If you’ve been around the iron long enough, you’ll know that chronically achy and pissed off shoulders are the single most common ailment in athletes and lifters. The next time your shoulders are in the midst of a fiery flare up, remember… there are always smart ways to train through the pain without throwing yourself into a vicious circle of re-injuries and dysfunction.
But where do you start? Luckily, we have brought together 20 of the top coaches, doctors and movement experts in the world to weigh in on their go-to movements for intelligently training their athletes and clients straight through bouts of shoulder pain. Here are the top 20 exercises you should be using right away to get the very most out of your pain-free training!
#1 Resisted Scapular Wall Slide
Often times, shoulder pain is actually a product of insufficient range of motion. To get more range of motion out of the shoulder, it’s useful to look at the thoracic spine, which can be a huge dictator of your shoulders’ health and performance. Poor throacic extension capability leads to a kyphotic upper back and dysfunctional scapular movement. In turn, the shoulders will have a very laboured time going through a full and healthy circumduction.
Long story short, the muscles that are repsonsible for extending the thoracic region are worth tapping into to help bolster the entire shoulder girdle and eliminate pain caused by dysfunction. My go – to movement is actually an advanced version of the wall slide. Scapular wall slides are a decent way to open up the shoulders by way of dynamically stretching the chest and front delts.
The problem is, the solution is likely short-term when there’s no resistance or training applied to the postural muscles responsible for opening up the arms. Using a resisted scapular slide can actually train the thoracic and scapular muscles to get more strength and (more importantly in my opinion) more muscular endurance to help fix the skeletal imbalance and allow the shoulders for more pain-free ROM. The use of ropes and a neutral grip create a better environment than using a palms-forward position also, since the head of the humerus can externally rotate further behind the collarbone where it belongs (see video).
Be sure to sit tall, avoid overarching the back, and above all else use full range of motion. The resistance will want to pull your arms forward at the top; don’t let it. Keep the hands in line with the ears the whole time. Remember: It doesn’t take much weight to get the benefits of this exercise. In the video, I was using no more than 10 pounds.
Most shoulder exercises get defined into singular planes of motion and isolated muscle of the shoulder. For example, the front raise is one of the most common shoulder exercises and is isolated primarily to the sagittal plane and targets the anterior portion of the deltoid. Another popular shoulder exercise is the lateral shoulder raise which also isolates a single plane of motion, the frontal plane. I think this highlights one of the key issues that people run into when training the shoulder, they mostly train it in isolate planes of motion while isolating subsets of the shoulder muscles. In any sport or other dynamic movement in life we work through several planes and engage several different muscles of a joint at once. It may be wise to incorporate exercises that mimic this in your training.
Enter the landmine raise. Several years ago I was introduced to a variation of the shoulder raise that finally made sense to me, the landmine raise. Essentially you take a barbell in the landmine (you can just shove an end in a corner if you train somewhere without a landmine), stand perpendicular to bar, start with your hand at the opposite hip and move your arm straight until it is parallel with the floor. Proper execution of the movement takes your arm through an arc and incorporates frontal, transverse, and sagittal plan movements. It also engages the anterior and lateral aspects of the deltoid along with your rotator cuff muscles and your lats. The extra bonus: if you do this correctly and with limited body English you get a lot of anti-rotation work in as well.
The landmine raise is not something you want to load up the weight and impress your training partner with. This exercise is best reserve for higher rep, lower weight scheme training. Start off with the empty bar and make 5 pounds increments as your strength builds. A good place to start is between 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps depending on your shoulder health and the phase of your training cycle you are in. Speaking completely in terms of anecdotes and bro lore, these make for one hell of a drop set once you progress up to a point where you can strip weight off the bar.
After tinkering with where it fits in a training program I find it works really well in two very different places in your program:
As a warm up exercise to get the shoulders ready for complete destruction.
As a finishing exercise to finish off said shoulder destruction.
What we need is a drill that gives us the same feel as the heavy press and the same effort—all without placing the same strain on the AC joint. This is where the bottoms-up press (BUP) comes into play. The BUP is an interesting drill. Interesting in that I have used it as a one-size-fits-all solution for a variety of problems with the press.
Grip and shoulder stability are tied very tightly together in a single feedback loop. If one doesn’t work properly then the other can’t. Often, when there is a shoulder injury, we also change our form slightly to deal with it. The problem with trying to alter your mechanics is that you’ll often create even more problems.
