No matter your training goal, neglecting shoulder strength and stability is many a lifter’s biggest pitfall. Maintaining healthy shoulders is the centerpiece of any lifter’s repertoire. You don’t have to be the biggest fan of overhead work to prioritize strong, stable shoulders in your training.
Weightlifters and strongmen need stable shoulders to secure heavy overhead lockouts. Powerlifters can benefit from shoulder stability during squats, deadlifts, and of course the bench press. If you’re simply looking to pack on muscle, then a more stable shoulder will ensure your form is tighter for all those lateral raises and overhead dumbbell presses. Below, we go over five moves that can help improve your shoulder stability, as well as some tips on how to incorporate them into your training routine.
Best Overhead Stability Exercises
- Overhead Kettlebell Carry
- Turkish Get-Up
- Pin Press
- Handstand Holds and Strict Handstand Pushups
- Landmine Shoulder Press
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Overhead Kettlebell Carry
The kettlebell overhead carry is a dynamic stability exercise that challenges shoulder, triceps, and midline strength. In theory, it’s a fairly simple move — you literally carry a kettlebell (if unilateral) or two (if bilateral) over your head. Your shoulder joint will need to remain tight and the surrounding muscles flexed to keep the shoulder joint in place. Use a light weight for this exercise and, as you become more comfortable, you can slowly increase the load over time.
Benefits of the Overhead Kettlebell Carry
- Reinforce overhead muscular coordination (and therefore, stability) under loads, which translates into the enhanced ability to maintain lockout in jerks, snatches, and overhead presses.
- Improve core strength by forcing your body to balance offset loads.
- Increase muscle mass by adding major time under tension to your training regimen.
How to Do the Overhead Kettlebell Carry
Press two kettlebells into the overhead position, so that the arms are fully extended, biceps are by the ears, and the wrists are neutral. When ready, lock the shoulder blades in place and contract the core. From here, take one small step focusing on maintaining vertical arms and extended elbows. The kettlebells will want to move out of the vertical plane, so be sure to stabilize the weight with the upper and middle back.
The Turkish get-up is one of the most technical exercises — in general — that you can engage in. The movement has you support a kettlebell overhead, holding it steadily in place, as you slowly work up from a supine position to standing and then back down. This move requires core and leg strength, as well as shoulder stability. Your shoulder, and the surrounding muscles that hold your shoulder in place, will build a tremendous amount of endurance as
Benefits of the Turkish Get-Up
- Train your body to maintain shoulder integrity by engaging the scapular stabilizers, which will help improve shoulder health and overhead strength.
- Improve full-body coordination, which will help your body figure out how to work together during complex moves like clean & jerks, and snatches.
- Enhance overhead strength — because the get-up is such a slow, deliberate series of movements, the time under tension will be high even when you’re working with relatively light weights.
How to Do the Turkish Get-Up
While lying on your back, hold a kettlebell in your left hand, with the arm extended so that it is perpendicular to the ground. Bend the left leg, and perform a sit-up while keeping your right arm and both feet on the ground. You should be seated on your buttocks with the weight overhead, in an upright position.
From there, perform a hip raise and lift the hips so that you can slide your right leg underneath your body, placing your right knee under your hips. Be sure to keep your left leg and right hand down on the ground. From here, come upright into a kneeling position, making sure the weight is overhead and stable. Stand up out of the lunge position, keeping the load stable overhead. Reverse the steps in order to move back to the ground. That’s one rep.
You might be familiar with pin squats or pin bench presses, so think of these as their overhead cousins. The overhead pin press is a partial range of motion movement that can help address muscle weaknesses and coordination pressing loads into the overhead position. Partial range of motion repetitions with overhead lifts often start at chin or eye-level, instead of on the shoulders. This move works by allowing you to move heavier weight for a shorter range of motion, which, in turn, means you’ll be less wobbly throughout the movement. That ability to push more weight while remaining stable will eventually carry over to your standard overhead presses.
Benefits of the Pin Press
- Improve your awareness of the bar path during your lift, which will grease the groove for maintaining a proper bar path during your full range of motion lifts.
- Enhance strength by overloading potential sticking points in your overhead press — this will improve lift completion and lockout abilities.
- Rehab injuries or sore muscles when working in the full range of motion will hurt more than it will help.
How to Do the Pin Press
Set safety racks or pins at eye level, with a barbell resting on the pins. Step up to the barbell as you would when performing a strict overhead press. Brace the core, set your back, and press upwards to lock out the overhead press. Once you have established control overhead, lower the loads with eccentric coordination, and set the bar back on the pins. Repeat for repetitions, making sure to not bounce or use momentum in the press.
Handstand Holds and Strict Handstand Push-Ups
Working up to handstand holds and strict handstand pushups not only looks badass, but it can actually be great for your shoulder health. Think of them like overhead carries or presses… but upside down, and the load is your bodyweight rather than a kettlebell or a loaded barbell. By utilizing your bodyweight for this movement, you’re taking external loads out of the equation. Pressing your own weight versus pressing a heavy weight will always be safer on your joints. Also, you’ll acquire more full-body control and balance, as both of those factors are necessary for mastering the handstand hold and handstand push-ups.
