30 Days of Shoulders: 21-30

The Ultimate Tips For Strong, Healthy Shoulders


Editor's Note: Brush up on the first twenty tips here:
30 Days of Shoulders: 1-10
30 Days of Shoulders: 11-20

A common mistake lifters make when coming back from an injury is progressing too fast. Take the overhead press as an example. Just because your shoulder feels better doesn't mean you should head to the gym and do barbell snatches paired with handstand walks over broken glass for AMRAP.

Pump the brakes. Maybe try something like tempo presses first where you press a pair of dumbbells overhead with a neutral grip (which allows for more external rotation of the humerus and helps open up more space in acromion) and then lower under control for a 3-5 second count... or 10 seconds if you're a masochistic a-hole.

This may be home base for a period of time before you ramp things up to more ballistic/fast movements like the Landmine clean to split press, which I stole from Lee Boyce. Take a look.

In short, take your time and control slow before you tackle fast.

We're enamored by bright, shiny objects thinking that if something is new or novel then it must always be better. I disagree. Simple still works, and this is never more apparent than when the discussion of "best rotator cuff exercises" comes up.

While current trends point to functional exercises that border on the absurd (which are fantastic for garnering likes on social media and for making me not have enough eye rolls to give) I prefer the more vanilla approach.

The side-lying external rotation exercise is the KING with regards to EMG activation of the rotator cuff. Recent research suggests that when you "level up" the drill with a side plank you get even more trunk and infraspinatus activation.

I use this often to sprinkle in more rotator cuff work in clients' programs. More specifically, I'll usually pair it with a squat or deadlift as a filler.

Here's an example:

  • A1. Deadlift or Squat Variation: 5 sets of 5
  • A2. Side Plank External Rotation: 5 sets of 8 per side

My biggest pet peeve in fitness – other than kipping pull-ups and detox teas – is when fit pros go out of their way to tell people how dysfunctional they are. Case in point: scapular winging.

You're more likely to get struck by lightning while being attacked by a pack of piranhas in a volcano than to have true scapular winging.

True scapular winging is a neurological condition where the long thoracic nerve isn't doing its job properly innervating the serratus anterior. As a result, there's a lack of congruency between the shoulder blade, the ribcage, and the former peels or "wings" off the latter. Most of the time, what's perceived as scapular winging can be attributed to lack of tension and poor positioning.

The wall press will help you feel the requisite tension required to own the position. By pressing into the wall (and pushing away) you get more serratus activity.

To go further down the myth of scapular winging rabbit hole, I'd suggest checking out some of Dr. Quinn Henoch's stuff on the topic.

The REP (retraction, external rotation, press) exercise is one of my staples for overall shoulder health.

It's a versatile drill that can be used at any point in a program, but my preference is to use it as a filler of sorts.

Key points to consider:

  • Be sure abs and glutes are on (contracted) to prevent any excessive lumbar movement.
  • Slow the eff down! Do it right.
  • 8-10 reps per set should do it.

This exercise certainly won't garner a bevy of "likes" and accolades, but it's one I like a lot because of its practicality.

It's an ingenious way to "groove" overhead pressing mechanics – in terms of scapular movement – in a way that's less aggressive and more palatable for many lifters.

Use it as a filler or as an exercise on its own, but be sure to follow the cues given in the video. If you do it right, and do 10-15 reps, your shoulders will get nice and juicy. (Credit to Dean Somerset for the idea.)

This likely won't be a piece of info that wows anyone or wins me any coach of the year awards, but it's a message that falls on deaf ears much of the time.

A logical recommendation for most lifters is to use a 1:1 (push:pull) ratio when designing their own programs. This is fine advice and will likely serve most well in the grand scheme of things. But I'd argue one of the things that causes shoulder pain is programming that includes more pushing exercises compared to pulling.

I could use a bunch of fancy-schmancy words here, but the gist of it is that the mirror muscles tend to be overactive/tight, and the muscles we can't see (upper back) are weak.

In this case it's not uncommon for me to use more of a 2:1 or even 3:1 pull-push ratio to help even things out. This is what I mean when I say it sometimes behooves a lifter to unbalance their program, albeit with more rowing variations.

So if your shoulders tend to always be cranky, don't worry. I'm not going to end your world and tell you to stop benching... although doing more dumbbell work and push-ups may not be a bad idea. But using a pulling ratio that has you doing double (if not triple) the volume may be something to consider.

The triceps muscle (specifically the long head) attaches to the scapula and can often have an effect shoulder health. People are always like "rotator cuff this" or "upper traps that," which is fine because both can be part of the issue. However, the triceps are never considered when it comes to shoulder health. They should be.

I like to use the ACUMobility Balls in this case, using the vice technique to target the area.

This is a great drill to implement before any upper body day, particularly with overhead pressing.

Coaching cues:

  • Sit back towards your heels while incorporating a full exhale so you can "sink" a little further into thoracic extension.
  • Lock in your lumbar spine.
  • Take another breath in, then exhale as you rotate to one side trying to sink a little further into the stretch.
  • Repeat on other side, aiming for 3-5 reps per side.
  • Call your mother, you big jerk!

This trains both scapular stability and retraction simultaneously which is going to be of high benefit to a lot of lifters.

It's a great standalone exercise, but I've been using it as a filler between sets of bench, squats, or even deadlifts.

This is a great way to work in a little extra shoulder goodness without inducing too much fatigue. I like 8-10 reps per side.

Extra points for shouting "pew, pew, pew" as you do each rep. Do it. DO IT.

This is a bit of a tricky subject because I love pull-ups. They're a fantastic exercise for a variety of reasons. If someone can match their max bench press with a loaded pull-up, their shoulders tend to stay pretty darn healthy and durable.

Nonetheless, I've also found that when people crank up their pull-up volume, it can often make their shoulders cranky. The easy fix? Switch to chin-ups (underhand) or neutral-grip pull-ups.

There's no rule that you have to use an overhand grip, which tends to narrow the acromion space where your rotator cuff runs through. Adopting underhand or neutral-grip variations will help to open up the same space allowing a little more wiggle room.