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My top 6 tips for improving shoulder health.

June 22, 2013

I’ve been wanting to discuss some of the steps I have taken over the past year or so to maintain my shoulder health and mobility. The style of training that I do often includes a lot of different exercises that can be pretty demanding on my shoulders, including heavy cleans, jerks, snatches, gymnastic movements (like handstand push ups, ring dips and muscle ups) lots of pull ups, etc., and I have realized that if I want my shoulders to stay injury free and mobile, I needed to get on the shoulder prehab bandwagon as soon as possible, before it’s too late.

I’m of the opinion that EVERYONE should be doing shoulder mobility and stability work, even if your shoulders are totally healthy and pain-free. Shoulder issues have the sneaky tendency to develop gradually due to a muscular-use deficiency somewhere. They don’t always happen immediately (unless we’re talking about acute injuries like dislocations or sudden tears). So get on the prehab now, not after it happens. Remember, to build strong, functional shoulders that stay that way, you have to get them healthy and keep them healthy.

And if you’re suffering from shoulder pain or poor mobility and stability, by all means, get on the rehab!

I hope today’s tips will give you a few ideas for any shoulder issues you and/or your clients may be dealing with, as well as some ideas of preventative measures you can take to keep your shoulders healthy and in great working order.

Tip # 1: Work on your shoulder and back soft-tissue quality regularly

A lot of people’s shoulders are all knotted up, and this can lead to injuries and strains if you don’t take time to work on the soft-tissue. One way I like to do this is by using a lacrosse ball to massage out the posterior deltoids daily. I am willing to bet pretty much everyone will find a nasty spot, or two or three, in this area if they take the time to dig around.

Simply place a lacrosse ball between the wall and the back of your shoulder and roll it around.  I would start with the ball on the shoulder blade and work over it and then move to the area between the shoulder blade and the shoulder.

This area often gets overworked due to poor technique (not properly retracting the scapula, anterior humeral glide, shrugging because of upper trap dominance etc.) when people are performing rowing movements, chin ups & pull ups, as well as just from having poor posture in general.

Similar to the posterior shoulders, foam-rolling the lats is another area that I neglected for a long time, but the first time I rolled them it was so god-awful, it made me realise how much I needed it.  You can simply use a foam roller or even a lacrosse ball if you need to get in deeper.

A lot of trainers and coaches seem to be huge fans of chins and pull-ups these days, and while I agree that they are awesome exercises, the lats can definitely get a pretty solid beating from those exercises. So make sure you dig in the lats as well.

Don’t neglect your soft-tissue work. It will make a big difference in keeping your shoulders healthy.

Tip # 2: Work your way up to heavy weights

A big mistake that I see a lot of gym members make is going straight to the heaviest weight they can lift for the prescribed number of reps from the very first set. They don’t warm up to the heavy sets properly.

This can be a big issue for two reasons.  Firstly it doesn’t allow your muscles to switch on properly in order to be ready for the heavier weight. Secondly, lighter-weight work-up sets allow you to build good technique into your movements, which will help in not only preventing injury, but also building strength.

Elite Olympic weight lifters are some of the strongest people in the world, and yet even they still start each and every exercise by lifting the bar only, and begin slowly working up from there.

I notice a big difference when I get impatient and rush my warm up sets. Sometimes I am not able to lift as heavy as normal when I go to the heavy weights too fast. Sometimes I feel like my technique is compromised or that the right muscles aren’t activating. Other times I’ll start to feel niggles that let me know I rushed the heavy weights.

Proper warm up sets are especially with your shoulders. This is such a complex muscle group, it’s so important to properly warm up to your heavy lifts.

Tip # 3: Check your overhead position

Did you know that if you don’t have enough flexibility to do overhead pressing properly you can compromise your shoulder health? Actually I have found that most people lack the thoracic mobility to raise their arms straight overhead without compensation.