The BUP is ideal for our needs as it reteaches great form while forcing you to use lighter loads. That may sound problematic, but the body doesn’t register how much you lift, only how much tension you generate. If your form is even slightly off, the kettlebell will fall. This is what makes the BUP ideal as a learning tool. It is automatically apparent what needs to happen and where the point of failure is.
Low reps are a must with the BUP, as the CNS fatigue from the high grip demand is intense. 2-3 sets of 3-5 reps seem to work best prior to your limit presses for the day.
The other side of this equation is that healthy shoulders are not built from pressing alone. For every push, you must have at least one set of pulling to counteract it. While the pull up is usually the choice of functional trainers, I’ll caution against it as the lat also acts as an internal rotator of the arm, so if all you do are presses and pull ups you’re just as likely to end up with bad shoulders as if you only did presses.
We use a variety of weighted mobility drills to achieve healthy shoulders. Here’s how a press workout might look: Lying dislocates with weight – 3 sets of 10 reps. Paired with push-ups for 3 sets of 10-20 reps. BUP – 2 x 5 at 50% and the Y-T-Row – 2 x 5-5-10 .
Training around shoulder pain is always contentious. The number of issues that can present themselves with the shoulder joint are endless, and regardless of how many assessment you perform, training around shoulder pain is still a trial and feedback process.
I could recommend many “safe” variants of overhead pressing; landmine, cables, high incline smith machine, bottoms up KB press, are just some examples. BUT, those recommendations are still arbitrary. I dont suggest specific unless I have a specific case/client. Hence, I have no real offering of what to do with shoulder pain in regards to pressing variant movements, other than dont make it worse.
That said however, I can suggest how I would prepare someone for possible pressing movements, and heavier loading of the shoulder. This preparation would be the Magellan Shoulder Series I demonstrate in this video. This series approaches shoulder integrity from the perspective that scapular movement is the “foundation” of any pressing exercising.
By strengthening the musculature of the scapula, mobilizing the scapulas circulation on the ribcage, and by developing spinal/torso mechanics in a very safe, prone position, you build the required muscular and mobility foundation to progress to heavier, more traditional movements. This series can be used to improve everything from the rear delt hypertrophy, T-spine extension, rotator cuff strength, rhomboid and lower trap engagement, and any intersection thereof.
While I do not have specific sets and reps, generally these movements could be done 1-5 times, 6-20 rep range, and Id suggest higher reps, although if someone is in the early retraining, the movement quality of reach rep would be the decided factor
Shoulder pain sucks and it is quite common with anyone who has been lifting for some time. I won’t go into all the reasons that could be causing it as I will leave that to the rehab pros like Dr. John Rusin. Let’s jump right into what you can do about it regarding exercise.
First, make sure there is no pain. Do not perform any lift that is painful. This is not a maybe question. It is either painful or not. Coach Mike Boyle has discussed this before.
There is not a laundry list of caveats to add to it like “well, it only hurts after I warm up for 20 minutes, start light and I am super careful with my form.” Newsflash dude brah – if there is any pain, stop doing that exercise. Keep it simple. If it painful, do not perform that exact shoulder exercise.
Next, if it’s painful, modify it! If you still are clinging to the fact that you must do direct shoulder work, find an exercise that does not hurt. I even give you permission (not that you need it) to do unilateral work and take it one step further such as only working your right arm in a pressing fashion if your left arm hurts.
Don’t worry, you won’t become an unbalanced crab like creature with one massive arm in a couple weeks. Heck, you may even “balanced out” a few things going on in your asymmetric body. Also look to vary your stance, especially to an asymmetrical set up. Feel free to turn one foot out a bit or even come up on the ball of your foot on one side (stagger/ B-stance). The goal is to not have any pain during the exercise.
Finally, test it bro! I would test your exercise variations with a range of motion / biofeedback test. In short, you measure your ROM (e.g. a forward flex bend), stop at the first sign of any tension, and that is your baseline. For example, after doing the flex forward bend test, you just touch the top of my shoe laces (first place you felt tension).
Then do 2-4 easy reps of a shoulder variation and retest. Let’s say you now get to your second set of shoe laces (lower), hence your ROM has improved and that exercise is good for your body at that time.
