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Strengthen Your Shoulders: 6 Super Shoulder Fixes

Your shoulders are a complicated junction for bone, muscle, and connective tissue. These mobility drills work like a traffic director, saving you from pain and dysfunction down the road. Make them a priority!

Quick! Point to your shoulder. If you're like most people, you probably pointed directly at your front deltoid or AC joint, where the clavicle meets the upper scapula. Both of these are definitely important parts of your shoulder, but the story hardly ends there.

Every muscle that has an attachment to your scapula is integral to the shoulder, including the trapezius, rhomboids, and even the musculature on the ribs. Your pectoralis major has attachments on the clavicle, so it is included. Even your biceps are part of your shoulder!

Everybody's in there, moving around and fighting for space. It's the upper body's equivalent of the Mos Eisley Cantina. And tightness or weakness in any of the patrons can quickly escalate into conflicts that have far-reaching effects. To make things worse, nearly everyone is tight or weak somewhere in the shoulder.

Take me, for example. Given how much I can squat and deadlift, I should be able to clean a small truck. However, I struggle to properly clean my bodyweight, simply because I have trouble getting into position to rack the barbell. Others are unable to grip the bar during the back squat, or they find their impinged shoulders hold back their bench press.

Because the shoulder has such wide influence, it can sometimes be hard to pinpoint particular problems. For instance, when I clean, I feel the tension primarily in my wrist and forearm, though the problem doesn't originate there. But watch me alongside some Olympic lifters, and you'll see that they are able to raise their elbows significantly higher than I can when receiving the bar at full depth. This is due primarily to shoulder and thoracic (or middle and upper) spine mobility.

So, how do we increase the range of motion in these crucial areas? I've got three words for you: smash, stretch, and strengthen. Work these six simple drills into your routine and you'll receive big benefits in terms of athleticism and posture. This is powerful stuff.

The Tissue Issue

To get started, let's look at three rehab movements that improve the extensibility of the muscle tissue throughout the shoulder. We have many options here, but these three hit some of the most common problem areas in both lifters and the general public.

1 / T-Spine Double-Ball Smash

To perform this movement, you'll need a pair of lacrosse balls taped together with athletic tape. There are higher-end options, but a couple of $3 balls work as well as anything.

Place them on the ground and position your spine between them, with the balls placed just above your lumbar. It's similar to the position for an abdominal crunch but far more uncomfortable.

Lean back until your head touches the ground, and then extend your arms upward and perform five crunches by flexing only your thoracic spine. When you've done that, move the balls up an inch and repeat the drill. Keep repeating until you pass the shoulder blades.

2 / Anterior Shoulder Barbell Smash

This drill is aimed at improving range of motion during internal rotation, which is when your bent arm rotates toward the center of your body, either when your upper arm is hanging straight down (imagine you're closing your bathrobe) or sticking straight out (imagine you're pulling a curtain down). However, having more supple tissues here will also improve your range of motion during external rotation (imagine opening your bathrobe—I said imagine it!).

Begin on your back with your upper arm laying perpendicular to the body, in full contact with the ground. Bend your elbows to 90 degrees, like you're surrendering to the cops. Now place one end of a barbell on the front of one of your shoulders, and hold the other end in place with your foot on the same side. Use your opposite hand to apply pressure to the top of the barbell while you move your working shoulder through internal/external rotation.

It doesn't sound like much, but remember how many different things are moving around inside your shoulder. This should hurt like a mother.

3 / Shoulder Capsule Stretch

If your shoulders feel weak or immobile, especially when you move your arms overhead, you could be suffering from some degree of impingement. This can come from lots of throwing, tennis serves, overhead work, or simply from doing more pushing than pulling. Whatever the reason, this one's for you.

Attach an elastic band to a low anchor point. Take the band in your working hand with the elbow fully extended, keeping the palm up. Step far enough away from the band to create tension, and then turn away to facilitate the stretch. Slightly turn and tuck your head away from the working side to maximize the stretch. Hold for a couple of minutes.

Building The Perfect Shoulder

We've mobilized and unglued some of the most troublesome spots. Now we need to strengthen the weak aspects of our shoulders that contributed to these problems in the first place. The movements to do this aren't complicated, but because they address points that are legitimately weak in most people, they might make you feel surprisingly sore.

1 / Face Pull with External Rotation

This is a great movement for shoulder function and improving your posture. It hits several of our troublesome spots around the shoulder, including our external rotators, posterior delts, and low traps. There are several ways to perform the face pull, which can be done either with elastic bands or cables. My favorite has the palms facing forward at the end, rather than pulling straight back with the palms facing down. The forearms should end up above the biceps, not in front of them.

2 / Push-up Plus

Any coach worth their warm-up pants will tell you that to maintain healthy joint function and posture it's wise to aim for roughly equal volumes of horizontal pulling and horizontal pressing. This is how I've balanced my workload in the past.

That said, I recently read an old interview with the great physical therapist Bill Hartman which made me realize I'd made an error. Hartman pointed out that both in rowing movements and in pressing movements, the scapula is supposed to retract. That means that almost all of the work in that plane is moving in one direction, which is part of the reason why I have tightness around my scapula and can't rack my cleans.

