In chiropractic, electro-acupuncture, gymnastics, injury rehab, sports performance, sports therapy

The ability to do exercise with arms overhead is something we normally don’t think twice about. The same is said for gymnasts who work in handstand position.
However, that isn’t necessarily because your body is in a state that can handle it but rather it points to the fact that your body has adaptive abilities to execute tasks put on it by compensating in what I call sub-optimal ways.
I’m going to speak about the handstand position in gymnastics, but this is very easily transferred to other work that is done overhead, such as a shoulder press, overhead clean, etc.

“To avoid injury when executing movements overhead you require the pre-requisite range of motion, strength and coordination”

In this picture below we are looking at a young, elite level gymnast. However, like a lot of gymnasts, elite or not, the execution of the handstand position is done with compensatory loads on the body. This is something I see often working with gymnasts.

To avoid the development of an injury when executing movements overhead your body requires the pre-requisite range of motion, strength and coordination in the various joints involved. Failure to have the required range of motion, strength or coordination in the joint and the surrounding muscles will ultimately lead to injury. That injury can develop anywhere along the chain of muscles and joints involved.


These injuries can present anywhere along the chain, wrist, elbow, shoulder, neck, back, etc. This is because although the body will get you in a handstand position without the required strength, range of motion and coordination in one or more joints, it will be doing so with above ideal loads and forces being put on tissues compensating. Loads/forces that will eventually lead to a breakdown. The development of an injury is quite a simple formula:




It is not unusual to find a gymnasts with a torn labrum or rotator cuff muscle on the men’s or women’s side as a result of these tissues dealing with greater then manageable load as a result of lack of strength or coordination or range of motion in the shoulder joint. (Just like it is not rare to find avid exercise goers with torn rotator cuffs in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s).
This should make a lot of sense, after all, you wouldn’t expect to pass first year university Calculus without first having passed or taken calculus in high school. You wouldn’t have learned the pre-requisite required knowledge to allow you to excel in university.
Your body is no different. Without the required range of motion, strength and coordination in the range of motion it is only a matter of time before injury will develop.

Let’s take a look at the picture to give you a real life example and make sense of all these lines.

Although this gymnast is able to be in a handstand position, execute her vaults and bars routine, every time her body is put into this position (whether on bars, on vault or on floor in a handstand) she is doing so with compensatory loads that will lead to injury.


The blue line represents the range of motion she is able to operate in within her wrist, that yellow line indicates what range she NEEDS to have. The inability to be in the required range in her wrist will contribute to her body compensating up the chain to her shoulders, it can also lead to her muscles in her forearm working harder leading to wrist related injuries that gymnasts get.

Moving up, the key aspect that she most clearly lacks the required strength, range of motion and coordination is in her shoulder girdle. As you can see by the yellow line in comparison to the red, there is quite a lack of strength within her shoulder girdle which doesn’t allow her to follow have her shoulders extended and in the position it needs to be.


As a result her low back arches more then in should. This is a great contributor to the low back related injuries she may develop. More importantly there will be strain of her shoulder tissues when performing tasks where she ‘pushes’ her shoulder girdle, such as doing some of the release moves on bars that forces a greater shoulder extension. On bars this may be doing front giants or release moves; on vault the skills that require landing and pushing off with hands. The inability for her to have the strength and coordination to move her arm to the appropriate position, or said in another way, the lack of pre-required strength/range of motion/coordination in her shoulder will lead to extra tensile loads put on the various tissues in her shoulder that will eventually lead to injury.


So the goal before doing any overhead work, or if you are a gymnast handstand and handstand related exercises, is to first ensure that you have developed the pre-requisite range of motion, strength and coordination around the joints; wrist, elbow and most importantly shoulder girdle. Without it, it is a physiological guarantee that an injury will develop.

In the next post, I will go through some assessment techniques to see where your shoulder is at currently and eventually I will go over how to develop these pre-requisite range of motion/strength/coordination.

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