Try this little experiment with me. I want you to hunch over your shoulders and purposely create bad, slouched over posture. Now, while you’re in that position, try to lift your arms straight up above your head as high as you possibly can. How did you look? My guess is that you could not lift your arms quite so high. They were sort of angled forward weren't they?

Now, we’ll try it again, but this time, stand up tall, bring your shoulder blades back and down and create good posture. Now, while keeping your posture like this, try and lift your arms above your head as high as possible. What happened this time?  You should have been able to lift your arms significantly higher.

The problem is that many people are stuck in the hunched over position all the time (from years of having bad posture), yet they still think that they can add weight to an overhead pushing movement, without risking injury. This is where big problems can happen.

And the other side of the coin, are those who have anterior pelvic tilt, and when they go to lift a weight above their head these people tend to do the opposite; they arch severely while lifting the weight above their head and they “chicken neck” their head through. With excessive arching, they don’t maintain proper stability in their core and spine, and this can also be a recipe for disaster.

The goal with overhead pressing is to maintain a straight path from the bar to overhead and to get your whole torso through at the top of the movement, not just your head. Make sure to avoid pressing the weight forward due to bad mobility, and also avoid excessive lordotic curve (if you have a tendency to arch and stick your bum out). All the muscles in your body should be properly engaged when overhead pressing, including the lats and the traps. This will help keep your shoulder joints from taking all the stress of the weight. Remember, the more the bar travels forward or backwards, the less stability you will have in the movement and that's when shoulder problems can arise.


If you currently have any of these issues, taking a break from overhead pressing, while working on your shoulder mobility and posture, could be the best thing that you’ve ever done for your shoulder health. It’s worth putting in the effort to fix your overhead posture.

Tip # 4: Include more horizontal pulling movements in your training.

If you have a history of shoulders troubles or if you are someone who sits at a desk or computer all day then, try adding 3 times as much horizontal pulling or rowing movements (things like seated rows, band rows, cable rows) into your training program than horizontal pressing movements (bench pressing etc.).

Having hunched over shoulders often causes a strength imbalance around the shoulder girdle. When you are sitting in that position most of the day, the muscles involved in pushing movements (the chest and front shoulders) generally become significantly stronger than the pulling shoulders (the middle back muscles and the rear shoulder muscles). The imbalance can cause the joint alignment to be compromised and that's when shoulder troubles tend to start. Adding more horizontal rowing work in your training will help counterbalance this, improve your posture, and make your shoulders so much healthier.

Apart from adding pulling movements into my strength training routine, another way I make sure to get I enough pulling movements in each week is by including a lot of pulling mobility drills on my active recovery days.

Tip # 5: Pay a lot of attention to your T-Spine mobility. Include drills in your regular training routine.

Your Thoracic Spine is basically your upper back region.  In our mostly sedentary (seated) society, where we spend our days hunched over at a computer, our T-Spine’s have become locked up, and immobile.  When that happens, your shoulder mobility is comprised, and injury follows.

How do we fix our lack of thoracic spine mobility?  A good way is by doing the thoracic mobilisation drills included in the videos below.  Add them to your warm ups, or in your mobility days and don’t skip them! They're very important.

Thoracic spine mobilizations with foam roller:

The first one is a video of thoracic spine mobilizations using a foam roller. The video is pretty self-explanatory.


Here are some other exercises and drills I love to add in.

Face pulls:

Face pulls are a fantastic exercise for anyone looking to improve shoulder function, reduce injury and improve posture. When done correctly, they target the often neglected infraspinatus and teres minor; muscles of the rotator cuff complex that are often over-powered by the bigger muscles of upper back. With so much emphasis on the front of our body, pushing exercises, presses and "mirror exercises" we tend to leave the external rotatory weak and inactive. The responsibility of these muscles it to drive the shoulders back and counteract the force placed by the stronger internal rotator. This is an excellent exercise to include into your training for better shoulder health!