To fix this, we need to strengthen the serratus anterior and develop scapular mobility. I like to do this by isolating and emphasizing the scapular movement of our old friend the push-up. Assume a push-up position with your hands close together. Relax your back to allow your chest to drop down, but don't let anything other than your scapula move. Your torso should only move a couple of inches vertically. Then protract your shoulder blades to force up your torso.

3 / Overhead Barbell Shrug

The trapezius is integral to shoulder health. When you move objects overhead, the scapula needs to be able to rotate upward to facilitate the humeral position, but many of us have traps that aren't up to this task. We need to activate and strengthen them through shrugs, but not just any old shrug will do it. For better overhead movements—wait for it—use overhead shrugs.

Press a light barbell overhead. No need to show off here. Make sure you have solid posture, with a straight line from hand to head to foot. Your lumbar spine should be neutral, and your abdominals tight. From here, slowly shrug your shoulders, pause, and slowly return to the starting position.


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About The Author

Matt is the Training and Nutrition Specialist for Bodybuilding.com. He has studied Exercise Science and is a competitive strength athlete.

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pmi7777

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pmi7777

i have been having issues with my shoulders as well as my workout partner. So glad i came across this article. Thanks so much

May 1, 2013 7:54pm | report
 
everett63

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everett63

I've had shoulder surgrey and have been looking for ways to strengthen it up, thank for the awesome article.

May 1, 2013 8:14pm | report
 
Heanson

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Heanson

I hurt a shoulder being stupid when I first started. It bothers me sometimes when I lift heavy. Thanks for the info!

May 2, 2013 7:34am | report
 
braindeadnyc

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braindeadnyc

I have had some issues with my left shoulder recently, and during Crossfit it really became agitated. Thank you for writing this.

May 2, 2013 9:27am | report
 
fredzz1003

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fredzz1003

nice program
gonna try this tomorrow to strengthen my shoulder :)

May 2, 2013 9:59am | report
 
Svallin

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Svallin

Awesome Article!

Article Rated:
May 2, 2013 10:39am | report
 
StapleJulz

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StapleJulz

I am sending this article to my dad! :) Nice work, Matt!

May 2, 2013 1:20pm | report
 
MacLowiz

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MacLowiz

very good articles, i'd be glad if bb.com helped figure out some exercises with video

May 2, 2013 2:33pm | report
 
Stratowarrior

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Stratowarrior

Nice. I separated my shoulder and tore muscles in my rotator cuff last summer, so I've been looking for new ways to strengthen my shoulders.

May 2, 2013 2:54pm | report
 
TheScrambledEgg

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TheScrambledEgg

Can I implement this into my routine twice a week!? BTW Awesome article! I want to get my left shoulder on par with my right one ASAP! :D

May 2, 2013 2:56pm | report
 
body_sculptor

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body_sculptor

Thanks so much for this info.

May 2, 2013 3:50pm | report
 
tylerjennings23

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tylerjennings23

i have a past grade 3 AC joint separation, visually unappealing and have muscle imbalances all over upper body on that side. . .

May 2, 2013 10:18pm | report
 
Herder

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Herder

Almost feel the shoulders are easiest to injure with past experience awesome article! thanks!

May 2, 2013 11:02pm | report
 
jmtrevino23

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jmtrevino23

this is what i needed

May 2, 2013 11:55pm | report
 
pmgiampi

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pmgiampi

Having separated both my shoulders in separate BMX racing wrecks, shoulder strengthening has become a focal point for me. This is something I will implement going forward.

May 3, 2013 6:31am | report
 
ohs0fast

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ohs0fast

for such obscure exercises/stretches I feel like some better pictures/diagrams/videos would have been extremely helpful on this one

May 3, 2013 9:32am | report
 
Muscle Mania Matt

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Muscle Mania Matt

pictures were shot for all drills, however they did not post all of them with the article.

May 6, 2013 9:50am | report
anglnero

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anglnero

A great article to come back to after me a my work out bud coming back from our first legit shoulder day.

May 3, 2013 10:22am | report
 
Antrozous

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Antrozous

ooohhh overhead shrug... must try

May 3, 2013 10:58am | report
 
Sargento454

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Sargento454

Great info, been having shoulder pain myself

May 3, 2013 2:02pm | report
 
Mr.Tj

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Mr.Tj

nice .

May 3, 2013 2:18pm | report
 
ptgooroo

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ptgooroo

what if you already jacked somethin up? for some reason i cant control my left shoulder blade when standing relaxed so the top of my shoulder blade sticks out. no pain. but when i rotate both my shoulders i feel small popping. point is.. im jacked up. would this help?

May 4, 2013 10:49am | report
 
tbrown2088

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tbrown2088

Great article! Enjoyed reading and picked up a few tidbits!

May 4, 2013 12:39pm | report
 
ccorn329

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ccorn329

Having issues recently with my sholders, lets see how this helps. Thanks for the info!!

May 4, 2013 1:37pm | report
 
Metaljoshy

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Metaljoshy

I have issues with my shoulder , if I lift slightly heavy over head weight I get this pin ***** pain right in the middle of my shoulder and it keeps on extending out wards , therefore I refrain from doing shoulders . Any work around ?? I never injured my shoulder but this **** is always there !!!!!!

May 5, 2013 10:13am | report
 
Showing 1 - 25 of 37 Comments

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