Sexy Shoulder Function

Bench Press(Photo courtesy of A. Blight)

I get at least 8-10 e-mails per month that go something like this:

“I jacked up my shoulders – what exercises can I do to keep training while working to fix the underlying issue?”

The end goal for guys and gals like this is simple:

Get back to hard and heavy bench or overhead pressing ASAP.

It this sounds a little bit like you (or “a friend of yours,” wink wink) then let’s talk about keeping that upper body as strong as possible, while getting those shoulders right once and for all.

Before we get into the principles and exercises at our disposal, let’s take a real quick look at the anatomy involved in your crusade for a totally jacked upper body.

The Quick and Dirty Anatomy

Whenever you lift with your upper body, there are three really critical areas that need to be aligned properly and moving well.

These are:

  • The thoracic spine (upper back),
  • The scapulae (shoulder blades), and
  • The Gleno-humeral (shoulder) joint.

I’ve talked about these ad nauseum before, so I’m not going to go too in-depth here. Suffice it to say that all of these are important if you want to have a healthy upper body for the long-term.

You need that natural kyphosis through your thoracic spine so that your scapulae have something to support them. Too much kyphosis, or too little, can cause issues.

You need two scapulae that are not only stable, but optimally positioned as well.

Last but not least, you need adequate gleno-humeral joint range of motion, especially with regards to internal and external rotation.

The issue here is that these three joints are like dominoes. If one of them is out of whack, it throws all of the others out of whack as well.

Appley's Scratch Test
Appley’s Scratch Test

While our assessment process at IFAST looks at all of the above issues, perhaps the simplest and most effective test you can use is called an Appley’s scratch test.

This can be done in one of two ways:

  1. Looking at the right shoulder testing internal rotation/external rotation, and then doing the same on the left.
  2. Combining internal rotation of one shoulder while producing concomitant external rotation at the opposite shoulder.

The big thing you’re looking for here is asymmetries between sides. Again, I’m not going to go as deep into the “corrective” part of this post, but if you have a massive asymmetry you need to fix that first.

Training Around Beat-up Shoulders

Working on addressing your shoulder issues can take time.

For some it’s a quick fix.

But if you’ve had issues you’ve been putting off for a while, it may take a couple of months go get yourself right.

Regardless of where you’re starting at, this doesn’t mean you can sit around and feel sorry for yourself. I’m going to do my best to outline a step-by-step plan of attack, but first, let’s look at what tools you can (and should) be using until you get back to heavy benching or overhead pressing.

Kettlebells are a great option, as most of the exercises are performed unilaterally. At the very least, even on two-arm variations the shoulders are allowed to move independently of each other.

Dumbbells are another great option, as again, they don’t “tether” the shoulders together. Furthermore, the ability to move into a neutral (palms facing each other) grip can reduce stress on the shoulders even further.

Two of our favorite exercise tools at IFAST for someone with shoulder dysfunction are the landmine and grappler. Both of these apparatuses keep you out of pure overhead motion, which can be troublesome for those with shoulder dysfunction.

Last but not least, I’m a big fan of the SWIS bar for someone who wants the feel of a barbell press, but doesn’t want/need to be forced into a pronated grip. The SWIS bar and it’s neutral grip can take stress off the shoulders.

If you’re dealing with a pair of banged up shoulders, a barbell should be the last tool in your toolbox.

Look, I’m all for big-bang, compound exercises. But if you’re loading your body and beating it to hell time and again, the options I’ve provided above can go a long way to keeping you in the game without beating you up further.

And this goes beyond just barbell benching or overhead pressing. Putting a bar on your back to squat is out for a while as well.

Trust me – years of baseball and volleyball left me with one hell of an asymmetry. Repeatedly putting the bar on my back to squat, or in my hands to bench, has gotten me in trouble more times than not.

This isn’t me just telling you from a theoretical standpoint – this stuff can catch up to you if you aren’t smart.

With that being said, let’s look at some ways to work around this asymmetry in the short-term.

Principles for Smarter Shoulder Training

Now that we’ve discussed some of my favorite training tools, let’s look at some of the key principles to help you get more out of your upper body training.

#0 – Fix Your Shoulders!!!!

Just because I’m giving you options to continue training, doesn’t mean I don’t want you to fix the underlying issue!

