The shoulder complex is, well, complex.
It’s one of the most unstable joints in the body.
And its risk for injury can be high if we don’t take the right measures to care for it in the world of lifting and athletics.
It’s a ball and socket joint that’s made up of very delicate structures, and the things we do in the gym can be the make or break factors for its health.
A Little Anatomy Lesson
The shoulder girdle comprises of the scapula (shoulder blade), humerus (upper arm) and clavicle (collar bone). There are two very important junctions worth mentioning in this structure:
- The Acromioclavicular (AC) Joint: This is the junction between the collar bone and the process (or big ridge) of the scapula.
- The Glenohumeral Joint: This is the ball-and-socket junction where the humerus meets the scapula.
On the scapula originates the four rotator cuff muscles, and they grab hold of the head of the humerus where they attach. The lats also attach to the humerus from behind, and the pecs from in front. The serratus anterior links the shoulder blade to the ribcage and the upper traps attach to the shoulder blade from above, up the neck to the base of the skull.
As you can see, there are muscles that connect to this structure from all directions, which is how and why the shoulder is the most free moving and mobile joint in the entire body.
Why am I telling you this? Because understanding the structure of the shoulder on a basic level is the place to start in understanding how to prevent an injury, or repair an existing one.
Step 1: Pull More than Push, Row More than Chin
This is a rule of thumb I and my clients live by where training is concerned.
Like I mentioned above, all 4 rotator cuff muscles originate on the scapulae. That means that blasting the upper back and making those muscles strong and developed will do more than just improve your posture. It’ll also improve your shoulder health and create a better environment that’s ready to bear load.
Pressing exercises exploit the strength and stability of the rotator cuff, and don’t do much to actually train it. Having stable and healthy shoulders is more of a prerequisite to good, strong presses, and that’s why the pulling movements deserve more of your attention.
Taking this a step further, you’ll really get the most bang for your buck by using row variations the most frequently. The reason why is because it’s a universally safe position and plane of force for the joint to operate within.
If you have immobile shoulders and lack range of motion, this won’t come in to dangerously haunt you during a row pattern, as much as it would during a pull-up or chin. This isn’t the case for everyone, but more than enough to deserve a mention.
In some cases, pull ups can be harmful to a lifter’s shoulder complex, especially if he falls under the category of having bad shoulder health in the first place. It sounds counter intuitive, since pull ups and chin ups usually don’t involve anything but bodyweight (no external loading), and they’re also a “back” exercise, meaning the mindset is geared towards strengthening the very muscles that promote healthy shoulders.
But there’s a hidden killer to be aware of, detailed in the video below, and even more in the next subheading.
Step 2: Get Better Thoracic Movement
The truth is this: Much of your shoulder mobility won’t come from shoulder stuff. It’ll come from your T-spine. As the video pointed out, having a mid-back slouch will only wreak havoc in creating good overhead mobility when the arms leave the body.
The better you can become at extending the mid and upper spine, the better chance you’ll give your scapulae to move freely and have the correct mobility. Combining lat stretches with a foam roller extension is a good place to start.
To do the extensions, lie on your butt on the floor, and place a foam roller just below your shoulder blades. Link your fingers behind your head and point your elbows upward. Next, simply try to “wrap” your back around the roller, aiming for the floor with your shoulders.
Perform slow and controlled “reps” of this while keeping the butt in contact with the floor at all times. As you do this, relax the abdominals, breathe deep, and expand the ribcage. Remember – we’re trying to open up the T-spine by physically training it to extend.
Moreover, the lats are internal shoulder rotators. They can be a hidden posture killer if they’re tight. Stretching them well can allow the shoulder to return closer to anatomical position and promote better posture. Together, it’s a 1-2 combo that can’t be beat.
Step 3: Press Right
You could be doing all the right things in the gym where back training is concerned, but still be dropping the ball when it actually comes time to put your shoulder health and stability to the test via a pressing exercise.
Like anything, there’s technique to both the setup and the execution to keep your body out of harm’s way. In the case of the bench press and strict press, there are rules that apply.
Follow these videos and checklists to make sure you’re doing it well.
- Keep your shoulder blades pinned on the bench by pulling them back. It helps to wear a shirt with a print on the back, so it “sticks” to the vinyl.
- There should be a notable arch in the back. Nothing crazy and back-breaking, but there must be definite space between your back and the bench.
- Pull the feet in close. Your knees should be bent inside 90 degrees.
- Hold the bar with a grip that creates no more than a 90 degree angle at the elbow when the bar contacts the chest. It can be even narrower if it’s more comfortable on your shoulders.
- When you lower the bar, be sure the forearm is vertically underneath it, creating a perpendicular line to the floor.
Here’s a visual for the perfect setup.
- Use a hip width stance. Standing too wide brings your base out and doesn’t centralize your direction of intended force (just like it would during a max vertical jump).
- Hold the bar with a grip just outside your shoulder width. Make sure the bar is positioned over the forearms. That means the elbows point an inch in front of the bar, and the wrists aren’t overly broken.
- Keep the back from hyperextending. Squeeze the glutes and abs to maintain a neutral spine at all times.
- Breathe in and drive the weight straight up, and not around your face. Aim for your nose – you won’t hit it.
- Once the bar crosses your forehead, drive the head and chest “through the window” you create with your arms overhead. Lock out the elbows strongly. Slowly lower the bar to the collarbone and repeat.
One More Thing: If Your Shoulders Suck, Use a Landmine Bar
Making a slight angular modification to your pressing path (not quite in front, and not quite overhead) can be a great way to train your deltoids without being in a pain zone while pressing. That’s where a landmine bar setup can come in handy.
The other benefit of this is the fact that it forces a neutral grip, which translates to a more favorable shoulder position in its socket.
Use these movements as an example of unilateral and bilateral pressing if your shoulders get aggravated – and even if they don’t!
Half Kneeling Press
Less a devastating injury, chronic shoulder pain or general weakness and instability can be solved, it’s usually a matter of holding back on pressing movements, acknowledging the soft tissue for mobility, and bolstering the back, as seen in this article.
Tackle these three elements and give it time, while making pressing modifications where needed, and you’ll have bionic shoulders in no time.