Contrary to what many entry level personal training weekend certification textbooks say, exercises themselves aren’t the things that should be scrutinized and contraindicated.
The people who do them should be.
Different skeletal builds or training needs can deem an exercise dangerous depending on the population.
Looking at one of the most unstable joints of the body, the shoulder, proper care needs to be taken to ensure its protection while bearing a load.
The shoulder is a ball and socket joint with a very shallow opening for articulation.
It doesn’t take much to cause it injury or to lose the technique in a movement that relies on its health.
Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
Even though the intention of an exercise is good and promotes back or shoulder strengthening, the use of poor technique or a poor starting position (due to posture and imbalance) can frustrate a lifter’s ability to derive benefits and solve any pain issues that they may have been encountering.
Exercise 1: Wide Grip Rows
An overhand grip, coupled with far hand spacing and a distance between the humerus and the trunk can usually be tricky grounds since it’s a very vulnerable position for the shoulder to exist in. Technical mastery needs to be exercised to properly retract the shoulder blades from such a wide position, and more often than not, I’ve noticed the finish position misses the mark.
We have to remember that most people’s posture falls in the direction of the shoulders being internally rotated. Most of us are fighting some level of “slouch” since life happens in front of our bodies, and posterior muscles are often left hanging out to dry.
Related: Loosen Up Bro - 3 Drills to Prevent Shoulder Pain
In wide grip rows, it’s quite easy to pull beyond your ideal range of motion when taking your frame into consideration. The result is a forced end-range that usually causes a forward humeral shift in the last few inches of execution. When this is paired with weight that’s too heavy, it’s bad news for the shoulder joint and only ingrains an improper movement pattern.
The solution would be to simply cut your range of motion short by a mere 2-3 inches. Stop just shy of the chest, and reduce the load by 10 or 20 percent. Don’t be afraid to hold and squeeze the top position at the end of each rep as well. Make sure your shoulders move behind the collarbone where they belong on every rep.
Exercise 2: Pull Ups/Pulldowns
The same principles apply to pull ups and pulldowns as they do to wide grip rows. In this case, the grip is once again internally rotated, but we’re now dealing with a vertical pull instead of a horizontal one.
Since the beginning movement for any pull up or pulldown is to depress the shoulders to properly engage the back muscles, pulling all the way through to the top of the lift can demand a lot from the stabilizing muscles like the rhomboids and low traps to maintain their strength of contraction as the lift progresses.
The first mistake many lifters make is thinking that to fully involve the back muscles, they must pull their chest all the way to the bar when performing pull ups. Especially depending on the arm length of the lifter, I continue to maintain that this may not always be necessary.
Stopping a few inches short so the bar reaches nose level (as an example) can be just the needed fix to keep the back muscles engaged.
The pec minor attaches on the scapula, and can easily become involved as the shoulders begin to shrug upwards during a poorly executed rep. It often reflects poor scapular depression skills when a lifter has this problem, and using scapular activations as their own exercise can help a lifter properly learn to initiate the movement using the right muscles (see video below).
But things don’t end there. A well-intentioned lifter may think he’s staying two steps ahead of the game by simply not allowing the shoulder blades any chance to raise, by keeping them packed down the back for the entire duration of a set of pull ups or pulldowns.
However, removing the mobility at the shoulder blade will also fatigue the muscles holding the shoulder blades down for that time, as they’ll be holding an isometric and eventually tire out, especially while loaded. For a more thorough explanation, view this video.
Scapular mobility is an understated skill that needs to be developed just as much as developing your stability. It comes from practicing the right techniques under low loads, and making smart progressions.
Exercise 3: Bent Over Reverse Flyes
The dumbbell reverse fly creates many more areas to screw it up compared to the first two subheadings, simply because the lift is not performed on a strict track. With rows, you’re tethered to a bar and cable, and with pull ups, there’s only one way to get to the top.
With a pair of individual dumbbells, the arms can move out of sync, and there’s an infinite number of arm angles to assume to get from start to finish position. Unlike pushups, rows, or the bench press, a better result as far as safety is concerned is not to use a tucked elbow position.
The reason why appears when we look at the placement of the load itself, and less at the extremities. With a palms-over grip, the weights will be placed closer to the hip and further from the shoulder level when bringing the elbows towards the body. It’s a much more difficult position to correct once it happens.
Related: 6 Crucial Exercises For Shoulder Stability
Due to the torso angle and position of the weights, attempting to retract the shoulders or stop short of a “full range of motion” is not quite as easy. The further away from the shoulder level the weights move, the easier it is to move the hands behind the body for what can be perceived as a greater range and more back activation.
In truth, the reverse fly should be a rear delt, rhomboid, and mid trap builder. That requires a force angle that consistently keeps those muscles in tension during the set. The hands and arms should start perpendicular to the floor, and finish perpendicular to the body (90 degree angle at the torso).
When this doesn’t happen, a lifter can fall into the same shoulder-unfriendly situation of unwanted forward migration of the humerus.
Let’s start with the obvious: Where you can help it, use an externally rotated grip. Turn your wide grip rows into reverse grip rows, and your reverse flies into palms-forward reverse flies. The second you make this simple change, the head of the humerus will follow, the rear deltoids will become more engaged, and you’ll be closer to anatomical position.
Second, lower the load. It’s usually an ego thing that makes a lifter stack on the weight. In most cases, to get the proper back development necessary to make a pulling exercise achieve its intended purpose, it’s better to chase more reps than it is to chase more weight.
There’s no shame in checking your ego at the door and using a band to get your pull ups done with technical precision and with a direct hit to the proper back muscles. If it meant the difference between no back development and great back development, I’m sure everyone reading this would implement this change if they weren’t scared of how they’d be perceived.
Third, use bands and retrain your movement pattern. The good thing about doing rows or overhead pulls with a band resistance is that the load is the lightest when the arms are fully extended, making it easier to initiate the movement through the shoulder blades depressing and/or retracting to engage the correct back musculature.
As the lifter pulls the band with the arms, the resistance increases since the band gets tighter. This is a smart training tool when compared to a consistent load through the entire force curve.
Lastly, use the right ratio of push training to pull training. Many people think that they’re in proper balance by making sure they have a 1:1 ratio of pulls to pushes, and religiously counter every press movement with a pulling movement. The truth is, that doesn’t take into consideration the pre-existing condition of the body before starting.
As I mentioned earlier, most human bodies have postural discrepancies to varying degrees that demonstrate an increased need for posterior chain training.
With that said, a lifter who’s only training his back as much as he’s training his chest and delts is likely only maintaining the same ratio of imbalance as he gets stronger – not improving it. Much rather, aim for a 2:1 ratio of pulls to pushes in your routine.
This programming tweak will give you more exposure to the pulls and their required techniques, which will be just the experience you need to improve your skills and not fall into the form traps above.