For grapplers and MMA fighters, sometimes the strength of your rotator cuff, scapula retractors and other shoulder stabilising musculature can be the difference between escaping and getting caught in an armbar, kimura or other upper extremity submission.
The strength of your shoulder’s stabilising musculature is really your last line of defence when it comes to escaping the arm-based submission. Your ability to stabilise, retract and resist against opposing force in an arm-based submission can often determine how long you are able to defend against the submission and/or buy you enough time to sweep, transition and escape.
Another key benefit of developing strength levels in the rotator cuff and scapula retractors is to minimise the strength imbalances between the larger prime mover muscles of the torso (i.e: the pectorals and the lats), and the associated stabilising muscles (the rotator cuff muscles and the scapula retractors). In the example of the bench press, the prime mover muscles are the pectorals and the triceps, and the stabilising muscles are the rotator cuff muscles. The pecs do the majority of the work in the bench press movement, while the rotator cuff muscles stabilise the shoulder joint and arms while protecting the pectorals throughout the movement. In the words of Poliquin Group instructor, the great Jess Banda, “If the rotator cuff muscles detect a level of tension which exceeds their ability to stabilise, they will preemptively shut down the prime movers in order to prevent a possible injury. With the example of the bench press, if a client were to fail on finishing a rep with a specific resistance, and get pinned by the barbell, chances are that it wasn’t due to the pectorals not having sufficient strength to complete the rep, but rather due to the rotator cuff muscles not possessing the strength to stabilise the resistance lifted.”
I want to suggest a sequence of upper body “remedial” exercises to help you build the strength and the structural balance to optimise your arm-based submission defence. The sequence consists of three exercises, and variations thereof. They are:
The “Trap 3” raise - this will directly simulate Scapula retraction in defence of an armbar. This exercise is vitally important not only for fighters, but for everyone who wants to make gains in upper body strength. This lift will strengthen your scapula retractors and stabilisers, and will not only help you in upper extremity submission defence but in your upper body strength gains also. The stronger you are at the Trap 3, the more weight you will be able to stabilise in the bench press for example, and the more you can stabilise, the more you can potentially lift.
DB external rotation - this exercise can be performed in a number of variations, but the principle remains constant, to strengthen the shoulder through external rotation plane of motion, directly simulating defence against a Kimura submission. Similarly to the Trap 3, this will aid in submission defence, strengthen the stabilisers, as well as potentiating more strength gains in upper body lifts.
Cable Internal Rotation - This can be used to create a reciprocal inhibition effect between agonist & antagonist musculature, you may consider supersetting external rotation with internal rotation. This is an important movement pattern to build strength in, because internal rotation directly simulates defence against the Americana submission.
I have found an effective way to periodise these three exercises is to put them at the very beginning of each workout in a giant set. For example:
A1) Trap 3 raise, 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps, 3010 tempo, 10sec rest
A2) DB External Rotation, 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps, 3010 tempo, 10sec rest
A3) Cable Internal Rotation, 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps, 3010 tempo, 60sec rest
Continue this progression for 2-4 weeks, or 6-8 workouts, then choose a heavier weight for each exercise and perform 3 sets of 8-10 reps using the same loading parameters as above. Again, continue this for 2-4 weeks, or 6-8 workouts, then choose a heavier load again and perform 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps.
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