One of the most frustrating issues a lifter can deal with is a pair of lousy shoulders. Depending on the severity of the trouble, they can affect nearly every upper body movement and can seriously slow down progress.
Before you settle and shift into atrophy mode, it makes sense to first review your overall program and see if anything can be tweaked. Chances are that a few subtle changes in your exercise selection will noticeably improve the way your delts move, feel, and eventually look.
But rather than reading some long, preachy article full of lame rotator cuff rehab movements with 3-pound dumbbells, it makes more sense to explain what the majority of lifters usually do wrong, rather than talking about what they should be doing right.
Some of the most common exercises can straight-up mangle shoulders that are already susceptible to injury, so let's check your training for inconspicuous shoulder-screwer-uppers.
Why's This "Shoulder Stuff" Important?
Allowing dull aches and recurring pain to marinate in the shoulder joint for any period of time can lead to chronic injury; one of the most common being impingement syndrome, or a lack of mobility in the shoulder joint capsule that can cause abrasions of muscle tissue and plenty of inflammation when attempting full range of motion.
It's a good idea to know which exercises just don't do your body any favors when it comes to crappy shoulders, and design your training accordingly.
The Problem with "Delts and Arms Day"
An often-seen but seldom-addressed training error is fully exposed when lifters decide to train arms and shoulders on the same day. More specifically, doing barbell or dumbbell curls (or other direct biceps work) before doing overhead pressing.
Many lifters think nothing of prioritizing biceps to get a wicked arm pump, and finish the workout with shoulder presses and other delt work. The drawbacks of doing this may not affect the lifter that same day, but can set the stage for chronic injuries in the future.
From an anatomical perspective, the biceps have a short and long head. The short head attaches into the corocoid process on the upper-inside of the scapula. The long head attaches into the supraglenoid tubercle, very close to where the humerus attaches to the scapula via the rotator cuff. All of this is more or less encapsulated by the three deltoid muscles.
See where I'm going with this? If not, you will soon, so don't fall asleep just yet.
When the biceps are pumped full of blood and both biceps tendons are inflamed from direct use, there's a general decrease in overall space through the shoulder capsule, where integrity of motion is extremely essential.
For any lifter, especially lifters with a history of some form of shoulder impingement, adding multiple sets of shoulder presses after biceps work does nothing but stir the pot for abrasions to tendons, or subacromial bursae, and has the potential to leave your shoulders tighter than a virgin on prom night, and not in a good way.
Fortunately, there are a few ways to turn "shoulder and arm day" into a productive and joint-friendly session. First, simply shunt some of the blood away from the biceps and their attachment points by performing an exercise for a different muscle group before moving to your overhead pressing. For example, performing some type of ab work to allow the blood to partially clear from the shoulder area.
A second idea, my personal favorite, would be to say the hell with curls as a dedicated "arm day," and stimulate them with close-grip chin-ups and rope pulls on your back day, plus a few curl variations at the end of a different workout for the added weekly volume they need to grow.
The third and more basic option would be to simply train the shoulders completely and then move on to your biceps workout. This way the overhead lifts and shoulder work will have happened before too much blood had a chance to enter the shoulder capsule (from biceps training) and impingement potential is lowered.
If You're Gonna Dip, Dip Right!
We know that compound exercises can be much more effective for muscle growth, and when it comes to the triceps, bench dips are often at the top of the list. That's why so many lifters will think they're doing right by setting up across two benches, piling a bunch of 45s on their lap, and doing some "apparently" technically-sound bench dips.
I'll be the first to say that there are definitely "correct" and "incorrect" ways to perform this particular exercise, but the bigger issue is whether even doing them the "correct" way is beneficial.
Basic structural anatomy will tell us that the shoulder won't be adequately prepared to move heavy loads from an internally-rotated position...which is exactly how our hands and arms are setup in a bench dip. The head of the humerus slides forward in front of the clavicle and encourages shoulder impingement.
No matter how high a lifter pushes the chest up to counter this risky position, there's just no correction for this phenomenon in the bottom position. It's like taking your fat girlfriend to the beach. Even the best outcome isn't something you really want to see.
Bench dips can be a very effective exercise to target the lateral head of the triceps, but recognize that they'll be targeted at the potential expense of the shoulder's health. Even "perfect" technique will place a load of stress to the rotator cuff muscles while obstructing the breathing space surrounding the acromion process and underlying bursa.
