It’s tempting to load up a barbell and try to toss it overhead — no warm-up, just feeling super cool. But if you’ve ever gone into a workout cold, you might have learned the hard way that your muscles and joints need a lot of love before you ask them to go all out.
Your shoulders in particular might be easy to neglect in your warm-up. As your most mobile joints — and potentially your least stable muscles — your shoulders need special attention during your warm-up. But your program might overlook them as getting sufficiently warmed up if you’re just swinging your arms back and forth a few times.
Instead, try taking your shoulders through a series of warm-up exercises that wakes up your joints for mobility and activates your muscles for stability. Whether you’re working your shoulders directly or using them as an indirect part of your bench press or low bar squat, learn these shoulder warm-up exercises to make the most of your session.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.
Best Shoulder Warm-Up Exercises
- Band Pull-Apart
- Face Pull
- Banded Lateral Raise
- Scapular Slide
- Banded Overhead Reach
- Hand Walkout
- Lateral Plank Walk
- Crab Reach
- Scapular Push-Up
- Scapular Pull-Up
Doing YTWs helps prepare your joints to be mobile and your muscles to be stable. As you continue your reps, you’ll gradually increase your range of motion to get your joints ready for movement. As for your muscles, YTWs wakes up your entire shoulder, with an emphasis on your oft-neglected rear delts.
You can perform these weighted or unweighted. If you do go for a weighted option, use extremely light weights — think, those two-pounders that you otherwise might never pick up. The purpose is not fatigue, just activation.
Benefits of the YTW
- YTWs prepare your shoulders to be both mobile and stable during loaded movements.
- You’ll move through three different movements per rep, maximizing your efforts while not overloading your muscles.
- This move helps activate your rear delts, which are often neglected during both warm-ups and workouts.
How to Do the YTW
Stand upright with a slight hinge in your hips. Straighten your arms. On an exhale, slowly extend them up to frame your head in a Y position. Inhaling, lower them back down. Exhale and slowly lift your arms out to your sides to create a T shape. Lower down. On an exhale, slowly raise your arms up and out into a W position. Keep your shoulder blades back and down. Lower your arms. That’s one rep.
This classic warm-up move is also used between sets of heavy lifts. It may be particularly useful in between bench press sets when you want to keep your shoulders and lats ready for action.
Benefits of the Band Pull-Apart
- This move helps train you to initiate pulls with your rear delts and upper back rather than yanking with your arms.
- Warming up your shoulders can also help strengthen them, which is exactly what this move can help do.
- Band pull-aparts also target your upper back.
How to Do the Band Pull-Apart
Stand tall with a resistance band in your hands. Your palms can face up or down. Hold the band at chest level. Bring your shoulder blades together as you extend your arms out to your sides. Pull the band until you reach maximum tension. Hold for a beat. Under control, let the band come back to the starting position. Repeat for reps.
The face pull is another shoulder and upper back activation exercise that serves as an excellent warm-up. Whether you’re getting ready to overhead press or deadlift, you’ll want your rear delts activated.
Benefits of the Face Pull
- You’ll strengthen your oft-neglected rear delts while also warming them up for heavier loads.
- This move requires that you keep a steady core to maintain position, so it can help activate your core as well.
- By keeping your shoulder blades back and down even while you’re using your shoulder muscles, you’re training your body to lead with your delts instead of yanking with your arms.
How to Do the Face Pull
Grasp a triceps rope or resistance band with both hands. Stand far enough away from the anchor point so that there’s tension in the cable or band. The anchor point should be at or slightly above face level. Keeping your shoulder blades back and down, pull the rope toward and to the sides of your face. Hold for a beat. Slowly let the cable or band return to starting position. Repeat for reps.
This move will wake up your lateral delts and get you ready to press. Banded lateral raises isolate your lateral delts as much as possible. That helps get you ready to engage your entire shoulder in pressing movements.
Don’t be afraid to use a lighter-than-usual resistance band here. You want to place an emphasis on activation rather than fatigue.
Benefits of the Banded Lateral Raise
- By isolating your lateral delts, you’re ensuring that your front and rear delts aren’t getting all the attention.
- This move teaches you to keep your torso steady while your shoulders do the work.
- Banded lateral raises provide tension to your shoulders without overtaxing them.
How to Do the Banded Lateral Raise
Stand on a resistance band and hold the end in your hands. Stand upright with a soft bend in your elbows. Raise your arms out and to the sides until you’re in a T position. Slowly lower your arms back down. Repeat for reps.