Yes, it is quite voo-doo, but you are only using it to help pick between non-painful exercises, so there is not a downside other than a couple seconds of time. It is well worth the investment in my incredibly biased opinion.
Athletes don’t overhead press because they want a big overhead press, they just want to be better athletes. So why have them perform a movement that causes them pain or that they cannot due correctly because of mobility issues. I agree that we need to fix and address the issues as opposed to avoiding a movement, but we need to do something in the mean time to keep the athlete improving their performance. This is where the acceleration press comes in.
The acceleration press may look like a simple landmine press but with these minor technical changes in the acceleration press, you can develop better athletes.
Improved ankle mobility: The leg that is up must maintain a positive shin angle. As a coaching point instruct the athlete to keep the knee above or slightly in front of the toes. This will help improve ankle mobility and feeling force transfer through the ankle, which is what all running involves.
Improved trunk stability: This exercise requires the person to maintain a flat back and control the press through their trunk. If you look at the start position of this press, it is very similar to an athlete accelerating in sports.
Glute and hamstring involvement: What athlete couldn’t use some more glute and hamstring work? With this press the athlete is hinged forward slightly to keep his back flat which requires the glutes and hamstrings to do extra work.
Better for the back: In a typical overhead press, or even in a traditional landmine press, the athlete has a tendency to overarch the lower back and create movement through the lumbar spine. Here we are creating a stable lumber spine with the flat back position, which will translate to a much happier lower back.
Friendly on the shoulder: Everyone has better mobility when only using one arm at a time and this gives you the same plane as an overhead press but utilizing only one arm at a time. On top of this, the fixed nature of the landmine insures a consistent line of movement. This also provides a little more stability in the movement for jacked up shoulders.
Although this variation is not something you have seen in your local gym, it is something you can rest assured that top athletes are performing to become better. If you are a competitive athlete, or just a weekend warrior, and you want a healthier shoulder, back, trunk and a little more power to boot, then try the Acceleration press.
The Mace or Gada swing is one of the oldest implement-assisted training devices known. It is a classical training tool dating back centuries. Its original use was in the wrestling for fighting cultures of ancient Persia and India. The current swing and tool we use, the ShouldeRök™.
The beauty of the swing we teach with the ShouldeRök™ is that it not only engaging and working all the muscle relating to supporting the shoulder girdle. It is also doing a developmental ‘reset’ on how the shoulders function and integrating it with core stabilization and rotation strength. There are very few shoulder issues that are not improved by increasing health and function.
This method is designed to help:
Retrain your nervous system to ensure a stable, braced, neutral spinal position for maximal and safe performance under a heavy load.
Improve scapular and overall shoulder mobility, especially for athletes with impingement due to years of wear and poor movement.
Increase rotational strength and athleticism in pulsing (speed to contraction and speed to relaxation).
Reinforce correct breathing to further support spinal bracing for ALL heavy lifts and movements that require transfer of power from the ground into an implement (ball, bat, club, etc.)
You cannot use the ShouldeRok correctly without setting up properly, in this sense it is a tool that reinforces a principle required of all athletes – power transfer through the core.
It is also a fabulous movement warm-up tool preparing you for the workout by improving shoulder mechanics, priming the CNS, and bringing up your heart rate quickly. Talk about efficiently with completing your warm-up, rehab, and prehab all in a few minutes, while having fun and looking like a badass to boot!
When used correctly will increase strength, mobility, and continuously reinforce our need for core stabilization. The ShouldeRök™ challenges us as athletes; aids in reaching new PRs and most importantly, helps to keep us injury free and lifting like Vikings for years to come. The ShouldeRök™ is partly inspired by Ragnarök the Viking prophecy of destruction and subsequent rebirth of the world. The remaining inspiration comes from me and my own personal shoulder and elbow issues.
Shoulder pain sucks, but it doesn’t mean that you have to stop training the upper body. We just need to be smarter about the way we are choosing our movements, and on top of that, we need to prioritize placing movements into the program that are not only shoulder friendly but will build stability back into this region.
The banded face pull plus pull apart combo is a great movement for anyone who is slumped over with poor posture that leads to their shoulders falling forward and rotating inward. These movements are exactly what many people with front sided shoulder pain need to get out of that poor position, and strengthen the backs of the shoulders which will help not only alleviate pain from reversing chronic everyday positions, but also work to correct the origins of postural dysfunction.