Dip variations aren't the king of triceps exercises as it is, but if you've decided to include some type of dip, using parallel bars creates a world of difference. By using parallel bars, you change the hand and shoulder position from internally rotated to the more joint-friendly neutral position.
The proximal end of the humerus will shift backward to a more ideal position and as an added bonus, you'll hit a greater percentage of your three triceps heads. The added stimulation will have the back of your arm looking like a set of hamstrings in no time. Long story short, parallel bar dips are the key for healthier shoulders and bigger tris.
The True Shoulder Dilemma: Upright Rows vs. High Pulls
Almost everyone who's ever touched a weight has had some experience with barbell upright rows gumming up their shoulders at some point, whether it was from going too heavy, using a weird grip width, pulling too high, or just doing too much volume.
The upright row has always been a kind of multi-tasker, often being used either as a delt exercise or an exercise for the traps. However, one slight technical adjustment can shift a persistently painful exercise to a productively pain-free exercise.
When the upright row is used to predominately work the deltoids, the traps will be deactivated to allow the pull to come from the mid delt. It can provide a great stimulus for this muscle group, but once again, it comes at a price. As we discussed with the bench dip, loading an internally rotated arm is just asking for trouble, especially with heavy loads.
With the upright row, I've found there's just too much joint stress that outweighs the benefits... but (yes, there's a but)... elevating the shoulder by activating the traps makes the exercise much more trap-dominant, especially on the positive part of the lift. The delts will still contribute plenty of work, especially on the negative.
Just using the exercise as a trap-dominant movement will greatly reduce the injury potential, but we can take the results one step further by using more fast-twitch muscle fibers in the movement.
Initiating the lift with leg drive and turning the upright row into a high pull allows a lifter to use more weight and move it more explosively, which generally produces greater strength and muscle. Now the traps have no choice but to contract strongly, and that's what they tend to respond best to.
Plus, in the high pull, the lifter starts in a slightly more bent-over position, which makes the bar path begin from directly below the scapulae in the start position. This lets more supporting back muscles assist in powering the lift up to shoulder-level.
And anyway, the whole exercise just looks badass!
No More Flat Bench Press
The barbell flat bench press is considered the king of upper body exercises by many old school bodybuilders and there are so many schools of thought regarding this exercise's effectiveness that I don't really want to begin to stir that particular pot.
As it is, I've already provided enough controversy fodder in this article to last me until 2012. What I will say about the flat bench press is that keeping a "high" chest and locked, retracted scapulae during the lift will go a long way in helping to avoid lots of shoulder issues from what some consider "the upper body squat."
But what if your shoulders still flare up even with good form, moderate weights, and reasonable volume? Then it's definitely time to consider retiring the traditional flat bench and check out alternatives. Some of the better options:
Decline bench press — There's virtually no shoulder involvement in the exercise, and you can hit the sternal pectoralis (what some might call the "lower chest") really damn hard.
Reverse-grip bench press — Basically the same as the standard bench press set-up, but turn your hands so that the palms are facing towards your head instead of your feet. This will externally rotate the whole arm, which puts the shoulders in a much more favorable position for the lift, decreasing injury potential without compromising range of motion,
Pin press — If you're a tall lifter, or a short lifter with orangutan-esque arms, pin presses may not give you the full range of motion that you'd get from a traditional bench press, but it will allow you to move the weight using strict muscular contractions with zero momentum. You can tap into a ton of muscle when you move a weight from a static stop.
It's also a test of true strength, since there's no involvement of the stretch shortening cycle to change the direction of the bar. Overall, the pin press is a good option, even though it means you have to sacrifice a couple of inches at the bottom of your shoulder-unfriendly bench press.
Remember The Big Picture
Sure, you can do band pull-aparts, wall slides, and all sorts of rows for preventative maintenance, but if the exercises in your actual workout are poorly selected (especially if you have a history of bad shoulders), you're just wasting time and putting yourself in harm's way every training session.
If you've been dealing with shoulder issues, it's finally time to give your entire program a review and make the necessary adjustments. Don't worry, you can just give me a "thank you" high five the next time you see me... if your shoulders are up to it.