How are your shoulders doing?
Do they feel rock solid, bulletproof? Like you could put them through almost anything? Or do you have some concerns about their stability and strength?
Your shoulders are one of your body’s most complex joints. And because we use them in almost all of our exercises and movements, I believe training your shoulders for optimum function and performance should be placed very high on your list – regardless of how strong you think you shoulders are at this very moment.
So, how can you make sure that your shoulders stay nice and happy? Well, the way you keep your shoulder joint healthy is a good example of how you can keep most of the other joints in your body healthy and happy: Make sure that it has enough room to move, then teach it to be stable in all sorts of different ways, and finally, slap on as much strength as you like for protection.
Let’s get to it. Here are two of my favorite mobility drills and two stability/strength exercises for healthy shoulders.
Think of stability as your ongoing insurance program. It’s the foundation beneath all your strength and big show muscles. So with the exercises below, you have a couple of options. If you’re already pretty darn strong, then maybe you roll them into your warm-up. Or, if you’re not too confident about your shoulder strength as it currently stands, then look at these exercises are purely stability exercises and make them the centerpiece of your shoulder routine.
Remember, your shoulder joint is important. So, if you have any concerns about the clinical health of your shoulders – if you have a nagging pain through a certain Range of Motion that you haven’t yet had checked out – then see a doctor! Exercise can be a great injury mitigation tool, but it can make things worse if you’re not healthy to begin it.
I’ve written before on the venerable Turkish Get-Up (TGU) and I’ll continue to do so because I think it’s one of the most underrated exercises out there.
However, I can appreciate that for many, the TGU can be intimidating. It looks like a very complex movement. And it’s also a bit exhibitionist, isn’t it? Compared to hiding in the “machine jungle” and using the thigh adductor machine, here you are with a kettlebell taking up tons of space as you get up off the floor and stand up.
You may recall me telling you this story: Some time ago, I was doing my TGUs in a big box gym and a woman and her son were working out nearby. I overhead the son exclaim “Let’s do that!” To which the mother promptly replied, “No, we’re not doing that.” What a shame.
So, back to the TGU and why it’s a great thing.
- You get partial and full hip extension at the same time
- Balance and proprioception training
- Full body coordination
- And for the shoulders – static and dynamic stability
By the way, if you need a refresher on how to correctly perform a TGU, check out my earlier article here.
Let’s take a look at what’s happening at the shoulder joint as you progress through the TGU sequence. From the beginning, you have your back on the floor and your arm extended above you with (ideally) a kettlebell. [I say ideally a kettlebell, because with this implement the mass is trying to pull your arm outward. It’s also more akin to any practical weight we may encounter outside the gym, because let’s face it, few items we lift in life are going to have the Center of Gravity neatly placed in the center of the object.]
From this starting position of the TGU, your shoulder should be nicely packed with your scapula down on your back and your humerus down by your ribcage. And because the kettlebell wants to pull your arm outward, you are being challenged to statically stabilize the weight above you.
Then things get interesting. As you roll up onto your elbow and press yourself up, your humerus is going through a rotation. Consequently, the muscles comprising your rotator cuff are getting a great workout – Teres minor, infraspinatus, supraspinatus, and the subscapularis.
And it’s worth noting that most people don’t spend much time training the rotator cuff. Unfortunately, when many people hear “rotator cuff,” the first thing that comes to mind is rotator cuff tear. Many of us have unfortunately known someone who has torn this area of their anatomy. And the reason I think rotator cuff tears are such a prevalent injury in Western societies is that many people just aren’t training the shoulder for stability.
Because what are the typical shoulder exercises that come to mind? Probably the lateral dumbbell raise and maybe the front raise. These are the big deltoid builders, right? And maybe the overhead barbell press. But these are strength exercises.
So, what is so great about the TGU, is that as you progress through the seven steps in the full sequence, your shoulder is going through a great ROM and all the while being asked to both statically and dynamically stabilize a mass. Not unlike the real world, right? After all, how often are you going to copy the motion of a lateral raise outside the gym? Instead, it’s going to look a lot more complex – it will be a closer analog to something like the TGU.