The band is a great tool for people training through pain as it offers a variable resistance. Simply put, as you pull back on the band, it will create more and more resistance due to the elastic stretching out. This will automatically slow down movements and make them inherently safer for people who are already gun shy from training the upper body while experiencing shoulder pain.
Stay slow and deliberate with the movements, and use a pain-free range of motion that focuses on squeezing the muscles hard to tap into that mind-muscle connection, and really get a pump going in the backs of the shoulders. This combo is a staple movement of our pain-free programming for a reason, it works! Give it a try.
#9 Front Rack Shoulder Isometric Shoulder External Rotation
Finding the right exercise for someone with shoulder pain is a challenge. We need to find pain free exercises for athletes to perform so they can build strength rather than avoiding all shoulder exercises. Pain free loading is where the money is at.
One of my go to drills that targets the shoulder (and also gets at the rotator cuff) is a shoulder external rotation isometric. Essentially you use a mini band, put both of your arms through it so the band is above your wrists on your forearms. Start with your elbows down at your sides, hands pointing forward, and then separate your wrists so that your wrists are the same distance apart as your elbows (forearms should be perpendicular). Hold that position for 30 seconds. Take a break at a 1:1 work to rest ratio. After the rest, perform another isometric hold, except this time raise your elbows up about 45 degrees (making sure it still is pain free). Then separate your wrists so the forearms are parallel and hold. After resting, repeat again trying to get up to where your elbows are pointing straight out in front of you.
Go through this and try to accumulate 3-5 minutes of time under tension and hit all the different angles that are pain free. Cycle through the pain free heights of this drill until you’ve hit the 3-5 minutes of work time. Example: 30 second hold with elbows at side, rest 30 seconds, 30 second hold with elbows halfway up, rest 30 seconds, 30 second hold with elbows pointing forward, rest 30 seconds. Repeat this 3x.
At some point, nearly every lifter experiences the bane of pain-free performance: Twingy, achy, and painful shoulders.
And with the shoulders playing a role in nearly all exercises, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Suddenly, you’re left with three options: Suck it up and train through pain, cease training, or tweak your program with intelligent tweaks to your current program. We’ll go ahead with your third option, intelligent tweaks to your current program.
Shoulder pathology is different in nearly every case, but one exercise most folks can use for pain-free progress is the dumbbell chest supported row.
Here’s how to do it: Set an incline bench at 45-60 degrees, scoot your kiester (yes, kiester) up the bench so your head hangs over the top of the bench in a neutral position. Keep your torso glued to the bench, holding dumbbells in each hand, and keep your shoulders down and back. The beauty of this position is it’s self-correcting. If you’re wiggling off the bench, you’re cheating. Tsk, Tsk.
Performing the row leaves you with two separate options:
Tuck the elbows to your sides, creating a greater focus on your lats.
Flare your elbows out, hammering your traps, rhomboids, or rear delts.
In either case don’t jam your elbows as far back as possible, but stop when your upper arm breaks the plane of your torso. Haphazardly rowing as far back as possible might lead to a better “squeeze,” but the humerus may slam forward into the anterior socket of your shoulder, exacerbating impingement and dysfunction.
In either position, perform an isometric hold for 2-3 seconds at the top, contracted state. This teaches ideal shoulder positioning for other row variations, improves your mind muscle connection, and optimizes muscular recruitment for size, strength, and stability without much stress to your beat up shoulders.
It can be frustrating working around shoulder injuries, especially if you love to train heavy compound movements like the overhead press. To avoid aggravating my shoulder injury by adding unnecessary stress to the muscle with free weight movements requiring added stabilization, I try to opt for machine alternatives to work the muscle in the safest and most effective way, enabling me to get the work in while working around the injury and avoiding making matters worse.
When trying to replicate the effect of the standing overhead press with machines I found many seated press machines put my shoulder in a precarious position, often forcing me into a range of movement that stressed the injury, or forcing a hand position that caused discomfort. To work around these problems with the machines designed specifically for shoulder press, I created my own using a standard V-squat machine.
This movement allows me to replicate that of an overhead press while removing the stabilization component and slightly shortening the range of motion at the top, avoiding full extension and minimizing the risk of injury while keeping constant tension on the muscle. Even without injury this exercise can be a great addition to a super set or to use as a burn out exercise at the end of a workout, don’t mind the looks!
