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Shoulders: Strength and Grace

by Jeri Massi

 I attended a bible college where dancing was forbidden. However, opera singing was not forbidden, and once a year the school staged an opera. It boasted an excellent school choir, and the music director would hire in a few professional opera singers for the leading roles. Every spring our small town was treated to conservatively dressed performers singing opera.

One year they put on Samson and Delilah, and there was no getting around it: those temple prostitutes (which our costume room had all dressed in garments down to the ankle, making them the most modestly dressed prostitutes in the history of man) had to dance in the first act.

It was discovered that one of the voice teachers had once enrolled in a dancing class in college thirty years ago. Therefore, she was called in to teach the girls in the choir how to appear as though they were dancing without really getting too rhythmic or provocative.

If you're thinking that these young ladies were eager to try dancing and free of the inhibitions of strict Baptist upbringing, you'll have to think again. They were awkward and self conscious. They didn't want to move at all and kept glancing at each other but not looking at the teacher. She tried several different approaches to get them to move and nothing worked. Suddenly inspired the teacher said, "Just wave your arms girls! Wave your arms to the one side and then to the other, like the wind is carrying your arms!"

This voice teacher was a pudgy woman with a tuft of black hair teased into a unique hairstyle. I had never thought of her as an especially graceful woman, but when she demonstrated by lifting her arms, waving them first to one side and then the other, she became graceful.

The girls imitated her, and even though they still looked rather odd because they were all standing stock still they, too, became more graceful. Slight bend in the knees, turn at the hips, lift the arms to shoulder height, and let the wind flow down your arms. Then turn and do it in the opposite direction. It still wasn't really dancing, but it worked well enough.

It's all in the shoulders, I thought.

Men like to have shoulders that are big and thickly layered with muscle, and men have much more shoulder strength than women. For both genders, the shoulders perform some of the work of lifting, but a woman's strength rapidly begins to diminish as soon as her arms are lifting at shoulder height or above. She relies more on her chest for lifting and doing heavy work, and once her arms are out of the ideal position for the chest muscles to do the work, her power drops very sharply. Weightlifting will improve her power, of course, but the shoulders are never a woman's strong point.

To build the strength in order to lift boxes and heavy objects above her head, a woman can do the traditional shoulder press, in which she holds two dumb bells or a single barbell in both hands at shoulder height and then pushes the weight straight up above her head, keeping her back straight and her head level, eyes forward. I have my 77 year old student, Jeanne, do ten repetitions of these to make one set, and she does three sets.

Shoulders are also used for lighter work. Any time you pour ice tea from a pitcher, you are using the shoulder for a significant part of the work. Even putting your arms into the sleeves of a shirt as you pull it over your head requires a lot of work from the muscles of the shoulder.

I have nicknamed Jeanne "Mouse," (see Jeri's article, The Mouse and the Martial Artist and Stepping Up With Jeanne) partly because she has a curious, inquisitive expression and partly because her eyes are very round and magnified by her glasses, but also because Jeanne is always busy making things orderly. She spends a good deal of her time simply carrying things to and fro, arranging them, putting them away, organizing them, etc. Needless to say, Jeanne does a lot of work with her shoulders in her daily routine.

I was, in fact, impressed with Jeanne's shoulder strength when she started lifting weights. She started at ten pounds on shoulder presses and now she regularly shoulder presses 20 pounds in her sets. This seemed amazing to me because when Jeanne first started she could not use her chest muscles to chest press ten pounds. It's very rare for a woman to be stronger in the shoulders than the chest, but Jeanne was. Of course, now that she's been lifting weights, Jeanne can chest press 40 pounds. As you see, her shoulder strength has doubled, but her chest strength has quadrupled, which is the effect of a systematic weight resistance training program.

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