Preventing Shoulder Injuries during Air Travel

Shoulder health & luggage. Chances are, you haven’t given a second thought to your shoulder health when it comes to preparing to travel. But you really should. I’ve seen too many shoulder injuries and discomfort from clients who have gone through years of business trips. Here’s why air travel is a likely culprit for many shoulder injuries:

  • Shoulder extension: Traveling with rolling suitcases involves dragging a heavy piece of luggage behind your back, putting your shoulder in a precarious, loaded and extended position. Most of my clients don’t come to me with adequate shoulder mobility to extend their arms very far behind their back, let alone lift and pull something heavy in that position.
  • Overhead lifting: Once on the plane, you have to lift that heavy, bulky suitcase over your head and slide it into place. How often do you lift 20lb+ things over your head in your daily life? If you’re like most people at a desk job, I bet you lift your luggage when you travel and that’s about it. If you’re dedicated, you lift weights in the gym. But unlike those overhead presses you train, your luggage is likely to be heavier and awkwardly shaped. Not to mention, the overhead bin is not conveniently positioned right over your head. You have to lift your luggage up and slide it over into the compartment, trying not to hit other passengers in the head as you do it.

Keeping these two suitcase scenarios in mind, here’s my advice to prevent shoulder injuries and keep your body in tiptop shape when traveling!

1. Buy a rolling suitcase set with spinner wheels

This is non-negotiable. Yes, the spinner wheels are more expensive. Stop making excuses. Throw away your old suitcase set NOW.

As an invention, the rolling suitcase was well-intentioned. But we’ve made improvements upon it in the last couple decades. The traditional rolling suitcase without spinner wheels forces you to drag your luggage behind you, putting your shoulder in that compromised position I spoke about above. Switch to the spinner wheels, and you can comfortably push your suitcase by your side. Make sure you buy a set (all with spinner wheels) so you have at least 2 pieces of luggage to choose from: a small, carry-on suitcase and a medium or large suitcase for longer trips.

2. Check Your Bags

The fool-proof way to avoid shoulder injuries that occur from lifting heavy bags into the overhead bin is to check your luggage before you get on your flight. If you already have a shoulder or back injury, this is your best option. If you’re worried about the airline losing your luggage, check one bag and pack an extra carry-on bag: a small cross-body strap duffel bag or a backpack filled with the essentials (computer, change of clothes, toiletries). You can tote that with you and store it under your seat. No overhead lifting necessary.

I’m a thrifty traveler, and I hate paying to check my bags. Weigh your options… it may save you time and money in the long run, helping to prevent shoulder surgery and/or hours of physical therapy.

3. Ditch over-the-shoulder bags

Did you notice that I told you to pack a cross-body strap duffel bag or a backpack in that paragraph above? Stop carrying those purses or laptop bags with short straps designed to go over one shoulder. Even a cross-body strap that goes across your entire torso isn’t the best from a back and postural standpoint… but it’s better than a shoulder bag! If you use a laptop bag or briefcase, be sure to lengthen the strap so you can wear it across your body. And be sure to alternate sides to even things out and reduce the tension on any one part of your shoulder/back!

4. Train Exercises for Shoulder Mobility, Stability, & Strength

I mean… I’m a personal trainer. Of course I’m going to tell you to train for your daily life. Fully prepare for the things you will have to do. Even if they seem mundane, like lifting a suitcase into the overhead bin.

  • Find a personal trainer who has knowledge and skillset to instruct on proper form and teach you exercises to increase mobility and stability to reduce shoulder injury.
  • See a physical therapist if you’re already experiencing shoulder pain or restricted movement.

For strength training, bands, dumbbells, and kettlebells are a good place to begin. And then once you’ve built up the strength and stability, sandbags can simulate a lumpy, awkwardly shaped suitcase very well. You certainly don’t have to be able to clean and press a loaded barbell in order to lift your luggage into the overhead bin. In fact, that’s pretty poor preparation for life… that round, balanced bar is too perfect. Nice handholds, evenly distributed weight? That’s not anything like your suitcase!

Before I delve into the exercises, I must say that strengthening your shoulders involves SO much more than just training overhead presses or front raises. For a well-balanced shoulder joint, you need to train horizontal presses & pulls, vertical presses & pulls, as well as some stability work such as single arm planks, Turkish get-ups, shoulder shrugs, and protraction & retraction. There’s too much to name here in this article. That’s why I want to emphasize that personal trainers and physical therapists should be your go-to resources for injury prevention and rehabilitation. These professionals can individualize the program to fit your unique needs.

Below are some specific shoulder exercises that I recommend that relate the most to this article and the actions of pulling and lifting your suitcase. That means these exercises focus on stability and vertical pressing/raising. But don’t forget… you need to do horizontal presses/pulls, vertical presses/pulls, stability and mobility work for a healthy shoulder.

Do These Exercises!

  • Wall Angels
  • Dumbbell (bicep curl) Overhead Presses
  • Single Arm Plank Hold
  • Turkish Get-Up
  • Full-range Front Raises (Shoulder flexion)
    • Begin with no weight or very light weight dumbbells (2-3 lbs)
    • I couldn’t find a video that demonstrates what I want. Easy enough to describe, or maybe I’ll make my own video. Start with no weight. Hands by your sides. Thumbs forward, raise your arms up. Bring them as high as you can while keeping your glutes squeezed, hips open, abs tight. As your hands raise overhead, don’t let your back arch. People tend to compensate by arching their back to get their hands over their heads. Only go as high as you can without compensating.
  • Full-range Lateral Raises (Shoulder abduction & adduction)
    • Same as above, light weights to begin with!
  • Shoulder External Rotations with a resistance band
    • I call this exercise “opening the door.” My physical therapist taught me this one after I had my shoulder surgery many years ago. This exercise is still my #1 favorite exercise for when my shoulder isn’t feeling strong.
    • Also, I don’t see any need for you to do internal rotations with the band. Avoid training those unless instructed by your physical therapist for rehab of a specific injury. There’s just too many motions we do on a daily basis (and in the gym) that involve internal rotation already.

Avoid These Exercises!

  • Don’t do Shoulder Dips
    • This puts your shoulder in that precarious extended position and loads it. To fast-track yourself to shoulder injury, do shoulder dips and keep dragging that rolling suitcase behind you.
  • Don’t do Bent Over Triceps Extensions
    • First of all… this is the silliest exercise. I can picture it now, and I can’t help but cringe. I mostly see women doing this exercise. Ladies, if you want toned arms, PLEASE do some push-ups, not triceps extensions, and especially not bent over triceps extensions! We do not live in the 80’s anymore.
    • My reasoning behind this is pretty similar to Shoulder Dips. The shoulder is slightly extended and loaded. Just don’t do it.
  • Don’t do Upright Rows
    • OH NO, THE WORST! I can’t stand these. I also don’t understand them. What are you trying to do with this exercise? It seems to me just a poor attempt at multitasking, trying to do a row while also targeting your upper traps and delts? Ick. When will you ever do a motion like this in real life? Never.
    • This exercise puts your shoulder into an extreme internally rotated position and loads it. Bad.
  • This blog post covers 8 Ways To Avoid Common Shoulder Injuries Caused By Weight Lifting. It’s a good read!

Thanks for reading! Leave your comments or questions below!

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