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One easy strategy to keep healthy shoulders in whitewater

You hear it all the time from veteran kayakers. “I wore out my shoulders with all these years of paddling. They’re completely shot!” These folks have dealt with arthritis and injured muscles, along with other problems. It makes it seem like an inevitability that shoulder problems are going to come with a lifetime on the water. It does not have to be that way. Will spending a lot of time in a kayak force your shoulders to do a lot of work? Yes. Does it mean there’s no hope for your future self-avoiding shoulder pain? Absolutely not! There are many things you can do to improve your mechanics and save your shoulders from the general wear and tear of peeling out of eddies and hitting the rapids. Becoming more knowledgeable on how your shoulder works and preparing yourself will set you up for success. We are going to focus our efforts on stabilizing your shoulder blades in this discussion.

Your shoulder blade (also known as the scapula) sits over the back side of your rib cage and serves as the foundation for your shoulder joint. The corner of it meets the humerus (your upper arm bone) to form the ball-and-socket joint we most commonly associate with the shoulder. As we move our arms up and down over our heads, the shoulder blade rotates upward and downward along with the ball-and-socket joint. Approximately two-thirds of our range in that direction comes from the movement of the shoulder blade. Try getting a strong paddle stroke in without being able to lift your arm over your head. It’s not likely. When your shoulder blade does not function properly, your whole shoulder will not function properly. Period. Therefore, it is crucial to provide a stable base for your shoulder by training the muscles that control the action of your shoulder blades.

The most basic action you can take is to work on pinching your shoulder blades back together. Imagine you are trying to make your shoulder blades touch each other. Work on drawing them down at the same time. Don’t hike your shoulders and let your upper traps relax during this exercise. Once you’ve achieved this position, hold it for a couple of seconds, and then release. Repeat often. We want to build up endurance in these muscle groups.

Now find an open section of the wall and stand facing it all the way up against it. Place your arms directly out to your side and point your thumbs away from the wall. Slowly move your hands away from the wall while keeping them parallel to the ground. Return to starting position. This trains your middle trapezius. Once you’ve mastered this exercise, move your arms into a higher position overhead and repeat in a similar fashion by moving your hands directly away from the wall. This works your lower trapezius.

Another great activity uses this same section of your wall. Stand with your back against the wall. Every section of your body from heels up to your head should be touching the wall. Make sure your shoulder blades are drawn back against the wall as well. Now move your arms overhead as if you were making a snow angel on the wall. Make sure your hands stay against the wall as well. Now you are able to take your shoulder through its full range of motion while making sure your shoulder blades remain stable against the ribcage the whole time!

These are just a few out of many, many strategies I use to help my patients improve their shoulder mechanics. It helps to prevent impingement, tendinitis, and a multitude of other aches and pains that come with a long summer of running rapids. Follow these tips to help avoid being sidelined this season! If you want more info, please email me at or reach out on Backcountry Physical Therapy’s social media pages. Be sure to check back on the website for more blog posts and follow us on social media for helpful tips to keep yourself pain-free!

a man standing with his arms crossed in front of him.

Dr. Scott Runyon

Backcountry Physical Therapy

We Help Mountain Athletes Not Only Recover From Injuries, But Build Them Back Stronger Than They Were Before, So That Injuries Are Less Likely To Happen Again!