To perform this exercise, set up facing a cable column with the pulley set up as high as it will go. Next, attach a rope handle to it and set up in a split stance, walking it out from the machine. Holding the rope with your thumbs facing you, use a rowing motion to bring the handle towards your forehead. In the process you will be strengthening a lot of your important upper back and scapula stabilizers. I generally like to perform a few sets of 8-12 reps. Make sure you use control the entire time, including when you release the rope back to the starting point.


Wall slides:

These are awesome for improving your shoulder health and T-spine mobility. Here’s how to perform these.

First off, make sure you set up correctly.  Keep your feet about six inches away from the wall. Flatten your lower back into the wall . Make sure you have a slight posterior pelvic tilt (no arching your lower back). The back of your arms, hand and fingers should all be touching the wall. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, and down towards the back pockets. Next, lift your arms overhead while keeping your lower back on the wall, and all points of contact with the arms and hands. Lastly, don’t forget to keep your shoulders away from your ears as you drive up, and make a zombie-like face, as you see me doing below. :)


This is not an exercise to cheat in to get your arms higher.  Just go up as high as your mobility allows.  Cheating will not get you better mobility.  So stay as strict as possible and feel the stretch in the middle of your back.  This is activating your T-spine and is awesome to add into your mobility work for better shoulder health.

Band pull-aparts:

Here's one of my best tips for overall shoulder health: Do 100 band pull-aparts every day. I first learnt this tip from Jason Ferruggia. I read about it on his website and it stuck with me. This is especially good for those who work at a computer or sit at a desk all day.

Simply do 100 mini-band pull-aparts every day. Keep the tension light; you shouldn't be straining much. You can do them in four sets of 25 reps spread throughout the day or knock out all 100 at once. It doesn't matter. You can also change the grip and the angle up as you want.


I've been doing these for about six months now every few days, and my shoulders have never been healthier. I can almost guarantee this will fix most common shoulder problems.

Scapula push ups:

I talked a bit about these in my push ups post. These are excellent for shoulder health and mobility, as well as learning how to properly activated your scapula (very important).

Get yourself in a “up” push-up position: straight arms, tight core, straight legs. Retract your scapula, then protract it. (Tighten your shoulder blades, then spread them apart.) Keep your arms straight the whole time. Notice how the range of motion is extremely short in this exercise.


Tip # 6: Avoid certain risky movements if you’re rehabbing your shoulders after injury.

Apart from including a lot of shoulder mobility work into your routine, there are also some exercises which you might find problematic for your shoulders. While any weight lifting exercises done incorrectly have the potential to cause problems, there are certain exercises that have just proven to be more dangerous in terms of  worsening shoulder injuries or causing recurring shoulder injuries.

In the cases of some exercises, the problem is the exercise itself and the overall movement and range of motion it requires that causes shoulder problems for many people. The most common exercises fitting this description are:

  • Pull ups/lat pull downs done BEHIND the neck.
  • Overhead presses done BEHIND the neck.
  • Dips
  • Upright Rows

If you find any of these exercises are an issue for you, simply take them out of your routine or substitute them with a safer option. Better safe than sorry, especially if you have a history of shoulder problems.

I hope this post was helpful to you. I know I have only recently started to take my shoulder health more seriously, and I already feel a huge improvement in my lifting, shoulder mobility and flexibility from putting these things into practice.

I'm still learning a lot about shoulders and how to keep them healthy and prevent overuse injuries. There are plenty of people who are a lot more knowledgeable about shoulders and rehabbing them than me, so I will sign off here and leave you in their capable hands. Here are some good places to start if you are interested in learning more about shoulder health:

Shoulder Savers part 1, by Eric Cressey

Shoulder Savers part 2, by Eric Cressey

Shoulder Savers part 3, by Eric Cressey

DieselCrew's Shoulder Rehab Protocol (This is awesome if you have had shoulder injuries in the past and want to get them back in good working condition)

DieselCrew's Shoulder Warmup

Push ups, face pulls and shrugs, by Bill Hartman and Mike Robertson



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