Have you ever performed soft tissue maintenance work diligently every day only to find little to no relief to your stiffness or pain? That was me just a few weeks ago. You see, one of my gremlins is my left shoulder… growls at me at least once a week. The experts told me my issues…unbalanced front/side chest development from pressing too much and pulling too little…an inflamed shoulder joint from too much heavy lifting. I listened, was smart about my de-loading phases and practiced flossing and rolling on a lacrosse ball almost every day. But the truth was, my pain never really went away.
Then, I told my massage therapist about my problem, who basically said, "It sounds like your chest muscles need more space." As she explained to me, the connective tissues that surround the muscles are very tough, and hug the muscle fibers tight...like a net. But if this net becomes too small, it actually constricts muscle expansion. In my case, short or balled up chest muscles pull the shoulder forward and impinge upward rotation resulting in painful overhead movements. I then asked her why myofasical techniques like flossing and rolling weren't working for me. She responded that every person's body is different. Some only need medium pressure to open up while others need more forcible dismemberment. She said, "Think about a potted plant. One with medium established roots will release its roots by simply taking it out of the pot and tapping the bottom, whereas a more mature plant with cramped roots needs to have its root ball forcibly broken apart. Same is true with cramped muscle. Sometimes, you need to break apart the knotted muscle tissue and make the surrounding fascia pliable enough for muscle fibers to lengthen and grow." Hence, her recommendation was to do some deep tissue work on the chest and shoulder to separate the muscles and open up the surrounding fascia. (Tip: Here's a 9-minute video that demonstrates the finger pulling and forearm kneading technique that was used on me. Keep in mind each therapist tailors their technique to a client's specific needs and/or pain threshold.)
Now, when Heidi did this technique on me for the first time, I groaned and broke out into a sweat within seconds of her digging 2 inches under my clavicle and pulling forward. As she kneaded slowly over each knot with her thumb and hands, I felt waves of pain sweep across my chest. It literally felt like she was moving a porcupine under my skin. And if that wasn't enough torture, when she switched her technique and rolled her forearm and elbow across the side of my chest and into my shoulder, I could barely move my arm overhead without feeling the grit of sandpaper rubbing against my anterior shoulder capsule. Each pass became a little easier until finally I felt a wave of heat shoot from my chest across my shoulder and down to the tips of my fingers. After that, I could move my arm completely overhead, and my shoulder was pain free. It took about 30 minutes.
So, what’s the takeaway? Two things. First, if you’re engaged in weightlifting and have a goal to build muscle strength and density, you need to make sure you’re proactively creating a physical space in your body for muscles to grow. In other words, make sure your fascia is stretched and pliable enough to give new muscle fibers room to expand. Second, getting your chest muscles and fascia to lengthen and expand isn’t as easy as you might think. In fact, if you get locked up, it’s almost impossible to loosen up the area yourself using dynamic stretching and mobility exercises alone. If that’s your situation, seek the help of a partner or expert. Maybe even share this chest deep tissue technique with them and then make it a regular part of your self-maintenance routine. It has dual benefits. It will enable you to get stronger with all of your horizontal pressing movements (e.g., bench press, push-ups, etc.), and it will maintain healthy, upward shoulder mobility.