune system is the one many are familiar with: it helps us fight infection from bacteria, viruses, fungi, and all other pathogens that may cause illness or disease to the body. The lymphatic system can be thought of like street cleaner and the enforcement wing of the immune system: it's what does the actual cleansing of the body. Through the flow of lymphatic fluid, the lymphatic system cleans the body of waste product, abnormal cells and other unwanted byproducts of our biology. I'll be the first to tell you, an hour of jiu jitsu per day (or an hour of weight lifting, running, etc), produces a LOT of waste.

A healthy lymphatic system is obviously beneficial to you. One thing that keeps the lymphatic system healthy and functional is movement. If the body is stagnant, the lymphatic system is compromised (1). The waste that your body is meant to be expunging is just stewing in purgatory without some movement.

So, as you may have surmised: it's not the most effective means of recovery if your "off day" consists of sitting on the sofa for 12 hours. It's also why sitting at your desk at work isn't a proper recovery either.


Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system acts largely in the background, controlling function of various organs and regulates heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, and most of all is home to the "fight or flight" mechanism in the human body.

It has two "divisions":

  1. Parasympathetic 
  2. Sympathetic

Wrestling, jiu-jitsu, sports of any kind, strength training, and any tough movement are sympathetic dominant activities. They get you in a state of "fight of flight," and ready to roar.  Sympathetic dominant activities are largely catabolic, meaning they break down the body in order to honor and fulfill what you ask of it. This means it breaks down energy stores, and sometimes even muscle, to do what you ask of it.

Parasympathetic activity is more synonymous with the "anabolic" activities of life: consuming, resting, regeneration, healing. The parasympathetic nervous system calms the nerves and brings them back to normal function. It's often called the "rest and digest" mechanism (2). Quite simply, recovery happens here.

We as athletes are really good at flexing our sympathetic nervous system muscles. Five 10 minute rounds on the mats last night? Sympathetic. Great deadlift and leg day? Sympathetic. Awesome mile time? Sympathetic. Boss pissed you off at work, or subway was late? Sympathetic.

You need to induce and help the body get back into a parasympathetic state. It's not that hard, but you'd be shocked at how many people are unable to get there.

What You Should Do

There's two simple ways to look at recovery and how you can apply it to your training regimen:

  1. Daily Practices
  2. 'Recovery Day' Practices

Daily Practices

It's hard to say one is more important than the other, but if I had to put weight on one, it would be to "Have daily recovery practices." These are little practices and lifestyle modifications you can incorporate into your daily training life.

The little tiny things you do daily add up to be big contributors to your success and sustained high performance.

Most athletes have busy lives. Between work, family, and other obligations, having a day devoted entirely to recovery is probably not always a guarantee. I'd much rather have you take 10-15 minutes a day to do a few things that will benefit you hugely in the long run. We live in a world of realism, not idealism, so start making a few minutes for some of the following.

They include:

  • A proper cool-down after rolling (to reset the autonomic nervous system to be a little more parasympathetic dominant to start the recovery process).
  • Eat real, good food
  • Limit the sugar intake in your life
  • Prioritize sleep
  • Meditation (in its many forms)
  • Foam Rolling, lacrosse ballin', myofascial release of any kind
  • Deep stretching in conjunction with breathing
  • Epsom salt baths*
  • Look into recovery oriented vitamin/mineral supplementation like ZMA.*
  • Look into incorporating probiotic foods into your diet or supplementing with a probiotic. 
  • Take a walk
  • If you sit a lot, stand up every 10-15 minutes and pace around.
  • Find what may be causing you emotional or life stress and address it (don't underrate this, it will always kill you).

A Proper Recovery Day

If you have a day devoted to recovery, which I highly recommend, you'll further reap the benefits of injury prevention and sustained high performance. Good practices include everything listed above, but with the extra time not taken up by training you can:

  • Go for a long walk (3 miles or more) or a hike
  • Get a deep tissue massage
  • See an ART or other muscle activation specialist for any ailing/nagging issues.
  • Put together a proper mobility routine and do it from start to finish
  • Do any sport or activity leisurely that is relatively non-contact.
  • Acupuncture 
  • Floatation/isolation tanks
  • Experiment with new recovery technologies like cryotherapy (though I do warn you to always do your research and know the efficacy of these methods may not be proven given how new they are).


If you take nothing else away from this:

Listen, I know that jiu jitsu, like many sports, is a contact sport where freak injuries happen. I know this as well as anyone. However, I'd wager that 4 out of 5 injuries that happen are not freak injuries and could have been prevented. How? Preparing your body the right way.

This advice is more relevant than ever. For the first time, there are a large number of professionals and people who make their living from jiu-jitsu competition. To act like the demands of jiu jitsu aren't that of MMA or football is simply silly. Jiu Jitsu athletes who make their living from it are professional athletes. You need as much care as LeBron James or the New York Giants.

I know that jiu jitsu, not unlike wrestling, is notorious for "grinding it out," and having a mentality that nothing else matters except jiu jitsu.  There may be nothing I can say to change your mind. You may think I'm just a shill because I'm a trainer, acting out of self interest. It's just not true; I believe this with every cell in my body. I urge you not to wait until you're hurt and in a compromised position to seek out the help of a professional. 

Start a proper strength and conditioning routine, work some of the tips stated above into your life, and start to take care of your meat wagon, and you'll stay on the mat. You may even get some hardware.






New Video with Steve Maxwell: Breath Control Workouts

I was pleasantly surprised last night to see the video that Steve Maxwell and I shot in San Diego back in March was posted to his website.  

If you listen to Functional Meatheads, you've heard me break it down a little, but this workout is all about breathing, specifically "hypoxic breathing." It's intended to help you get rid of "panic breaths" - those short, crocodile breaths - that are usually present when you're scared, tired, or in a state of alarm. It's for this reason that this workout is phenomenal for athletes of any contact sport, specifically combat sports. In reality though, any mindful athlete could watch this and absorb and apply it to their body and sport.

We accomplish this training through 4-5 simple exercises with a novel take on breathing and breath timing. Sound cool? It really is! I'll write more on breathing techniques in future blogs, as it's a topic I have an odd passion for. 

Check it out the trailer above on YouTube, and if you're interested, hit up Steve's website here for a copy. It's only $10, but well worth it if you want some great info (and to see me squirm while holding my breath).

A Brief Science of Warm-Ups

A Brief Science of Warm-Ups

To avoid injury, you need to promote the elasticity and durability of this tissue. These are areas that are significantly underserved in terms of blood flow as compared to muscles or your organs, so they take some extra time to get going.