If you really want to pop out of your T-shirts and stand out on the beach this summer, you need more than arm workouts and chest training. You need to spend some time working your shoulders, because, truth be told, that’s where upper body strength really starts.
Strong delts are the secret to unlocking strength and power in all your other exercises, whether you’re pushing, pulling, or carrying weight. And they’ll frame out the physique you’ve been aiming for, too. But shoulders are also a tricky joint that requires extra-special attention. The shoulder is a multifaceted junction where power and vulnerability live close to each other. You can make big strides or big mistakes in shoulder training, simply by altering your exercises by a few inches.
Your key to shoulder training is finding that perfect balance between pushing yourself and staying healthy. Remember, your best talent in the gym is your ability to go to the gym. That means finding a safe approach to challenging one of the most critical muscle groups in the body.
An Anatomy Lesson
To look at the shoulder, we have to start with something called the glenohumeral joint. This is the centration of the head of the upper arm bone (also known as the humerus), which sits in something called the glenoid fossa.
Your shoulder is a traditional ball and socket joint, meaning it can move in multiple planes of motion. In this way, it’s much like your hip joint, except your shoulder has a greater overall range of motion. That’s because the socket, in this case, is shallow. As a result, many other muscles, everything from your pectorals to your lats to your abs, can influence the long-term health of your shoulders. You need to always keep that in mind when training your shoulders, and when considering the long-term health of your shoulders.
The key muscle group attached to the shoulders is the deltoid, and that’s what you normally see on a person with jacked shoulders. The deltoid has three heads, the anterior head, medial head and posterior head. These three regions pull the shoulder in various directions. Your anterior fibers flex the upper arm forward and rotate it toward your body, while the posterior fibers extend it behind you and rotate it away from your body. That means just small turns of the hand alter the primary muscles you use on any movement.
Then there’s the rotator cuff. With so many muscles tugging on your shoulder in such a shallow socket, it’s up to a collection of tendons, ligaments and smaller muscles to provide stability and keep the joint centered. That’s the job of the rotator cuff, a collection of four muscles that work together to keep the head of the humerus safely in the pocket of the glenoid fossa.
Rhythm is Everything
Timing is everything when it comes to shoulder movement. You need certain areas of your body to move at the right times to allow for smooth shoulder movement. In particular, the scapula (your shoulder blade) and the humerus (upper arm bone) must work together for long-term shoulder health.
As the humerus flexes, the scapula must protract forward. As the humerus extends, the scapula must retract. That’s where we find some exercises can ruin our shoulders. If the scapula can’t move freely during a motion, but the humerus has to move for the exercise to be done, we’re inviting injury.
Rethink These Exercises
The fragility of the shoulder joint means we need to be cautious of several exercises in our training. In some cases, we should look for alternative moves entirely. In others, we just need to be cautious of frequency and form. Watch out for these moves.
The Bench Press
This is my favorite exercise, but if done improperly, it’s an awful move for shoulder health. If you’re pressing from a high, flared-elbow angle, the magnitude of force on the tendons and joint is tough on the shoulder. That’s why it’s critical to always focus on keeping the arms at a 45-degree angle relative to your torso. Additionally, be cautious of your shoulder blades. Especially when benching heavy, the weight can limit your shoulder blades’ ability to retract. That can hurt your shoulders over time.
The Upright Row
This is widely considered one of the best moves for deltoid development, but it’s a move that’s not typically worth the risk. Your shoulder slips into what’s called internal rotation, and as the upper arm elevates, that causes stress on the rotator cuff and supporting ligaments. If you do this, limit your range of motion and don’t pull all the way to your chin.
Behind-the-neck shoulder presses and lat pulldowns are popular from old-school bodybuiding, but they’re not worth the trouble. They place the shoulder in a “high five” (where your elbow is at a 90-degree angle and your upper arm is parallel to the ground, and that’s a position we know promotes joint laxity. We want tighter shoulder joints, not looser ones.
