Handcuffs and Heavy Breathing

No, No, No….!!


This isn’t some reference to that 50 Shades nonsense!


No, this is a very educational post talking about the very sexy subject of……..

Shoulder Mobility!

Last week I posted “The Cuban Shoulder Crisis” where I discussed shoulder health and showed an exercise we often use to promote it and speed rehab from shoulder injury.

I got a great response from you lot, many simply saying “thanks”
So it seems shoulders are a problem on a much larger scale than just me and my little gym.


Not really a surprise as the shoulder is one of the top training related injuries.

The shoulder is commonly referred to as a “complex” rather than simple a joint. We also often refer to the “shoulder girdle” in reference to the relationship between the collar bone, shoulder blade and rib cage.

So there’s a lot going on in a relatively small but very busy space.

No wonder there’s so many issues there.

One of the issues that’s almost guaranteed to lead to poor shoulder mobility and greater potential for shoulder pain is poor thoracic extension.

Not just extension, but mobility all directions, but today I want to talk mostly about that extension.

The spine really is what people ought to be referring to when they talk about the “core”
I don’t like the term “Core” and especially “core training” as few ever define what they’re talking about. I personally use three definitions depending on the audience I’m presenting to, but the most fundamental of all definitions is simply, The Spine and Anything that Attaches to it!

Now, without moving, take stock of your posture as you are sitting reading this post.

I’d be fairly confident to say that your upper spine is forward flexed as you’re most likely looking downwards at the screen. The shoulders are probably a little rounded forwards.

This is normal and by itself nothing to worry about.

The problem arises if this becomes our default position. If we become “stuck” in thoracic extension. This limits our ability to flex further forward, to rotate and of course to extend.


And movement in the thoracic spine directly affects movement of the scapula which determines the motion available at the actual shoulder (gleno-humeral joint).

So here’s a wee test for you.

Sink your chest so that you take on that forward rounded shoulder look.
Now, lift your arms up as high as you can while maintaining that sunken chest and flexed T-spine.
How does that feel?

Now, imaging you’re trying to impress the opposite sex and stick the chest right out, now lift your arms. Is that easier or harder? better or worse?

If you couldn’t tell any difference then the chances are you couldn’t lift the chest and create any extension in the t-spine, instead you probably flared out the ribcage as you extended the lower back, which can lead to a pinching sensation and potential for injury there as well.

So, by now we ought to be in agreement that spinal position is a big deal for shoulder mobility.

So here’s a nice drill I like to use in our warm ups that assists with all of the above,

It’s called the Handcuff drill, and no I didn’t invent it.
I first came across this from a physio friend some years ago.

It works like this:

  • Lie face down
  • Put your hands in the bottom of your back, as if being handcuffed
  • Bring them around to the front to touch the thumbs together
  • Bring them back to the start
  • Do not allow the hands to touch the floor
  • Move slowly

This will require you to learn to extend the spine in order to keep the hands off the floor while engaging pretty much the all the rotator cuff muscles as the scaps move across the ribcage.
If double figures of this is easy, well done you. Are you sure you moved slow enough?
If yes, well grab some light weights, those pink dumbbells will do and see how the game changes.

Here’s Conor taking his beard through the Handcuff drill:

These are a standard feature of our Lunchtime Fitness warm ups as my gym is right beside the Irish Financial Services Centre, so all the clients coming to me are deskbound for 8 or more hours a day, many with commuting time either end of that. So a hell of a long time to be stuck in a flexed posture. This drill helps them get out of that posture so that they are safe to train.


Here’s some food for thought that I’ll be following up in future posts.
What about breathing?

If you’re a chest breather, you can forget about having full shoulder mobility!

If you breathe fully utilising the diaphragm, then you’ve a massively better chance.

The video below shows what is known as a positional breathing drill. I don’t use many of these, I feel they’re a useful start point for training breathing mechanics but once competence is achieved, we can put them away.

When we breathe fully, our abdomen should expand before our chest does. And I don’t mean just pushing the stomach out forwards, but also out the sides and to the rear.
In this position we’re getting a stretch in the lats, a bit of length in the pec minor and shortening all the neck muscles to many people use far too much to lift their chest to inhale with.

So when we breathe here, we should feel our abdomen start to move. We feel the abdomen press out against the thighs, the stretch on the lower back (thoracolumbar fascia) and an inability to get full air into our chest.

It’s also helping us re-establish a resting squat, which you know I’m a fan of.
If you need to, prop the heels up on some weight plates, this isn’t an ankle mobility drill.
Have a look at the clip:

Mel learning to breathe:

I’ll follow up the breathing info next week as you really can’t have fully functioning shoulders if you can’t breathe well.

Till next time.


Dave Hedges


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