30 Days of Shoulders: 1-10

The Best Tips For Strong, Healthy Shoulders


If you're reading this right now, chances are...

  1. You have two shoulders.
  2. One of them doesn't feel so good.

The shoulder is one of the most frequently injured areas of the body. These tips, on top of being gluten free, will help keep your shoulders healthy long-term and help you continue to kick ass and take names in the gym.

There are many things to consider when it comes to why someone's shoulder may be bothering him or her: poor soft tissue quality, programming imbalance, weak this, overactive that, they wore blue on a Wednesday, etc. I don't know. It's a lot.

But more often than not, it's how someone performs certain exercises. This factor often gets overlooked.

Take the dumbbell row for example. It's not uncommon to see one or both of these mistakes being made:

  1. Too much glenohumeral extension. I call it the "more ROM must be better" scenario. In this situation, each scapula dumps forward putting excessive stress on the bicep tendon.
  2. Not allowing the scapulae to move around the rib cage. Let that shit move, yo.

Address those two things and your shoulders may not hate you as much.

One simple screen I use to ascertain if overhead pressing is a good fit for someone is to look at his shoulder flexion – his ability to bring his arms overhead.

Sometimes you'll see one or both of these compensations: excessive lumbar extension and/or excessive forward head posture. The culprit could be a few things:

  1. Soft tissue restrictions in the lats, pecs, triceps, etc. Or even postural considerations like upper cross syndrome. Although, admittedly, I've come to realize this is less of a thing and the culprit is usually addressing postural habits.
  2. Insufficient ability to access scapular upward rotation, protraction, or posterior tilt.
  3. Lack of anterior core stability or lumbo-pelvic control.
  4. Bony restriction, which, unless you're a wizard, you're not fixing with any amount of corrective exercise.

Note: If you are a wizard, can we hang out?

Anyway, if someone exhibits the inability to bring his arms overhead without going into excessive rib flair, it's likely not going to be in his best interest to hoist a barbell in that direction either.

This isn't to say he'll never be able to press overhead or, I don't know, perform barbell snatches paired with handstand walks over broken glass for AMRAP. Never say never. But rather, for the time being, it may be more prudent to opt for exercises that'll be a better fit.

This is a straightforward screen, which gives me important information as a coach, and ammunition to sell the idea that one needs to earn the right to overhead press.

If someone's shoulder flexion is lacking, I'll use the assess and reassess approach, tossing in a "corrective" layer to see if I can induce an improvement.

If it works, cool, I'm the man. If not, well, shit gets awkward and I'll just start doing shadow puppets. Kidding. I'll just move onto the next corrective layer.

The shoulder blades are at the mercy of the thoracic spine. If that area doesn't move then it'll be hard for the scapulae to move as well.

The first layer is what I like to call "release shit." Take a look:

In the video I use Acumobility balls to "release" the area and see whether or not I can improve overhead mobility.

The shoulder blades are at the mercy of the thoracic spine and, in particular, the rib cage. If that area is incapable of moving (or getting 360 degrees of expansion) then the ability to bring the arms overhead can often be compromised.

I know most people don't have enough eye rolls to give once the topic of positional breathing enters the conversation, but all we're talking about here is one or two drills. That's ten or so "breaths" and your shoulders will thank you in the long run.

Does this mean you can jump right into barbell snatches, kipping pull-ups, or whateverthefuck? No. These drills allow "access" to overhead ROM via improved position and stability. The appropriate move may mean "fake overhead pressing" like landmine press variations, or maybe controlled tempo dumbbell overhead presses.

Either way, these drills may allow a window of overhead training and I believe they're well worth it.

One drill I love is the dead bug because it hammers home the concept that proximal stability equals distal mobility. Watch the video and you'll see what I'm talking about.

To move the arms overhead it's important to improve scapular protraction, posterior tilt, and maybe most important of all, upward rotation.

Three areas play a role in upward rotation: serratus anterior, upper traps, and lower traps. All act as force couplers to "pull" the shoulder blade into upward rotation as the humerus elevates overhead, kinda like when the Night King pulled a "come at me, bro" pose toward Jon Snow after the battle at Hardhome.

So let's look at the upper traps, the evil stepchild of shoulder health. It's often neglected because that area tends to be OVERactive in the computer-guy population.

However, in the athletic meathead realm, the upper traps can often be lengthened and UNDER active, not to mention have ramifications on overall shoulder health when they don't pull their weight with regards to scapular function (upward rotation).

There are many drills to consider, but here are two I use often:

  1. Forearm Wall Slide with Reach (demonstrated above)
  2. Face Pull

Take a look at how to use and tweak the face pull.

We want the shoulder blades to be able to move around the ribcage (protraction), albeit with as much joint congruency as possible. Meaning, we want the scapulae and rib cage to be making out and staying in contact with one another.

Here are a few drills to help with targeting the serratus anterior:

  1. Serratus Slide
  2. Scapular Push-Up
  3. Push-Away

Note: I promise the jacked shoulder stuff is coming soon.

The lower traps are often at the mercy of the lats. If the lat is overactive, the lower trap doesn't have a prayer with regards to improving and aiding scapular upward rotation.

Foam rolling the lats would be a nice start, but as far as exercises that target the low traps you'd be hard pressed to find one more effective than the prone one-arm trap raise. Execution of this drill is imperative because it's easy to get wrong.

And here's why the lats may be playing a role and why you should address them:

I'm a firm believer in a few things:

  1. My wife is a smoke show.
  2. Bacon is delicious.
  3. You gotta earn the right to overhead press.

This isn't to say one can't "fake" overhead press in the interim while working on overhead mobility. The landmine press is a staple. Here are some quick technique tips:

I get it. The landmine press can get pretty vanilla pretty quickly, but one reason I like the apparatus so much is because of its versatility. Here are two variations you may have never tried before:

  1. The 2-1 Technique: Great option to load the lowering portion of the lift and use a more controlled tempo to elicit a training effect.
  2. Sideways Press: Also called the frontal plane press, for the uppity anatomy nerds. But who says you have to look straight ahead and train sagittal plane only?

I'm a big fan of people adding more upper back work to help offset any programming imbalances (newsflash: people like to bench press a lot) and to help with overall shoulder health.

More traditional rowing variations will enter the picture. I'll showcase some of my go-to moves later in this series, but I like to sneak more upper back work (low-level, low-fatigue exercises) into the mix. Take a look:

On a bench day for example – or even paired with squats or deadlifts – I'll add one of these "fillers" in and do them between every warm-up set and work set. It's an easy way to add more upper back and posterior cuff volume without putting much thought or effort into it. Here's when to do them and how much to do:

  1. For the gripless facepull: Do 10-15 reps (slowly) prior to each set of bench press, dips, etc.
  2. For the isometric pull-aparts: Hold each position for 5-30 seconds each. Work up to it. Make 5-15 seconds your home base between every set of bench press, squats, deadlifts, or whatever. This is one I use with clients who have shoulder issues, especially if they're hunched over in front of a computer for hours.

These are easy drills, so don't be a hero. Go light. Do them the right way. They will undoubtedly help those shoulders feel better.