Do you know what it is that we humans, and our ape cousins, do really well? It’s called brachiation. That is, we’re really good at arm swinging. However, you wouldn’t know this by glancing around most gyms, would you?
It seems that the only time most athletes hang from anything, it’s to do a pull-up. But a pull-up bar is just that, it’s a bar. It’s a hunk of cast iron hanging from a wall or some other piece of equipment.
Realizing this, there are all sorts of things you can do with a bar. For instance, as part of your warm-up next time you’re in the gym, just hang from the bar for 10 – 15 seconds. And remember, you’re not a rag doll, keep your scapula back and down, thereby making this an active hang.
Something else you can do is to hang from one arm at time. A safe progression would be using a step or band to take off some of the load – this way you can feather how much of your bodyweight you are hanging by.
If your gym has rings, good for you. You can really start swinging around with rings and you can do the hang variations as described above, but with an element of instability included. And if your gym has rings spaced apart particularly for brachiation, I want to know what gym you go to, haha. But seriously, let me know because that’s awesome.
So, the thing to bear in mind about your shoulder mobility is that it’s closely linked to the movement in your thoracic spine. That is, a lot of people who may have a rounding of their upper spine (hello, office workers) are probably going to have tight shoulders as well. This isn’t a good thing because it can lead to all sorts of problems like shoulder impingement and even bone spurs.
To brush up on your T-spine mobility, here’s a blog post I wrote last year on the topic.
That being said, in this article I’m just focusing on drills that benefit your shoulder.
Alternating Reverse Shoulder Rolls
These are super easy and you really have no excuse not to do them.
Stand or sit tall and let your arms hang at your sides. Then roll each shoulder backwards in a circle, alternating. It’ll be easy at first, but at around 20 seconds you’ll begin to realize that this can be a fatiguing effort, and at about 40 seconds you’ll realize that this can really be a workout!
You can do a few rolls in the forward direction if you like, but odds are that if you’re reading this blog, you probably already spend quite some time in front of a computer. Therefore, it’s a safe bet to say that your shoulders already spend a fair amount of time rolling inward.
You can do these alternating reverse shoulder rolls just about anywhere.
Riding the elevator at work and you have it all to yourself? Knock out 20 seconds of shoulder rolls. Stuck in your cubicle and your traps are feeling tight? Same thing.
You’re not going to break a sweat doing this drill so you don’t need to be wearing workout clothes. Plus, you can do them seated, so in the office environment you can perform these relatively discreetly.
Remember doing these in grade school? I do. But then it was probably 15 years if not more until I did them again. And that’s a shame because there are a lot of good things that come with the movement. Similar to the Reverse Shoulder Rolls, we are encouraging our shoulders to come back a bit and allow our chest to open up. And because you’re “walking,” you are introducing a bit of locomotion. This means that you have an element of bilateral stability as one arm leaves the ground and you’re left balancing, albeit briefly, on the other arm and your two legs.
But be careful and make sure that your shoulders are healthy enough to perform this movement because you are putting the front of your shoulder through a good stretch.
There are a couple ways you can make this easier as a means of safely progressing:
- Keep your torso at an acute angle to the ground, as this will place less of a stretch on your shoulders. Then as you get stronger and more adapted to this movement, you can work on bridging higher and higher until one day your torso is in a straight line as pointing to your knees and you look like a walking table!
- Go slow. This is a mobility drill not an exercise. I’ve seen group training classes where the crab walk was a race – that’s not a good thing. I see this more as a corrective exercise than anything – that means keeping your mind in the game and focusing on proper execution and smooth movement, not speed.
Think of strength as your armor. And the more well-balanced armor you have around your joints, the better off you’re going to be. Now there are many, many exercises for hitting the shoulders. The two I outline in this post are some of my favorites from the perspective of functionality – as both train the shoulder in a very natural way. I encourage you to roll them into your next programming cycle and let me know how it goes.
And as for mobility, there are many ways to train the shoulder joint to achieve a healthy ROM. Remember, the most important is just movement.
Move well, everyone.
By Ryan Wagner
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