Matt Unthank knows shoulders. He’s the director of education & training at Crossover Symmetry, a young Colorado company that developed a portable shoulder training system designed to relieve pain, prevent injury, and enhance performance. He also has a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and is an occasional gym climber himself.
When Matt was younger, he had seemingly chronic shoulder issues. Like most people, he chalked it up to mobility problems. The answer was simple: keep smashing yourself on lacrosse balls and foam rollers until it goes away.
Except it wasn’t working. Matt’s pain wouldn’t subside no matter how much self-torture he inflicted. That’s when he discovered Crossover Symmetry, which, at the time, was focused on helping baseball pitchers add velocity to their throws. The company had developed a sequence of seven exercises that could be done in less than five minutes—none of which involved lifting heavy weights. When his shoulder pain went away for the first time in years, he became a believer and joined the company.
Instead of adding raw strength, Crossover Symmetry focuses on creating stability in the shoulder using a slightly modified version of traditional shoulder bands. Their program repackages common physical therapy exercises into an out-of-the-box routine coupled with a comprehensive online education platform that they keep updated with the latest in shoulder research. The goal is to educate and equip athletes, giving them the tools to end shoulder pain and injury.
We had a chance to sit down with Matt and pick his brain on everything shoulders. Then—because we always appreciate a well-rounded perspective—we spoke to Thomas Betterton, owner of the Denver Bouldering Club, which recently implemented Crossover Symmetry in its gym. We were curious to hear his take on the system and how he and other climbers benefit from it.
Here’s what we learned:
Tell us about how the shoulder works and how this relates to common shoulder issues.
Matt: A lot of people just see the arm and how it attaches. They say, “This is where it hurts, so this is where the problem is.” People who really get how the shoulders work know that almost always, issues originate from something upstream, commonly how the scapula (shoulder blade) attaches to the body. There are 17 muscle groups that hold the scapula stable to the body. And as you can imagine, there are lots of ways for those 17 muscle groups to get out of balance. The upper trap, lats, and pecs are the big three movers of the shoulder. And then there are lots of other small muscles mostly designed to stabilize and control movement. The big muscles tend to dominate, especially since those are the muscles people focus on when they lift weights. This often happens at the expense of the lower/middle trap and rhomboids.
The key to healthy shoulders is establishing a neuromuscular connection to improve the quality of movement and balance around the joint. This happens by making sure the big muscles work in conjunction with all the smaller muscles that are often ignored.When imbalance exists, the body tries to compensate by favoring certain movement patterns. It’s a short-term stability fix, but at a cost: over time, normal movement becomes increasingly compromised and overuse injuries become more likely, potentially initiating an injury cascade through other parts of the shoulder and body.
What should climbers specifically be most aware of when it comes to shoulders?
Matt: Unlike other sports that stress the shoulder through repetitive motion, climbing puts a lot of load on the shoulders. Repetitive motion athletes tend to focus on pre-workout shoulder movements to establish healthy neuromuscular function. Climbers, on the other hand, really need to focus on improving blood flow in the joint and promoting tendon recovery. This is best accomplished after a climbing workout with Crossover Symmetry’s Recovery Program. It’s similar to the pre-workout program, but with a longer eccentric contraction. The whole thing takes about seven minutes and is designed to get blood in the joint, resolve inflammation, and then stimulate tissue recovery.
Thomas: Maintaining healthy, balanced shoulders and preventing injuries is key to success as a rock climber. You're asking very small muscles in your shoulders to do a lot of heavy lifting and the risk of shoulder injuries in climbers is exceptionally high. Avoiding a major injury where you would be sidelined three to six months is more important than any single aspect of training.
Is this in addition to traditional trigger point modalities or instead of them?