If you’re not used to performing overhead movements for reps, your muscles may well get tired with this. Take breaks and shake it out as needed, because you want to maintain a focus on improving your range of motion.
Benefits of the Scapular Slide
- This is an unloaded warm-up that doesn’t require you to overtax your muscles.
- Scapular slides give you practice moving into overhead positions.
- You can use a wall for kinesthetic feedback to help you feel your shoulder position.
How to Do the Scapular Slide
Stand in front of a wall with your elbows bent at 90 degrees and your hands facing up. Try to touch your upper arms and the backs of your forearms to the wall. If that’s not accessible to your body, opt to perform this move sitting on an upright weight bench or chair. Slowly straighten your arms until they’re locked out above your head. Avoid jutting your neck forward or flaring your rib cage. Keep the backs of your forearms either against the wall or in line with the top of the bench. Lower slowly. Repeat for reps.
Instead, you’ll be focusing on reaching — one of the most functional moves you can do with and for your shoulders. You likely reach for something pretty much every day. This move won’t just help in the gym. It will reinforce solid movement patterns for home, too.
Benefits of the Banded Overhead Reach
- You’ll train your body to keep a stable core — instead of a flared rib cage — when you reach overhead.
- This move will work to improve your shoulder and thoracic mobility by having you extend up and over your head.
- The banded overhead reach helps you prepare to perform presses and overhead carries.
How to Do the Banded Overhead Reach
Loop a mini band securely around your wrists. Put your arms out in front of you just below chest level. Pull your forearms to the sides until you establish tension in the band. Slowly transition your arms upward and overhead, maintaining outward tension against the bands. Once you reach your full range of motion, slowly lower. Repeat.
By incorporating a strength move (a push-up) with very dynamic stability, you’re signaling to your body that it’s time to work. This move will also warm up your wrists as well as your shoulders.
Benefits of the Hand Walkout
- Each rep contains three shoulder-intensive moves — an inch worm, a push-up, and a downward dog.
- The dynamic stability that you’ll build with the inch worm helps you prepare your shoulders for the pressures of heavy lifting.
- Going into and out of a downward dog position prepares your core and hamstrings for action while increasing your shoulders’ range of motion.
How to Do the Hand Walkout
Start in a standing position. Bend at the waist until your hands touch the ground. Slowly walk your hands out a little at a time until you’re in a push-up position. Perform a push-up. Walk your hands back while you raise your hips back behind you. Pause in a downward dog position. Come back to standing. Repeat.
Lateral movements may not feature prominently in your program. That’s all the more reason to include them in your warm-ups. You may be focusing on build strength in the sagittal plane — where the big three powerlifts and the two competitive Olympic lifts occur. But moving in the frontal plane — side-to-side — is crucial for increased stability and potentially reduced injury risk.
Performing lateral plank walks will challenge you to keep your core steady and your hips level. You’ll also prepare your shoulders to resist any rotational, side-to-side stressors that heavy lifts might impose — especially if you have any strength or muscle imbalances.
Benefits of the Lateral Plank Walk
- Especially if you don’t have lateral movements in your program, performing them in your warm-up can potentially make you more resilient against injury.
- Since your shoulders are generally your most mobile joint, teaching them to stabilize your upper body is important for lifting safety and strength.
- Your shoulders will stabilize you in a side-to-side motion here, which is important for both stability and strength-building.
How to Do the Lateral Plank Walk
Start in a full plank position with your hands roughly under your shoulders. Keep your feet together. Brace your core. Ground your left hand and toes firmly into the ground. Step to the side with your right foot and right hand at the same time. Keep your hips square and in line with your upper back. Follow the motion by stepping to the right with your left hand and left foot. Reestablish your original position and repeat.
This one might look a bit unconventional, but that’s exactly why it’s so valuable. It will teach you to hold your bodyweight in ways that you’re likely not used to as a strength athlete. You’ll also be reaching up and overhead, bracing your upper body on just one hand. That’s a big mobility and stability-builder all at once.
If you’re not able to lift your hips off the ground and support your weight, that’s more than okay. Keep your hips grounded and perform the same reaching motion anyway. You’ll still get the mobility benefit from the reach and the stability benefit from your grounded hand.
Benefits of the Crab Reach
- This move builds shoulder mobility and stability at the same time.
- By moving in an unconventional way, you’ll be exposing your shoulders to a different form of reaching.
- If you’re incorporating a bridge into this reach, you’ll also be activating your hips and glutes.