General Shoulder Mechanics
We all know what it feels like to comfortably press and pull in our daily exercises, but sometimes, we learn things the wrong way. There are several things you want to do in general to care for your shoulders when training.
Think 45-degree angles
Let the upper arm sit at a 45-degree angle near your body when you’re both pulling and pushing. This will allow the head of the humerus to move smoothly in the ball and socket joint without adding strain to any ligaments or tendons. Keep this in mind when you’re doing overhead motions, like pullups and shoulder presses, too.
I mean this literally. Minimize arm extension. When pulling downward, don’t let the elbow go too far below your torso. Doing so will amplify the stretch on the front of the shoulder and create laxity. Again, we want tight shoulders, not overly stretched ones.
Your Shoulder-Safe 5-Move Workout
Try this shoulder-safe workout that’ll help you build strength while keeping the shoulder moving in smart ways. You’ll use a variety of moves to promote proper joint function. We’re building strength but also promoting shoulder health. Do this workout once a week, ideally resting the next day.
Landmine Shoulder Press
This is a great move for strength, power, and joint patterning. When you are pushing forward with the bar the angle of the bar drives in an incline motion vs. directly overhead. This tiny detail allows you to work within the range of motion that makes the most sense for you. Not everyone can get there arm fully overhead so don’t worry about that. Lean forward as you press to gain range of motion for pressing while promoting upward rotation of the scapula.
How to: With your feet shoulder width apart, hold the end of the barbell in your one hand. Drive the barbell up keeping the elbow at a 45° angle from the body. As the weight moves up, lean forward into the press until the arm is fully extended. From the top position, slowly descend the bar back to the starting position. That is one rep. Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps per arm.
Building battle-tested shoulders starts with enhancing the posterior deltoids. Face pulls are a great way to hammer home proper patterns while developing strength in the stabilizing muscles of the shoulder. This isn’t a heavy-weight movement, so don’t try to grunt and move the entire stack of weight, or the heaviest band in the gym. Focus on working with higher reps and building proper muscular awareness.
How to: Grip the rope or resistance band with hands directly in front and palms facing the ground. In a controlled motion, pull the rope or band back towards your chin while pulling your hands away from one another. Hold the contracted position for a single second count. Slowly return the rope/band back to the starting position. That is one rep. Do 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps.
This bodybuilding classic is a great way to work through overhead pressing in the presence of rotation at the arm. It’s unlikely to expect completely linear motion with no change in direction through our everyday movements. This move hits the full spectrum of your delts. The key on this, though: Don’t turn your palms fully forward at the top. Remember that 45-degree angle as you press.
How to: From the seated position, hold one dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing in towards your body. As you press the weight upwards, rotate the hands 180° until the palms are at a 45-degree angle with your torso. Your elbows should be straight now. From the top position, rotate the weight and control is back down to the starting position. That is one rep. Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps.
Neutral-Grip Cable Press
We tend to neglect neutral grip when we press overhead. I will see lots of lifters using the close grip attachment in the weightroom for lat pulldowns but never pressing upwards in the opposite direction that way. The neutral grip allows the shoulder joint to stay in neutral position that’ll limit muscular stress on the joints ligaments and tendons.
How to: From the tall kneeling position, hold the cable at the top of your chest with your palms facing each other, core tight. Drive the cable just in front of the face and overhead. Once at the fully extended position, control the weight back down to the starting position at the top of the chest. That is one rep. Do 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps.
One of the best moves for shoulder health out there, you need farmer’s carries not just for strength but shoulder stability. They’re going to help you train proper body positioning, and they’ll challenge your shoulders as you manage a large overall weight.
How to: Hold one weight in each hand and stand with a tall posture. Walk forward in a controlled motion maintaining the weights at your side in a stable position. Move with as natural a walking pattern as possible. Control the tall posture for the duration of the set. Do 3 30-second sets, using a heavy weight.