Weightlifters, powerlifters, and functional fitness athletes are all at risk for injury. Weightlifters spend much of their training day in an overhead position performing snatches, jerks, and overhead presses. Powerlifters apply high amounts of stress on their shoulder complex through bench pressing, low bar squats, and assistance work. Even functional fitness athletes, who, in addition to doing similar movements as weightlifters and powerlifters, can find themselves increasing the volume and intensity on numerous other exercises that can elicit optimal fitness that may raise the risk of injury.
The shoulder complex lies at the foundation of nearly every exercise that we perform. The shoulder complex consists of multiple joints that are stabilized by connective tissue, all of which allow for a range of motion during movement.
- Glenohumeral Joint
- Sternoclavicular Joint
- Scapulothoracic Joint
- Acromioclavicular Joint
All of these joints are critical for optimal shoulder health and performance.
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Corrective and Strengthening Exercises
A dedicated approach to shoulder movement patterning and strengthening allows for the overall development and injury resilience. Neglectful training practices, structural and muscular imbalances, and overuse can result in nagging and sidelining injuries. Here are some go-to exercises to restore shoulder range of motion (ROM) and improve shoulder performance.
1. Retraction Rows
Retraction of the shoulder blades (scapulae) is needed in most pulling, squatting, and pressing movements (not including pullers who embrace thoracic rounding techniques). By stabilizing the shoulder complex via retraction, increased stability allows for improved performance and injury resistance.
In the video below, the shoulder is pulled down before the retraction. This is a critical setup and it’s not to be confused with simply depressing the shoulder. With your arm straight out and hand in a neutral grip on the resistance band, imagine trying to touch your wrist to the floor without moving your arm. What should happen is you feel your lat engage, thereby depressing the shoulder. While maintaining that tension, retract the shoulder. It is not a big movement but requires a lot of mind-muscle connection if you are unfamiliar with it. Check it out:
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2. Y-T-W Drills
Often seen with baseball and football players who are professional overhead athletes (pitchers, throwers, and quarterbacks), these drills should find their way in nearly all weightlifting, powerlifting, and preventive shoulder programming. Increasing ROM, strength, endurance, and finite control of the posterior shoulder will increase joint stability in snatching, jerking, pressing, and other overhead pulling/pushing movements.
Similar to retraction rows, pull the shoulders down before raising the hands. If your shoulders are retracted properly, your hands should not be able to rise past your shoulders. If you’re still working on your mobility and can’t raise your arms all that high, that’s okay. You’ll know your past your limit if the elbows flare or if the shoulder blades disengage. Remember, this isn’t a movement with a wide range of motion and is focused on the shoulders. If your torso shifts or your core disengages to allow your lower back to compensate, you’ve gone too far.
This video below walks through the movement and where the mind-muscle connections are. Perform the move without dumbbells until you’re comfortable with the form:
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3. Multi-Directional Pull Aparts
Pull aparts increase scapular stability, strengthen the posterior shoulder and rhomboids, and helps to balance high amounts of pressing with various pulling angles. Focusing on the external rotation when holding the resistance band with an underhand grip will help keep the shoulder blades retracted. This movement should be controlled at all points — it is not a momentum-based movement. In the video below, you can see the shadow of the instructor’s shirt makes it easier to see that the lat is engaged and the shoulders are depressed. From here the standard pull aparts can effectively target the rear delts.
It may be helpful to think of pulling from the elbows and not the hands as it may assist in keeping the shoulder blades engaged. The elbows and hands should not go so far back as to pass the shoulders. If they do, the tension moves off the shoulders. Visualize your shoulders are on the same plane as an imaginary circle around you that cuts across your hips. When performing the pull aparts in any direction, your hands should touch that circle but not go past it. Here’s how to do them properly:
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4. Seated Strict Press
This movement consists of sitting on a bench with two dumbbells and performing an overhead press with a neutral grip. You can see an example below. You should notice in the video below how the shoulder blades stay pulled down and back, and the core remains engaged throughout the entire movement. This move does add the additional challenge of keeping the core taught to not allow the torso to break the straight up-and-down line created from a neutral posture. If mobility is an issue, simply slide a little forward on the bench so your hips are not at 90-degrees.
When reaching the top of this movement, the focus should stay on keeping the shoulders retracted and depressed. If they disengage, you’ll recruit a lot more of your chest and devalue the move. Imagine your back is against a wall and there are points where your shoulder blades are stuck to, then perform the move. Here’s what the strict press looks like seated:
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The posterior shoulder, traps, and scapulae work to prevent collapse. The snatch requires those parts to work in tandem to stabilize the weight. Of course, this is a movement done in weightlifting competitions and may seem strange on this list, but the foundation of the movement involves retraction of the shoulder blades, sometimes known as “packing” the back. That is to say, the muscles are engaged and retracted or “packed” together and they remain that way for the whole move. This will not only better prevent injury and improve balance, but it will allow for an easier time stabilizing the weight without falling forward.