How to Do the Crab Reach
Get into a reverse tabletop position with your feet planted, your knees bent, your butt on the ground, and your hands braced roughly underneath your shoulders. Ground down into your hands and feet. If you can, squeeze your glutes and press your hips up to form a reverse tabletop. You can also keep your hips grounded if you need to. As you raise your hips (or keep them grounded), press your right hand into the ground. Reach up and over your chest with your left hand until your arm straightens over your head. Lower to the ground, switch hands, and repeat.
When you think push-ups, you probably think “chest” a lot more than you think “shoulders.” And while you’re not wrong, scapular push-ups are meant to place emphasis on activating your scapulae — think, your shoulder blades — to strengthen them and prepare them for bigger lifts.
You don’t need to be able to do a full push-up to perform this one. You won’t be bending your elbows. That makes this a great option when you’re still building the strength to perform a full push-up.
Benefits of the Scapular Push-Up
- This move teaches you proper positioning for maintaining posture during a wide variety of movements.
- You’ll learn how to isolate your shoulder blades and pull them back down and away from your ears during lifts.
- Scapular push-ups help build your strength and technique in preparation for performing full push-ups.
How to Do the Scapular Push-Up
Get into a push-up position with your hands roughly under your shoulders. Without bending your elbows, sink your torso down like you’re packing your shoulders into their sockets. Press your shoulders back up and away from the ground until you reach your end range of motion. Rinse and repeat.
As with the scapular push-up, this move doesn’t require you to actually move your elbows. As a result, you don’t need the ability to do a full pull-up to pull this exercise off. Incorporating this move can actually help you build the strength you need to do your first pull-up.
Benefits of the Scapular Pull-Up
- This move targets your overhead stability and strength.
- It’s accessible to many people who can’t do a full pull-up, and can even help people establish confidence and positional strength to learn the full move.
- Scapular pull-ups prepare your body to hoist and hold heavy weights overhead, even though you’re not using weights themselves.
How to Do the Scapular Pull-Up
Start in a dead-hang from a pull-up bar. Keep your core tight and squeeze your glutes. Keep your elbows straight as you pull your shoulder blades down toward your rib cage. Hold for a moment at peak contraction. Under control, lower back to a dead hang. Reset and repeat.
Anatomy of the Shoulders
Your shoulders are generally your body’s most mobile joint, so stability is key. To assist with that, your deltoids have three components for you to strengthen.
Your front delts are going to be involved in major pressing movements. To a large extent, even training your chest will give your front delts a lot of action. They’re going to be the biggest movers in your overhead presses and play a huge role in stabilizing your overhead carries.
Your lateral delts are what they sound like — the sides of your deltoids, which often receive a lot of credit for the “boulder shoulder” look. They’ll be involved in moves like the Arnold press and lateral raises, and will help stabilize and support your big overhead lifts.
Your rear delts support your big presses, but they also play a huge role in pulling and reaching activities. Often under-trained, growing and strengthening your rear delts contributes to both healthy and well-rounded shoulders.
Programming Shoulder Warm-Ups
This might mean adding a few activation movements in between sets, or it might mean performing a discrete series of shoulder warm-up exercises at the start of your workout. You can also combine strategies and do an overall shoulder workout followed by specific moves superset with your strength work.
Upper Body Days
Even if you’re not doing direct shoulder work — think bench pressing as opposed to overhead presses — you’ll want to warm up your shoulders. On upper body days, take extra time to activate your shoulders before lifting as part of your dynamic warm-up. Select four or five exercises based on what you moves you’re performing that day and flow through them two or three times each.
Lower Body Days
Your shoulders might not be the first things that come to mind when you’re getting ready to squat. But if you don’t lubricate those joints and get your blood flowing through your shoulders, your body might really object to your squat and deadlift sessions.
Shoulder mobility is a huge part of barbell squatting — especially low bar squats. And with the deadlift, in order to engage your lats, your shoulders need to be on board and ready to provide stability.
On lower body days, select one to three shoulder warm-ups to incorporate into your overall dynamic warm-up. Then, consider supersetting some shoulder activation exercises in between your strength sets. For example, a set of light, slow face pulls in between deadlifts or some scapular slides in between low bar squats.
Reach for It
Shoulder warm-up exercises might not be the flashiest things in the gym, but they’re not something you want to neglect. Warming up your shoulders is key to helping you add some crucial stability to a very mobile joint. That stability will serve you in spades when you’re trying to hoist a loaded barbell over your head.
Featured Image: Atstock Productions / Shutterstock