Benefits of Handstand Holds and Strict Handstand Push-Ups
- Improve full-body coordination and core engagement, teaching you how to recruit maximal muscular tension to enhance lift efficiency.
- Engage your shoulders, core, upper back, and triceps all at once, improving strength and force production.
- Increase positional awareness in a compromised (upside down) position, which can translate into greater comfort with complex lifts like presses, jerks, and snatches.
How to Do Strict Handstand Push-Ups
Place your hands roughly 8-12 inches away from a wall, so that your fingertips are facing the wall. Kick yourself upwards so that you are in the wall supported handstand position. Stay here to build comfort and strength while you’re still learning the ropes.
When you’re ready to perform handstand pushups, allow the elbows to bend inwards on a slight angle as you move downwards into the bottom position of the handstand push up. Maintain upper back and core stability. Press yourself up the wall in a vertical manner using the shoulders, triceps, and upper back, keeping your legs pressed together and core contracted. Don’t forget to breathe!
Landmine Shoulder Press
The landmine shoulder press is an overhead pressing variation that involves — as the name implies — the use of a landmine attachment. Don’t have one? Find a stable, rugged corner of your workout area and wedge the end of the barbell at the bottom where the two walls meet. In addition to increased shoulder strength and scapular stability, this exercise can be used to address unilateral strength and stability issues, increase core stability, and reinforce the anti-rotational strength of the obliques.
Benefits of the Landmine Shoulder Press
- Increase your overall pressing strength by focusing on the shoulder and triceps, with an emphasis on scapular stability.
- Address strength asymmetries by working on unilateral strength and stability issues.
- Reinforce the anti-rotational strength of your core, enhancing your overall core stability.
How to Do the Landmine Shoulder Press
Set a barbell within the landmine holster, adding weight to the end of the barbell if can. Stand facing the barbell with the feet hip-width apart. While grabbing the end of the barbell, the hand should be resting roughly at shoulder height with the upper back contracted and the elbow under the wrist. Set the core, extend the legs, and flex the glutes before initiating the press. As you press the landmine upwards and out front, be sure to not allow the shoulder to elevate while maintaining core stability in the press. Lower the load under control, focusing on scapular and core stability.
The Benefits of Overhead Stability Training
It’s not enough to have strong shoulders — your overhead strength is only as good as your overhead stability. Why? Think about the clean & jerk: what good is it to be able to toss a heavy bar over your head if you can’t stabilize it at lockout?
Yes, you want to have adequate shoulder mobility (you need it, in fact, to perform powerlifts and Olympic lifts safely). Your T-spine is technically what needs to be mobile, in these cases — your scapulo-thoracic joint (where your torso meets your shoulder blade) has got to be stable. For optimal strength and minimum injury, your thoracic spine needs to be mobile enough to get the bar into proper overhead positions, but your scapular stabilizers need to be steady enough to keep the bar in a safe lockout position.
If you’re an Olympic lifter, you’re definitely familiar with how tough it can be to keep the bar steady overhead when you’re working with even light loads. And if you’re a powerlifter, the ability to maintain a stable upper body is important for the bench press (for obvious reasons), but also for your deadlift and squat (think taking the slack out of the bar with a deadlift and forming a tight shelf with a back squat).
When you want to improve your functional strength and your day-to-day shoulder health (definitely a must when we spend so much time on our computers and phones), overhead stability is of utmost importance. Everything from reaching up for those top-shelf dinner plates and generally avoiding shoulder stiffness will benefit from overhead stability training.
How to Add Stability Work Into Your Training
You don’t necessarily have to overhaul your current program to make sure you’re getting enough stability work in — but you will want to cover your bases, just like you should be integrating lateral movements into mostly sagittal plane routines (like powerlifting). To incorporate overhead stability training, you’ll want to rotate the above five moves into your accessory work. For starters, try subbing in one of these exercises into your push day or shoulder day.
You can play with the weights you’re using to transform a few of these lifts from overload exercises to warm-up moves. For example, by lowering the weight substantially, you’ll be able to integrate the Turkish get-up into your warm-up and active recovery routines. Similarly, you can perform light landmine presses (consider an unloaded bar) to prime your muscles for heavier overhead lifts.
Of course, the way you incorporate stability work into your training depends on your current goals and level of experience. If handstand pushups are already part of your repertoire, you can use them as finishers; if they’re newer to you, they might be the centerpiece of your overhead routine for a while. When you’re in a cycle where you’re focusing on building maximum strength, consider switching out regular overhead presses for heavy pin presses every other overhead session.
More Stability Training Tips
Training to improve your overhead stability is just as essential as your bread and butter lifts. If you’re looking for more resources to build your lifting fundamentals, check out these stability training articles:
- 6 Lateral Stability Exercises for the Functional Athlete
- Stability Versus Strength: Why Language Matters
- The 9 Best Scapular Exercises for Shoulder Health and Stability
Featured image: Srdjan Randjelovic/Shutterstock