5 More Shoulder Saving Tips

My article last week on Elite got a lot of great reviews, and I sincerely hope that it’s going to help lifters of all ability levels to get stronger and stay healthier than ever before.

And just in case you’re too lazy to follow the link, I’m going to include all the videos at the end of this post! 🙂

Since the release of the article I’ve received quite a few questions with regards to MORE tips and tricks to getting your shoulders, elbows and wrists feeling better than ever.

With that being said, here are a few more tips that can really help you get the most out of your upper body training. Enjoy!

1. Get familiar with the safety squat bar.

One of the most common issues I see with powerlifters (and even recreational strength athletes) are those who suffer from shoulder/elbow pain when benching.

The crazy thing is, it’s not solely from the benching – it’s from back squatting the day before!

Back squats require a fairly high degree of shoulder external rotation, and if you don’t have that rotary capacity, your shoulders and elbow tend to get beat up.

Rather than ditching the squat and taking up leg presses or Bosu ball squats as your primary leg exercise, give the safety bar a shot for a few months.  Wrestling with this beast will not only make you a ton stronger through your upper back and core, but your upper body will thank you for taking the stress off the upper extremity.

And sure, you can do front squats as well, but for powerlifting purposes I’d rather see a safety squat bar utilized versus a front squat.

2. Use a neutral grip on EVERYTHING.

Moving from a pronated or supinated grip to a neutral grip can do wonders for elbow pain sufferers.  Without getting into all the pertinent anatomy involved, let me just say this – one of the first things I do when someone starts showing signs of elbow pain or discomfort is to put them in a neutral grip on everything.

Bench presses? Use a SWIS bar, or trade the barbell in for dumbbells.

Rows? Use a neutral hand grip for dumbbell, chest supported and low cable rows.

Chins? Use the monkey bar set-up (neutral grip), or consider taking the V-handle and placing it over the chinning bar if possible.

This is a fairly minor modification to your overall training, but it can do wonders in eliminating, or at the very least reducing, pain.

3. Pull more than you press.

This is one of those general rules of thumb, especially if you’re new to the iron game and have probably done a ton of pressing versus pulling exercises.

Make pulling your priority for the next three months.

For every set of pressing  you include in your program, consider performing 2 or 3 sets of pulling exercises.  Rows, chins, face pulls, I don’t care – just really crank up the volume on your pulling.

Increasing the amount of pulling helps counteract months or years of improperly designed workouts.  Excessive pressing pulls the shoulders forward and further stretches the muscles on the back side of the body.  More pulling not only improves muscle balance front to back, but balance around the shoulder joint as well.

4. Make sure you’re qualified to press overhead.

Let me be frank – I’m not against overhead pressing.  In fact, if you move well I think it’s a fantastic exercise for developing real-world strength and hypertrophy.

But that’s a BIG if!

The problem is this – we don’t move as well as we used to. Sitting at a desk, driving a car, poor training programs, etc., all these things tear down our alignment and force us into that same slouched shoulder position.

If you want to press safely overhead, you need to have a few things working for you:

  1. Good Genetics
  2. Good T-spine extension
  3. Good scapular mobility and ‘cuff strength

Now I won’t get into all the nitty gritty details here because I’m working on a piece for T-Nation that outlines all this as we speak, but needless to say I err on the side of caution here. If your only goal is to bench press a ton of weight, it’s arguable how effective the overhead press is going to be from an assistance exercise perspective.

If your goal is to press overhead safely and effectively though, give me a month or so and I’ll have a program to help!

5. Don’t forget the ice!

This is my common sense portion of the post…

One thing that we know unequivocally is that ice helps post-workout.  If your joints or muscles hurt, ice them down.

It’s one of those things we learned at age 8 or 9, but for some reason, we will train in pain for months on end and never consider slapping some ice on the problematic muscle/joint!

Of course, this isn’t the long-term fix, but if you’re in pain and need something to help, ice will almost always do the trick.


So there you have it, 5 more tips to keeping your upper body healthy and strong.  What would you guys add to the list?

I’m looking forward to your comments below!

Stay strong


(Lead Photo Courtesy of d_vdm)

P.S. – I didn’t forget about the videos – here ya go!

Introduction and Band Traction

When do I use this?

Pre-workout, post-workout, or on off-days.

How long should I hold each position?

Just move around. You don’t need to hold each position for too long.

Training Tips

  • Make it organic and try and traction your body in as many ways as possible.
  • If you have any pain, stop.
  • If you have a specific area that needs more work, spend more time in that position(s).

Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) Series

When do I use this?

Pre-workout, post-workout, or on off-days.

How long should I work on each muscle group/area?

I generally recommend 30 seconds to 1 minute for each position. When you’re starting out a minute is preferable, and back that off as tissue quality improves.

If you have a really stiff or sore area, make sure to spend a bit more time there.

Training Tips

  • If you have any pain, stop. And yes, there is a difference between discomfort and pain.
  • If you have a specific area(s) that needs more work, spend more time on that area(s).

Upper Back Stability

When do I use this?

During your workout – either immediately before your primary exercise or towards the end of your session.

How many sets/reps should I do?

I generally prescribe 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps in EACH position. If you want to make it more challenging, either hold some light weights or hold the midpoint position for 3-5 seconds.

Training Tips

  • “Y” – 10 and 2, thumbs up, squeeze shoulder blades DOWN.
  • “T” – 9 and 3, thumbs up, squeeze shoulder blades BACK.
  • “I” – 8 and 4, thumbs up, squeeze shoulder blades BACK.
  • These are motor control/recruitment exercises, so don’t try and load them up too heavy! Learn to use the appropriate muscles, and then work to get them stronger with vertical (chin-ups/pull-ups) and horizontal pulling (rowing) exercises.

Shoulder Strengthening

When do I use this?

During your workout, typically towards the end of your session.

How many sets/reps should I do?

I generally prescribe 2-3 sets of 8-15 reps.

Training Tips

  • Chest up/out, slow and controlled motion. Don’t use momentum or go too fast!
  • This is just one exercise you can use to develop your ‘cuff. Start with this one and dial in your technique, then feel free to try other options.

Post-Workout Stretching

When do I use this?

Use these at the end of your training session.

How many sets/reps should I do?

Perform one “set” of each. Each “set” consists of one hold, which should last between 30 seconds and 2 minutes.

Training Tips

  • DB Fly EQI – Shoulder blades back/down, soft elbows, keep your core tight. Curl the weights in upon completion of the set.
  • Lat EQI – Soft elbows, core tight. Let the weight drop to the floor at the end of the set.
  • Time to completion should be 30 seconds to 2 minutes. If you can’t hold 30 seconds, reduce the weight. Once you can hold for 2 minutes, increase the weight.

Static Stretching

When do I use this?

Post-workout, in the evening before bed, or on off-days.

How many sets/reps should I do?

Perform each stretch twice, holding for 30 seconds. If you’re really stiff, feel free to hold up to one minute in each position.

Training Tips

  • Pec Stretch – Tuck your shoulder blade back/down like you’re going to bench press to stabilize your scapula and increase the stretch.
  • Lat Stretch – Round the lower back slightly to increase the stretch.
  • Sleeper Stretch – Tuck your shoulder blade back/down like you’re going to bench press to stabilize your scapula. Use your “off” hand to provide gentle overpressure.


Leave Comment

  1. That article on overhead pressing can’t come soon enough. The info out there is dizzyingly convoluted and contradictory — half of the trainers out there swear by it and say ditch benching, the other half look askance at it and say only a genetic elite can get away with it. An article that resolved that apparent contradiction is badly needed — this is an issue I’ve researched a lot without coming to firm conclusions. For the record, I’m a guy who has issues with AC joint hypermobility — which Cressey says means I should be better at overhead pressing than benching — but also a slight cuff tear last August that still occasionally flares up. So yeah, I have some shoulder issues!

    As always, thanks for the great work!

  2. Thanks for all the great info, but Bill Hartman is going to beat you up when he hears you called muscles “tight” not stiff or short! 🙂

    • I’m not scared of Bill Hartman!

      Okay, maybe just a little…

      In all seriousness, baby steps with some of this stuff – I’ll just be happy if people listen to it and heed some of my advice!

  3. Good Stuff Mike! I have tried everything you said in your tips regarding keeping the shoulders healthy over the years and they all helped me get back to feeling better. The biggest difference for me was to realize I did not have to bench as much as I did and to cycle more pulling exercises in. Also, to take out benching all together for a period of time to fix the imblances I had between my pulling and pressing muscles.

  4. Great Post!
    Once again you’ve posted another article full of great information. I think you covered it nearly all in Tip #4, but the importance of scapular mobility and surrounding cuff strength is absolutely critical. Scapula depression and retraction is quite important and I often see many YouTube’rs pressing the weight (and arms) out of depression and/or the shoulder-locked position. I think you’ve nailed it Mike. Great post!

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