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14/ MAY 2011 THE RIDER Fitness for Riders: Why Shoulders Get Tense


percentage of their clients come in with shoulder tension. Mine says about 80%.


By Heather Sansom.


shoulders. You’ve seen other rid- ers with tense shoulders. You’ve even heard that if you have ten- sion in parts of your body, your horse will too. In fitness and con- ditioning outside the equestrian world, we talk a lot about tension in the shoulders: it’s everywhere, not just a riding specific problem. If you talk to a massage therapist or chiropractor, ask them what


You’ve experienced tense


Strong contributing factors to the problem include the lifestyle we have created: sitting in cars gripping steering wheels through hours of traffic, hunching over computer keyboards typing for hours (ouch, this one hits home), inattention to correct mechanics when lifting heavy objects (I see twinges among those of you who do barn/farm chores!), and the basic anatomical fact that most of our tasks are per- formed in front of us, so we are always reaching forward and down.


As a result, our bodies develop a strength imbalance in the upper front part which we refer to as ‘upper cross syn- drome’. Essentially, the muscula- ture in your chest develops more than your back, and also tightens up. Combined with a postural tendency forward, the shoulder


area rounds forward and the body has to fight to maintain upright- ness. This fight results either in thickening of the muscles holding shoulders up and back, tension in that area, or both. If you have experienced a lot of tension in the area between your neck and shoulders, you know what I’m talking about.


This happens because your shoulder girdle is not actually mechanically secure and stable in the same way your pelvis or legs are. It sort of floats in a web of muscles connecting arm, scapula and collar bone to your torso, and controlling movement. Interest- ingly, this is very similar to the way your horse’s shoulders ‘float’ in a muscle ‘sling’ on his body. Have you ever noticed the astonishing number of areas your body can find around your shoul- ders and neck to develop knots or pressure points? The way your shoulders sit on your torso like a yoke is one of the reasons it is so


easy to injure the area, such as the ubiquitous rotator cuff injuries I see. One horse spooking on the end of a lead rope, or one hay bale tossed the wrong way is all it takes to lay you up for months. The vulnerability of the shoulder area is one reason why female athletes in many sports do strength and conditioning for the upper body, approximately 25% MORE than their male counter- parts in order to avoid injury. Watching the Olympics these days, we can all appreciate the sheer volume of hours that go into athlete’s cross-training regimes. It’s staggering to think what a small percentage of that training time links directly to peak perfor- mance (ie: fast take-off time), and what a huge percentage is related directly to the avoidance of injury (ie: so the athlete can survive training un-injured, and show up to compete).


Even in sports where leg power dominates (ski, skate) your


shoulders come along for the ride (excuse the pun) and can make or break the performance. Think of the preci- sion of planting a ski pole, the endurance in upper arm strength for ice-dance, and the difference impulsion in your horse between when you are sitting correctly on your horse versus slouching your shoulders. As a rider, you are going into the situation (riding) with a modern human predisposition to tension in your shoulders. This is one reason why strengthening and stretching the shoulder area is so important from the get go. On top of the factors shared with the rest of the popu- lation, you are also holding the reins on 1000lbs of live- stock on the hoof moving under you, bouncing your seat- bones in all 4 planes of movement.


If you are not correctly balanced in your seat, your body will have a tendency to create stability through the two key compensating patterns of tightening your thighs, and bracing your shoulders. When you tense your shoul- ders riding, you block the freedom of your horse’s shoul- ders as well. Often I will see a rider trying so hard to push the ‘go’ buttons on their horse (and getting even tenser all through their own body), when in fact their own shoulders and knees are hammering the biomechanic ‘stop’ buttons at the same time.


If shoulder tension is a biggie for you, you can make dramatic changes in the space of a few days or weeks by doing the following:


1. Stretch your shoulders and neck every day, all the time, in the car, at work, on your horse, and before you ride 2. Strengthen your core (5 min a day will help) and teach your body to be able to engage your core, without also tightening your neck muscles


3. Use fascial release techniques such as pinching the tight muscle areas or laying on tennis balls to release accumulated tension in the fascial tissue and muscle com- plexe


4. Go get massage or other release therapy to the area, then maintain it with good stretching habits. 5. Build up strength in your back and shoulders so that you are not riding ‘at your limit’ and your body can relax. 6. Use relaxation techniques or stretching before you ride, or if you are an A type person, do an intense workout before you ride to get the aggressive chemical-levels down in your muscles and pacify the neuro-muscular con- nections so you can be relaxed in your ride.


Shoulder Stretch


This stretch is taken from the Handy Stretching Guide for Riders, downloadable at www.equifitt.com . This easy stretch can be done almost anywhere.


How To: Holding your arms down to keep your shoul- ders down, tilt your head from side to side bringing your ear toward your shoulder. Do not roll your head back. You do not stretch rolling your head back, but you do put a lot of unnecessary pressure on your cervical spine. Remember to push your opposite hand downward as you tilt your ear to your shoulder on the other side. Breathe deeply and hold for a few counts. Repeating the stretch several times will allow you to gradually get more length in your shoulder muscles. You should not stretch like this prior to riding.


Before riding, softly tilt your head from side to side to loosen your neck muscles. The stretch before you ride should be at about 50% of the stretch you would use afterwards. The reason you do not want to pull into a deep stretch before riding, is that the muscle fibres will be put in a weakened state right before exertion, and you need them to support your neck while you are riding. However, gentle and moving stretches prior to riding will ease tension out so that you can start your ride in a neutral and ready state.


By Heather Sansom, Equifitt.com Equestrian Fitness Heather is a certified personal trainer, and Level 1 Certified Centered Riding Instructor. Sign up for FREE monthly rider fitness tips newsletter at www.equifitt.com . Equifitt offers personalized fitness plans, clinics, Cen- tered Riding instruction and distance coaching options.


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