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Strength & Conditioning

Why are my arms so weak?

You want strong arms to go monkey-ing around life, so how can work on those shoulders to carry some boulders?

Here’s a bunch of things I hear often that you might say to yourself:

  • “I wish I could do a pull-up.”
  • “My kids make the monkey bars look so easy. I tried the other day and couldn’t even get to the second thingy.”
  • “Oh man, in high school I loved to do cartwheels and handstands, but I couldn’t even dream of doing them right now.”

All of these are usually followed by “… but my arms are so weak!”.

Arms are fascinating things. They’re a very simple hinge that folds in half, with an incredibly complex set of tools attached at one end that can be capable of high art and playing the piano, but also knock glasses off tables by mistake and then miss-time the grip of said glass in the air and slap it instead, spreading the shards further. Arms get all the credit for hanging off things and throwing stuff and doing fancy gymnastic skills. Although they have their value and having strong arms is important, the truth is that they are mostly an incredibly a heavy lump of meat barely hanging off the true heroes of upper body strength: your shoulders.

Tom from parks and recreation cleaning his shoulder
Keeping your shoulders clean is important, you tell them Tom.

Right now the Homo Device-ius spends a lot of time doing things that put us in a hunched over position. Although computers and phones make the problem worse, most of our daily activities put us in a similar pattern of lifting and lowering things right in front of us – driving, cooking, reading and, if you’re here before or after the great Covid crisis of 2020, hugging and high-fiving.

It’s not intuitive at first, but most of the hanging and pushing movements that our arms perform require strong shoulders. No amount of bicep curls and tricep extensions will make up for a the holder-of-all being weak. So if you want to do cool things with your upper body, those suckers are the ones that need some work.

Let’s drop some science

When I say an arm is a heavy lump of meat barely hanging off your shoulder, I’m mostly serious. Your shoulder is the joint of your body with the most range. Try an experiment: Lift your right arm in front of you. Now see how far you can take it across your body. Now move it all the way away from your body, and then see how far towards your back. Now up. Now bring it forward to your hips. Now repeat all of that while repeatedly rotating your hands left to right. Now try to do a similar thing with your hips. Or feet. Or wrist! Or neck. (Don’t try with your neck, just imagine it, please.)

Bones of the shoulder
Scapula is the large bone you feel on your back. The Glenoid fossa is where you arms barely hang onto your shoulders. (Source)

The reason for this is because the point were your upper arm and your shoulder connect is a really open joint, one that allows for that crazy range of motion without presenting bone structures to stop it (like the barrier you find when you try to over extend your elbow). This joint has fancy names like multiaxial joint, and what it gives in range it lacks in stability.

To make up for that, we have an mindbogglingly complex arrangements of muscles to not only anchor the arm in place, but also to move it it up, down, left, right, front, back, or around. Some muscles are as small as your pinky. Some are as large as half your back. Although there are specific exercises that will target your back or your shoulder separately, the network of muscles is so intricate that the best exercises target an aspect of both at the same time. If you don’t believe me, see it for yourself.

Now that you’ve seen all of this and your jaw is on the floor, let me say a few things.

Good posture, the thing that a lot of us would love to have to feel powerful, and open some space up for our lungs and our heart to work nicely? It relies mostly on strong shoulders (not chest up like a peacock in heat, but shoulders back and down, abs in).

Throwing and catching a ball with your child? Passing a heavy plate of nicely roasted vegetables across the table? Painting your house? Picking up a suitcase? Doing the worm? Punching your friends in the shoulder when they annoy you? Holding your phone in front of you for a selfie? Putting something up on the top shelf to keep it safe and picking it up 2 years later full of dust because you forgot about it? You guessed it. All shoulders.

You might not want to do crazy things like Olympic Weightlifting or being a circus acrobat, but good, strong stable shoulders go a long way. They are even more comfortable should a friend need somewhere to cry.

Upper body and the patriarchy

Pound for pound, women are nearly as strong as men. Although woman match men much more closely with lower body work like squats and deadlifts, when it comes to upper body that difference widens. Most of that difference is due to muscle type make up and fat distribution. (Note that we’re talking about averages – there are many women out there that are stronger than most men when it comes to upper body strength.)

The ways female and male bodies differ when it comes to exercise is a topic for another time, but here, talking about upper body, just be aware that if a male and a female start training at the same time for say, a pull-up, all things being equal it’s likely the male will progress faster. Having said that, women have areas where they will mop the floor with dudes’ sweat. The female body is much more apt for tasks and exercise that require flexibility, balance or extreme long endurance events.

Strength building (especially upper body) also tends to incite some fears of “getting too muscly” in females, which means it tends to become secondary in training – but it’s incredibly hard to get that ripped muscly look and it requires some very diligent dieting, so please do not let some heavy upper body work go amiss because of that.

What should I do then?

Fret not. You do not need to be born again or become a body builder for some shoulders. Just build some strength.

Because of the reasons I mentioned above, I do not suggest buying a set of gymnastics rings and starting tomorrow. If your shoulders haven’t been trained in a while, going too hard will create too much load for your shoulders and increase the rate of injury.

A friend always helps

This post is not a detailed guide for what to do – there are many articles out there that can help you get some ideas. (I’m happy to help you come up with some structure on how you could go about it, just flick me a note!) What I want you to leave with is some some sense of action.

Doing something is better than nothing. If you want to get stronger arms, nay, arms AND shoulders, I’m not gonna lie, it could take a few months. But once you start, you’ve started. Doing a little circuit for 5-10 mins a day will create an awesome difference that you can start to feel in a few weeks. It does not take thousands of pennies and hours at the gym. The beauty of having such a complex array of muscles to strengthen is that, well, they will really get onto it once they’re asked to.

Look, handstands, cartwheels and hanging from monkey bars are crazy fun. I’ve been working on them for ages and last week I managed some cartwheels and handstand walk (attempts) on the grass with my family, and my kids think I’m a hero and I’m fine with that.

Here’s a little template for what a week of 5-10 mins workouts for your shoulder could look like. You’ll need some equipment for some, and your core needs to be tight for all of is (bring your ribs to your hips!). This is not the guide to end all guides, but it’s a good start!

Just startingFeeling confidentMore advanced stuff
Monday3 x 10 ring/body rows
You can use a table or chair
3 x 5 Banded Pull-ups
Change the band thickness as you get stronger
3 x 5 Pull ups or weighted pull ups
Tuesday3 x 10 push-ups on your knees3 x 10 push ups
Increase the amount of reps for each set as you get stronger
3 x 5 elevated feet push ups
Wednesday3 x 10 pike push ups
Remember to push towards your legs, not up link in a normal push up
3 x 3 wall walks
Core tight all the time!
3 x 1 handstand push ups
Increase reps as you build strength
ThursdayHave a rest πŸ™‚
Friday4 x 30 seconds plank on your knees
Remember to keep everything tight and push your back away from the floor
4 x 30 seconds plank on your toes4 x 20 seconds star planks each sides
Saturday3 x 10 band pull apart3 x 10 wide grip ring/body rows3 x 10 bent over rows Start light and build some weight
SundayGo for a walk, is not all about your shoulders!

If you want to get really strong in your shoulders and try some more advanced gymnastics or weightlifting, you’ll need a bit more work and your 3kg dumbbells won’t do. Find a way to progressively, but safely, add some load and keeping challenging your upper body.

All I ask is to please, get 5 mins in the calendar and get some upper body going, will you? Don’t give yourself the cold shoulder.

Apologies for finishing this article with an R rated shoulder shimmy of Simon.

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