Shoulder mobility has both pros and cons, and for the competitive athlete this reality becomes even more of a concerning issue. You see, the impressive mobility of the shoulder joint must be combined with a high degree of stability, and this is where the conflict typically occurs.
Regardless of the sport, a healthy shoulder will have a high degree of balance between mobility and stability. When there is imbalance, whether in the strength of the shoulder muscles (i.e. anterior vs. posterior) or in stability vs. mobility, there is a greater risk of impairment or injury.
Even when there’s no pathology of an injury, an athlete’s shoulder is more vulnerable in every day life and requires proactive attention both in preventive measures as well as exercise selection. There are certain exercises, or variations, that should be avoided by a percentage of the population.
There are several barbell and dumbbell variations of the traditional Bench Press and Overhead Press that we implement regularly with those experiencing shoulder pain, such as the Floor Press with a parallel-grip bar, single-arm DB Floor Press, and Overhead “Rack” Press (bar slides along upright of rack) to name a few.
When designing programs for our athletes, I target a 2:1 ratio of exercises that emphasize the posterior shoulder over the anterior region. Also, there will be frequent situations where conventional barbell pressing exercises, and even dumbbell variations, are not tolerated by certain athletes. When this is the case, we have a few prime go-to applications to make certain we are addressing that aspect of the upper body in a way that provides our desired training effect.
One of our go-to applications for upper body push alternatives when Barbell/ Dumbbell Press variations are contraindicated is the single-handed Landmine Press. The version I tend to prefer for those experiencing acute shoulder pain or dysfunction is the standing version with added band resistance and inside a power rack. Holding the rack serves to reinforce optimal technique, keeping ribcage down, and the band optimizes the loading for this strength curve especially for athletes 5’ 9” and above.
Overhead pressing is one of the fundamental movement patterns, and is a movement that most people are required to perform on a daily basis. Unfortunately, due to injury, or in many cases, a lack of mobility, many people struggle to perform overhead pressing movements. Many people try to force the issue and continue to overhead press, even though they do not have the requisite levels of mobility and/or strength to do so safely and effectively. As a result, they do not achieve optimal results, and they often exacerbate their issues.
The half kneeling single arm Landmine press is one of my go-to exercises for people who have shoulder (or mobility) issues and are not able to perform any overhead pressing variations as it is a lot friendlier on the shoulders, and it yields most (if not all) of the same benefits. Another benefit of this exercise is that it really works the core muscles and trains the body to resist both extension and rotation, so you get a huge bang for your buck. Aside from pressing the barbell in a diagonal plane by extending your elbow, there should be no other movement occurring in your body.
It is important that you pay attention to your alignment for the duration of the exercise. Your spine should remain neutrally aligned. Your torso and hips should remain level and should never rotate, your legs should be hip width apart, and your knee should not deviate medially or laterally.
You should also maintain a tripod foot (weight on the mid/back of your foot and keep all of your toes down, especially the big and baby toe) as this will dramatically improve your overall stability and ability to perform the exercise. As for the arm that is performing the pressing movement, it should be in a straight line with your armpit, and as you bring your arm back in towards your body, stop when your upper arm is in line with your side, and make sure that your arm remains tight to your body the entire time. If your arm travels away from your body in a lateral direction, it will put your shoulder under unnecessary stress.
#14 One-Arm Kettlebell Bottoms Up Carry w/ Elbow at 90 Degrees
If I had to pick one exercise that is user-friendly, and in most cases doesn’t provoke any negative symptoms for the athlete, I will prescribe the following exercise: 1-Arm KB Bottoms Up Carry with Arm at 90 Degrees.
By holding the KB in the “bottoms up” position, it creates a situation where the hand holding the bell is forced to react to the stimulus. In this case, the stimulus would be to stabilize the KB without letting it drop, which is reactive in nature.
This exercise also forces you to create tension. Tension can be a very friendly tool when talking about shoulder stability and rotator cuff strength. You need to think about squeezing that KB with your hand as if you’re trying to smother it and make it melt. Also, be sure to create tension with the other hand (down by your side) by either making a fist, or squeezing a tennis ball or empty water bottle with the cap twisted on tightly for maximal tension.
Inherently, this recruits the forearms muscles and the little shoulder stabilizer muscles to turn on and fire as well. On another note, it forces you to be in a good, stacked position with your rib cage aligned pristinely over your pelvis. Be sure to also create relative anterior core and spinal stiffness, as if you were in a Plank exercise.
