The longer you work in the field of exercise science (really most fields for that matter) the more you realize how much you DON”T know. I am certainly no exception to this rule. Many years ago and after 3 Labral repairs and many rounds of physical therapy from football and basketball injuries I was convinced I had the shoulder all figured out. I knew the anatomy and physiology, understood the movements at the Glenohumeral Joint and Scapula, common injuries, best practices for “rehabbing”, and thought I understood the interplay between the movement at the scapula and the Glenohumeral Joint. Well… as it turns out I was wrong. After all the surgeries and physical therapy I still had atrocious motor control and poor posture which led to re-injury.
Now let’s skip ahead… I was back in physical therapy… this time at Action Potential Specialized Physical Therapy in Glen Mills, PA. In one of my first appointments the therapists reintroduced me to the Arm Bar. I knew of this exercise, but rarely performed it, never prescribed it to clients, and never considered it’s potential benefits when “rehabbing the shoulder” . As it turns out, this exercise was absolutely critical to my recovery. Specifically, performing The Arm Bar under the watch of Kathy and the team of Physical Therapists at Action Potential helped improved my motor control by teaching me to quiet my Pecs, Upper Traps and Lats while activating my Serratus Anterior and “Posterior Cuff”. I tended to default to Lat activation in lieu of Serratus activation which led to a host of motor control problems.
Given my success with the Arm Bar, I thought writing a piece on it made sense. Particularly because most people are scared of this exercise since it looks high risk when holding a kettlebell and many of those who do perform it don’t adhere to some of the most important principles. Let’s get starting on the Kettlebell Arm Bar…
What exactly is the Arm Bar?
If you don’t normally watch the videos in our blog reconsider on this topic as this is much easier understand by watching. Here Kathy Dixon of Action Potential Physical Therapy explains what the Arm Bar is.
The demands the Arm Bar place on the body are unique. The Arm Bar is a mix of rotary stability and active hip extension to get into the position and becomes a combination of rotary stability and thoracic spine rotation while maintaining a packed and centrated shoulder joint. Got all that? Now on top of all those things we need to ensure the correct musculature is active and prime movers don’t jump in to act as stabilizers. When I first began performing this exercise in PT I recruited Lat or a mix of Pec and Anterior Delt which is way wrong.
How to set up the Arm Bar…
As we said earlier, watching while Kathy talks makes learning the set up and mechanics much easier.
The basic steps in setting up/getting into position for the Arm Bar are:
- Establishing a supine position with a bent knee on the kettlebell side and the opposite side’s arm placed behind the head
- Press the active side up while establishing Serratus Anterior, Lower Trap, and Rhomboid activation
- Be sure the ribs are down (not splayed) and the spine is neutral
- Ensure proper alignment of the arm on the working side relative to the shoulder and joint centration
- From this position roll the body as one unit onto the “non-working” side while maintaining shoulder joint contraption and the same scapular position
- Now assume the position in the picture to the right (notice the knee is connected to
- Now that you’re finally in position once again ensure proper alignment of the spine, shoulder blade, and working arm.
- Finally, activate the posterior cuff and Serratus Anterior (told you this is easier to watch!)
When is it appropriate to prescribe the Arm Bar and what are the benefits?
While the Arm Bar appears to be high risk, it is safe when executed properly and can produce significant benefits including improved shoulder packing, motor control, and when loaded strength. I now use the Arm Bar to help students and clients understand how to pack/centrate the shoulder and as a prerequisite to the Turkish Get-Up. I even like to use this before getting into heavy carries because it’s great at putting clients/students in touch with their shoulder/scapular stabilizers.
We will leave it there for now, but we’ll be back soon with a second installment on the Arm Bar. After all, we need to add in internal/external rotation while maintaining a stable scapula! Before we let you go we should probably clear up this whole joint centration thing since it is a term regularly used by physical therapists, but not so much in fitness. Joint centration is a fancy was of saying centering the ball in the socket. Yup… it’s pretty much the same as “packing” your shoulder, but this term can be applied to any ball and socket joint (shoulder/hip).
A very big thanks to Kathy Dixon of Action Potential Specialized Physical Therapy for such great information on this topic. If you are local to the Glen Mills, PA Area and you or a client need physical therapy I highly recommend using Action Potential! They are one of the very, very few one to one Physical Therapy Clinics in our area.
Want to learn more about this or other fitness related topics? Then visit us at www.fit-edu.com for greats tips on kettlebell and barbell exercises, breathing and postural control, and metabolic conditioning just to name a few topics.