Matt: Trigger point modalities are great for athletes who are suffering from tight muscles and tissue. The limitation is that a session of dry needling or rolling on a lacrosse ball won’t train the body to move effectively once things are loosened up. Trigger point and traditional chiropractic treatments will speed up the process of adding mobility, which is why we include a Mobility Sac with every Crossover Symmetry system. Once that’s achieved, an athlete needs consistent repetition of basic movement patterns. The Recovery Program is the most critical piece, but the ideal workout flow would be to spend five to ten minutes mashing your #1 restriction with the Mobility Sac, then spend a few minutes warming up all the muscles with proper motion, then jump into climbing, then go through the Recovery Program. Later that night, spend some time really getting to know your Mobility Sac.
How can climbers specifically benefit from Crossover Symmetry?
Thomas: All climbers, not just competitive climbers, can benefit from this system. There’s really nothing that can delay progress or remove the enjoyment from climbing quite like an injury. That would be true of a brand new climber or the best in the world. The benefits of using Crossover Symmetry mostly come down to injury prevention. The shoulder injuries I've seen end up limiting or completely sidelining climbers for two months to a year. Not only do you stop making progress during the layoff, you also have to waste a lot of time just getting back into shape.
How long does it typically take to see results?
Matt: We give people four weeks to end shoulder pain. The full program involves a pre-screening with six red flag indicators. If you fail any of those, we recommend people see a physician since there is likely structural damage. If you pass though, and most people do, it shouldn’t take you longer than four weeks to feel real benefits.
Thomas: For me personally, I went to physical therapy for shoulder and elbow tendonitis and have gone from shoulder issues being a yearly problem to not running into any issues at all. The I/T/Y workouts combined with external rotations have done most of the work in keeping me healthy. The Crossover system is the highest quality setup for performing these exercises.
Can Crossover Symmetry be used to avoid surgery?
Matt: In the right circumstance, definitely. Static structures like the labrum, shoulder capsule, etc. are not repairable without surgery. But there are lots of people who think they have a tear and therefore need surgery. Often, strengthening the dynamic structures (muscles) will correct or mostly correct any injury to static structures. Obviously, you should consult with a doctor if you might have static structure damage. The good news is that there’s increasing evidence that static injuries like a labrum tear, when followed by dynamic structure strengthening, might be optimal to perform at a high level. That philosophy is pretty out there and only really followed by elite professional athletes like baseball players, but it’s good to know that a static injury isn’t debilitating and performance can be maintained or improved through dynamic shoulder exercises.
How often you think climbers should use it?
Thomas: It depends on their background and skill level. Probably one to two times per week for most people, but anyone who is injured or has a strong injury history should be doing it four to five times per week. The Crossover system has a lot of value both for warming up and also performing balancing/prehab type shoulder workouts. The specific use would depend on the skill level and injury history of any given climber. Basically the more at risk they are, the more prehab they should be doing.
What are some tests people can do to find out if they have shoulder issues that need a closer look?
What’s different between Crossover Symmetry and common shoulder bands?
Matt: Much more important than the bands themselves is the system. Our bands are higher quality, more durable, and safer than typical bands you’ll find on Amazon. But what really makes us unique is the program and the education. We give you all the exercises to train movement patterns, not isolated muscle groups, so you develop the coordination necessary for complex motions like those in rock climbing. This is available both on visual displays that come with our bands, as well as on our full online education platform for both desktop and mobile devices. We stay up to date on the latest shoulder research and we’re constantly reevaluating and improving the programs. Whether you’re a gym, a team, or an individual looking for a shoulder pain and performance solution, we’ve got the product for you.
Should every climbing gym have one?
Thomas: Every gym, climbing or otherwise, should have some sort of workout band setup. The Crossover system is the best I've seen, but similar setups can provide similar results. Really the only issue I see with this system is the cost. We can get a set of bands for $30 and I think the system is several hundred. However, we also have to replace our bands several times per year and this looks like it'll last a lot longer.
Tell us about the full Crossover Symmetry system.
Matt: There are five programs in total that come with every Crossover Symmetry system:
Learn more about Crossover Symmetry.
Learn more about the Denver Bouldering Club.
Do you have experience using Crossover Symmetry? Let us know below in the comments!
Banner photo: FrictionLabs Pro Paul Dusatko sending the "shouldery" Unshackled, V10 in Lincoln Lake, CO. Photo By Beau Kahler