Take a look at how Team USA member and American snatch record holder CJ Cummings does it:
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Elite gymnast Jamie Da Silva walks through a proper pull-up progression to better train the shoulders. The important part of any strict pull-up is that the work should be done by the back, not the arms. Pull-ups aren’t meant to target the biceps, so don’t fall into the trap of making them awkward-positioned biceps curls. While dead-hanging from the pull-up bar, engage the lats by almost pressing the hands forward. From there, using only your shoulder blades, try to bring your hips to the bar — this should place your shoulders in a retracted position with the lats engaged. Once in that position, perform the pull-up.
This may make the pull-up seem much more difficult than normal. Congratulations, that likely means you performed it correctly (read: strict) without offsetting most of the work to the arms. Continue to perform pull-ups like this and you’ll soon notice how the benefits translate to other big lifts. Take notice of the scapular control maintained during the movement:
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7. Bottoms Up Overhead Squat
The ability to stabilize heavier weight from a narrow snatch position enables scapular retraction, external rotation, and stabilization provided by the traps. For proper external rotation, a good cue to remember is trying to bend the bar. When holding the barbell, your inner elbows should face up as your shoulders are pulled down during this focus on external rotation. Once you’ve achieved this position, move the barbell overhead without letting the shoulders shrug. If the shoulders shrug at all, you’ll notice your inner elbows start to face forward. This will leave you in a compromised position that isn’t suited to bear heavier loads, so keep those shoulders packed.
The video below demonstrates where the barbell should be in relation to your hips when performing the squat. The value of the bottom-up position is being able to focus on maintaining a neutral spine while holding that external rotation and not allowing the chest to move forward. If the chest moves forward during the squat (usually due to the hips compensating for poor ankle mobility), it will place a lot of pressure on the shoulders to shrug and lose the stability of the barbell. Check out the proper technique below:
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About Your Shoulder Joint
The scapulae must be able to freely move while staying stable via muscular and neuromuscular control. Eight major muscles attach to the shoulder blade and work together to keep the shoulder in its socket and allow for a wide ROM. Scapular depression, elevation, retraction, and protraction are necessary for most athletic endeavors. By learning movements to mobilize the scapulae under finite control, you may decrease your susceptibility to injury. The most dominant connective tissues and muscles involved in the shoulder complex are:
- Levator Scapulae
- Rhomboid Major + Minor
- Teres Major + Minor
Athletes should demonstrate superior shoulder ROM, stabilization, and controlled movement under high loads and velocities, all of which can be trained through movement patterning, connective tissue adaptations, and muscular development. The shoulder complex being the joint in the body with the farther range of motion comes with the downside of being the least stable. That lack of stability is why the shoulder is so much more susceptible to injury than other joints.
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Here are some alternative shoulder exercises you can perform in addition to the corrective exercises above to help strengthen the shoulder and improve its stability:
1. Dumbell Overhead Press
If your shoulder mobility is lacking to the point that a standard overhead press with the barbell is too difficult, dumbbells are here to save the day. They offer all the benefits of the standard overhead press without the necessary mobility. They should be performed similarly to a standard overhead press with the only variance being the kind of grip chosen, such as neutral grip. Dumbells also the user to perform single-arm presses, which can be useful for athletes who need to fix strength imbalances in their shoulders.
2. Landmine Press
The landmine press is similar to the dumbbell overhead press, but with the added stability of the landmine itself. Since the barbell is planted into the land mine, it can be easier to dump the weight away from you if needed. Additionally, the stability requirements for heavy dumbbells need not apply when working with the landmine. This exercise is also useful when working specifically on maintaining external rotation. The user can externally rotate while gripping the barbell as they would for an overhead press or snatch (albeit in a neutral grip without an attachment).
3. Overhead Kettlebell Carry
Still having trouble with overhead squats? Try overhead carries. The movement is simple to perform and offers good stability benefits to the shoulders. To perform an overhead carry, grab a kettlebell, press it overhead, and walk for a given distance. The trick here is to keep the shoulder down and remaining active during the walk. There may be the tendency to shrug or lean to the opposing side lighten the load, resist all of that. Your spine should remain neutral and you will feel your core have to brace to keep you upright. They’re not easy, but they are worth it.
4. Lateral Raises
Pull aparts not your cup of tea? Lateral raises may be a good alternative for you. They are valuable shoulder strengthening exercises because you can maneuver them to rear delt flyes or front raises. All of them are movements that utilize retraction to maintain the stability of the shoulder. A key factor to remember during any of these movements is that the hands should not rise above the shoulder because that will take the tension off the shoulder. As with many of the above exercises, think about moving the weight from the elbows rather than the hands to help keep the work focused on the shoulders.
5. Turkish Get-Up
Don’t quite have the ankle mobility yet for the bottoms-up overhead squat but still want to work the shoulder from a lower position? Turkish get-ups are an excellent pick. They require all the focus on stabilizing the shoulder via scapular retraction while in laying, sitting, kneeling, and standing positions. A dumbbell or kettlebell will work nicely for this movement — go lighter than you think. Remember to maintain external rotation and not allow the shoulder to shrug when shifting from one position to the next.
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Adding these movements to your training can help prevent sustaining shoulder injuries over the long term. Ensuring proper mobility of the scapulae and supporting muscles and joints is pivotal for better performance in many sports, whether functional or specialized. Make a plan for how best to incorporate these movements into your program, and your shoulders will thank you.
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