Lastly, those dealing with overhead pain or the inability to control your shoulders in the overhead position, this exercise serves as a nice bridge in between shoulder level and overhead, because it’s right in the middle. It also helps to provide more awareness and a reference point for when you eventually train the overhead position as well.
Sometimes injuries or pain result in the creation of fantastic exercise alternatives or variations to the standard main lifts we would like to perform (but can’t due to pain). In the case of a bothersome shoulder, you’ll see a few pressing variations that can frequently be doable even in the presence of a nagging shoulder issue. Bottom up KB pressing, trap bar pressing, floor pressing, scrape the rack press, landmine press, or even machine pressing are all fantastic variations which should be explored if traditional big barbell or dumbbell pressing is exacerbating your shoulder issue.
However, the unfortunate truth is that sometimes, while these alternatives may not actively hurt or worsen your nagging shoulder issue, they may not be providing your shoulder the rest it needs to fully recover. You may need to take some time skipping pressing in order to let that cranky shoulder recover once and for all. Yes, pressing is fun, but pain-free pressing is even more fun. So take a month and spend it building up other pain-free body parts and supporting attributes of the press.
If implementing pressing modifications don’t help to improve the shoulder issue, it’s time to stop being stubborn and stop pressing. This doesn’t mean ignoring the shoulder girdle completely – we can can still work stability, pulling, and controlled range of motion to provide beneficial stimulus to the complex joint. Pain-free overhead pressing requires enough stability in the trunk to provide a stable platform to press off of, stability in the shoulder girdle and it’s supportive musculature, good scapulohumeral rhythm, and enough shoulder flexion to safely and comfortably get the arm overhead without compromising the position of the trunk. An exercise that works all of these is the Front Plank Cable/Band Row.
Set up in a front plank position, but with your feet wider than normal (just wider than shoulder width) while facing a low cable or band. Extend one arm and grab the cable/band and perform controlled rows. Despite being in a plank position this is actually a vertical pull. You’ll find that the glutes, lats, obliques, and abs have no choice but to work together in this drill. The front plank row challenges anti-rotation and anti-extension while simultaneously requiring you to demonstrate enough stability in the shoulder complex of the base arm to have a stable base from which to row. This exercise helps you learn how to coordinate your overhead pulling motion while being strong through the trunk. Don’t be scared to pull heavy on this exercise.
In almost 30 years of training I am fortunate enough to say that I’ve never had any major shoulder issues, outside of permanently separating my left shoulder while playing football.
I absolutely believe the reason for this is due to the fact that I have always done a significant amount of behind the neck work like behind the neck press and behind the neck pulldowns.
These kinds of movements of course, are frowned upon by the physical therapy community and the overthinkers of exercise science who ignore that both the hip and shoulder are both ball and socket joints with tremendous rotational ability that, if trained for, can be taken through extreme ranges of motion in a safe manner.
It becomes unsafe to do so when lifters do not put or keep the practice of such movements into their training, thus maintaining a high degree of mobility and flexibility in those joints.
Their response is the usual case of impingement and rotator cuff stability however Olympic lifters have been putting weights behind their head for decades and the Oly lifting community isn’t riddled with complaints of shoulder problems. It’s the powerlifting and sometimes bodybuilding community that has that problem. Mainly because of too much bench pressing and not enough attention to shoulder work, scapular mobility, and postural balance.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. For guys who do have shoulder problems I suggest they find a way to work in movements that are done behind the head. And if they can’t, performing shoulder dislocates with a band or broomstick until that level of mobility can be reached is a good start.
#17 Bottoms Up Eccentric Isometric Kettlebell Press with Perturbation
My approach to working with shoulder injuries is very unique in that I really don’t work around shoulder injuries. Instead I have my athletes and clients work through the injuries by strategically incorporating standard upper body resistance movements that involve the shoulder joint (i.e. horizontal push and pull and vertical push and pull movements). However this is done with specialized protocols.
When an athlete suffers a shoulder injury 95% of the time it’s not simply a random fluke or bad luck. Whether it’s chronic buildup of inflammation or an acute injury, in nearly every scenario, the root cause is poor shoulder function and faulty upper body mechanics. Even if the injury was supposedly due to impact (such as commonly witnessed in contact sports), if the muscles around the shoulder had been firing correctly and the individual had proper shoulder mechanics, the muscles around the glenohumeral joint would have been able to absorb force and protect the shoulder from various forms of trauma and strain including high impact. It’s when the muscles are not firing properly that injury occurs around the shoulder joint regardless of how strong the individual is.
