Nagging front-sided shoulder pain: you've probably felt it before. If so, you know it can be a death sentence for your training. It's common for lifters, but you can eradicate it and train without limitations again. How? One movement: the band pull-apart.
The band pull-apart and the three variations below can clean up achy shoulders and prevent future injuries. But for it to work, you've got to do them correctly and daily. Yes, every single day – that is, if you want your shoulders to stay healthy. But it's not as complicated as it sounds.
1 – The Traditional Band Pull-Apart
What makes the traditional band pull-apart so effective? It retrains shoulders to function around pain by getting them to move in the opposite direction that they're in most often.
As we sit and slouch over computers, cell phones, and steering wheels, our shoulders stay in a rounded forward posture. The shoulder blade is forced into protraction (forward), upward rotation (up and around the side of the thoracic cage), and elevation in a forward and internally rotated position secondary to rounding at the thoracic spine.
This position becomes habitual. The intrinsic scapular stabilizers and posterior shoulder musculature change as a result. How? Well, over time these muscles become functionally shortened and weakened, which is bad news for the stability and strength of the shoulder joint, especially when it comes to the big compound exercises.
Think of the pull-apart as a practice that'll cancel out shitty posture. When you do it, you're moving the shoulders into horizontal abduction – a commonly neglected plane of motion among lifters.
With the shoulder and scapula moving pristinely, the thoracic spine will also be trained to move into a more neutral position on the backside of the movement. This completes the triad of pull-apart awesomeness.
The traditional band pull-apart is best programmed as a warm-up or primer movement for anterior-chain dominant training (lifting with the front side) like right before you bench press. When programmed with multiple sets between 10-20 reps, this movement provides the correction and activation the posterior shoulder girdle needs to function pain-free and support big pressing movements.
2 – The 3-Way Pull-Apart
Preparing your shoulders for heavy lifting should involve more activation work and less mobility work, especially through the upper back and scapular musculature. This variation activates the entire posterior shoulder girdle from multiple angles.
Take the traditional pull-apart and diversify the angles of pull. This will emphasize the activation of certain scapular musculature and it'll be closely matched to the main training movements of the day. Just keep it simple and focus on three different angles:
- Start by elevating your arms and pulling apart from your forehead in the first overhead position. Do 8-12 reps.
- Move the band down in front of your neck and knock out another 8-12. This angle should feel very familiar as it's close to the traditional pull-apart line of pull.
- Finish off at the height of your lower sternal notch just below the chest.
The first position, at forehead height, integrates the function of the upper trap with the shoulder blades. The second angle, in front of the neck, moves the scaps in more of a straight protraction while placing an emphasis on thoracic spine extension. The final position targets the lower trap and will help you smooth out movements of the shoulder blades into upward and downward rotation.
Do this variation before rowing and deadlifting. Doing 25-40 reps per set can be pretty challenging, so use a band resistance that'll allow you to use good form and get a pump. Focus on quality over quantity.
3 – The Star Pattern Pull-Apart
This one combines the traditional pull-apart with pulls that initiate the shoulders into overhead side positions. The position of the upper arm should mirror your overhead squat grip and angle, while your lower arm will pull down at approximately 30 degrees off your side.
Between each different line of pull, you'll return your hands to the original front-of-chest position while maintaining tension through the band. As you pull it apart in any direction, focus on peaking the end range of motion of the contraction and focusing on the rotation of the hands and shoulders.
To make it even more effective, try driving the hands away from one another as far as you can while moving the shoulders into slight external rotation at the back side of the rep. This should happen naturally, but if you're using the star pattern to initiate rotation, this is another variable to consider.
Program these in your dynamic warm-up with 2-3 sets, 4-6 reps in each direction before any upper body training days that involve pushing, pulling, or rotation at the shoulders.
4 – The Alternating Overhead Iso Pull-Apart
This variation is great if you struggle with activation. You may be lacking the ability to externally rotate to create maximal tension through the muscles and position at the shoulder joint. So how do you fix this? By simplifying the dynamic component of the movement.
After the initial pull-apart driving the hands away from each other and flexing the back hard, one hand is going to rotate up into the overhead position while the opposite side will come down to the side.
The top hand will move into the overhead position, maintaining the tension in the band and externally rotating to pack the shoulders and keep in a centrated position. The bottom hand will reciprocate this movement, bringing the arm down to around 45 degrees and moving into internal rotation.
People rarely need more shoulder mobility. If you struggle with keeping your shoulders healthy, you need better stability and control through the range of motion you have.
Mobility isn't a cure-all. If you want healthy shoulders you can't depend on doing the same old stuff that's never worked in the past. This is why I love dynamic stability drills like this one. You can do it before ANY upper body lifts.
What makes this drill so powerful is the dynamic stabilization of the shoulders moving into elevation, depression, internal rotation and external rotation, all while coordinating the movement with the entire upper body and spine.
Move slowly and keep maximal tension through the band at all times. After a peak hold at the top, you'll alternate and bring the opposite side up. The movement pattern itself is similar to the star pattern pull-apart, but you're focusing on dynamic stabilization instead of training active ranges of motion in the overhead and shoulder to the side positions.
"Feel" your way to perfect execution. Move slowly through 2-3 rounds of 5 reps on each side to prep the shoulder before your next pull-emphasized training day which involves things like pull-ups. Maintain glute, core, and shoulder tension while actively contracting throughout. The more focus you put into this, the more you'll get out of it.