Because the root cause is dysfunctional movement, the solution lies in restoring proper scapulohumeral rhythm and optimal glenohumeral joint mechanics. In other words, I’ll take an athlete and have them perform variations of rows, pullups/ pulldowns, chest press, and overhead presses with lighter loads while simultaneously teaching them how to correct their body mechanics and eliminate dysfunctional positions. This is done through a combination of eccentric isometrics, bottoms up movements, eyes closed protocols, hanging band exercises, perturbation training, offset loading, and other forms of proprioceptive training that promote optimal neuromuscular re-education.
As a result (typically after several workouts) the athlete is able to perform any and all movements including barbell bench presses and overhead barbell presses. In addition, not only does the re-education process allow them to thoroughly train their upper body during the time of the injury, but improving their upper body mechanics and incorporating sensory integrated movement literally acts as the most effective form of therapy and healing there is. It’s for this reason I don’t program any soft tissue work, stretching, mobility drills, rotator cuff exercises, foam rolling, traditional therapeutic modalities, or corrective exercises but instead rely on correct exercise itself to provide the cure rather than treating the symptoms.
Having worked with quite few serious shoulder injuries the one thing I’ve consistently witnessed (regardless of the severity of the injury) is that an injured person can literally perform any and all of the same movements a healthy person can perform (this includes overhead presses). The difference is there is no room for error and the execution must be spot on. Therein lies the art of coaching.
There’s an old saying in strength circles that if you want healthy shoulders, stay away from straight bar work. I call BS: it’s excessive straight bar work that FUBAR’s your shoulder joints, not straight bar work by itself.
One common error (that I’m prone to personally) is flaring the elbows too much while benching. And a great fix for this problem is the so-called football bar. This unique tool features angled handles that pretty much require you to tuck your elbows. Not only will your shoulders thank you, you may also quickly discover that it’s your triceps that are your real weak link, not your pecs.
So between happy shoulders, bigger stronger triceps, and an overall change of pace from straight bar work, your progress will catapult in ways you never expected.
One of the biggest problems people have with overhead work for both pressing and pulling is a lack of shoulder stability. Our industry loves to force feed mobility fixes for stability problems, but the only place that gets athletes and lifters is chronically injured.
Sure, there are a bunch of complex and highly trivial ways to increase shoulder stability through manual therapy, movement repatterning and corrective exercise, but you know what? Sometimes the best fixes are also the easiest to implement. And that statement has never been more true than with the Scrape The Rack Press variation.
By forcing the barbell up against the side of the rack as you press overhead, the friction and force that is generated actively between the bar and the rack helps to kick in and spark the irradiation effect, which increases dynamic stability at complex and mobile joints like the shoulder. Using a false grip on the bar can also help position the shoulders in a more centrated position to work from, and has been more well tolerated for my athletes over the years.
The key is to accelerate the bar up the rack and drive it not only directly up, but into the rack as hard as you can to increase the frictional force. The more friction you can generate, the more stable your shoulders will be. And as a side note, the next time your physical therapist tells you not to overhead press, show them this list!
People don’t move very well nowadays. Specifically when it comes to overhead movement, it’s all I can do to keep my corneas from jumping out my eye sockets. It’s that bad.
I’ve long championed the notion that people need to “earn the right to overhead press.” Due to any number of factors – soft tissue restrictions, poor scapular movement quality, an extensive injury history, poor programming and technique, to name a few – many trainees have lost the ability to bring their arms overhead without 1) major compensation patterns (excessive lumbar extension, forward head posture) and/or 2) the presence of pain or discomfort.
Figuring out WHY someone lacks shoulder flexion would be step one. But it’s also just as important to try to elicit a training effect; treating people like delicate flowers at all times rarely works.
Whenever I work with individuals with shoulder pain, one of my “go to” exercises in the landmine press. We can think of it as “fake” overhead pressing. It still trains the upper body (and the shoulder complex), but does so within a ROM that keeps people out of the danger zone. This exercise in combination with helping to address any scapular dysfunction or general tissue quality issues is a step in the right direction.