Get those shoulders sorted out ASAP. Trust me, I’ve worked with guys that are so beat up the thought of throwing a baseball with their kids is a long-gone memory, let alone lifting heavy things for fun.

To get yourself sorted out, get a qualified assessment from a professional. Let them come up with a plan of attack to get you back on the right path.

And in the interim, here are my two favorite exercises for those with even the most banged-up shoulders.

The Kettelebell Arm Bar

The kettlebell arm bar is one of my absolute shoulder health exercises. In one simple exercise you open up the pecs and lats, strengthen the lower trapezius, stabilize the scapulae, and open up the thoracic spine and rib cage.

This is about as big-bang as it comes.

Not to mention the fact that doing an arm bar looks a lot more “hardcore” than static stretching when you’re in the gym.

I’ve posted a coaching video below, and here’s a full write-up that I posted a few years back on the arm bar.

The Kettlebell Arm Bar

Face Pulls

Face pulls are another exercise that even those with really beat-up shoulders can benefit from.

Not only do you strengthen the upper back, but if performed unilaterally you get the added benefit of thoracic spine rotation in there as well.

#1 – Start Horizontal First

So you’ve graduated from “My Shoulders are Totally Jacked Up!,” to “my shoulders are okay to start doing some things.”

In this case, I like to start clients in horizontal pressing and pulling exercises first. Working horizontally places minimal mobility demands on the upper extremity, so you can do some training with still working to improve mobility and stability.

Push-up Variations

Now let’s be even more specific – I typically won’t start someone off bench pressing here. Instead, we’ll perform push-up variations.

Bill and I wrote an entire article about push-ups years ago (Push-ups, Face Pulls and Shrugs), but here are two quick-and-dirty reasons why push-ups rock:

  1. In a bench press, the scapulae are pinned down and back, unable to move. In a push-up the scapulae can move dynamically, they strengthen the serratus anterior to a high degree.
  2. In a push-up your hand is in contact with the ground and your body moves around it, making it a closed-chain exercise. Closed-chain exercises are great for improving stabilizer activity, in this case, more activity from the rotator cuff.

Rowing Variations

Rowing variations are great for strengthening the muscles of the upper back (middle trapezius, lower trapezius, and rhomboids).

The key is to focus on actually moving the scapulae, versus the gleno-humeral joint. Think about actively squeezing those shoulder blades back, versus just getting your elbow as far behind your body (blowing out your anterior capsule in the process).

One reason I like the dumbbell row (as shown below) is because you not only get the upper back development, but if you’re getting long through the down arm you’re also activating and strengthening the serratus anterior on the “stabilizing” arm as well.

The exception to this rule of horizontal pressing and pulling first would be if someone is suffering from an A/C joint injury, in which case vertical work may be performed first.

#2 – Split the Difference

The next step in our process would be to get someone moving in a more horizontal fashion, without jumping straight from horizontal exercises to vertical ones.

This is where I really like to split the difference and use 45-degree angle pressing and pulling variations. You start to train that synergistic ‘cuff activation with scapular upward rotation, but again, you’re holding them back a bit with regards to upper extremity mobility demands.

Half-Kneeling Pulldowns

Half-kneeling pulldowns are a fantastic exercise. Not only do they give you the core and trunk stability benefits of half-kneeling, but they start to teach scapular depression as well.

Too often, we (or our clients) have poor kinesthetic awareness around the scapulae. Lower level exercises like this one allow us to learn how to actually move the scapulae, before progressing into big-bang, higher intensity exercises like chin-ups.

Half-Kneeling Landmine Press

Much like the half-kneeling pulldown, half-kneeling landmine presses challenge our upper body mobility a bit more.

Any time you start to get closer to true overhead function, you’re challenging that upper trap/lower trap/serratus force couple to get us overhead safely and effectively.

Furthermore, the ‘cuff must do it’s job of centrating the ball in the socket.

The bottom line is if you want to press overhead someday, but can’t get there yet, this is a great exercise to get you back on the right path.

#3 – Fun Stuff (With Concessions)

At this point, we’re really close to getting back to “normal” training.

If you’re a powerlifter, you can start getting back into some barbell-focused training.

If you want to press overhead, you’re probably close to doing that as well.

However, this is a great time to make some concessions and get yourself bulletproof first.

If you’re a powerlifter, shorten the range of motion, focusing more on board press or floor press variations.

(If you want more info on the floor press, including tons of variations and a thorough write-up on technique, read this article: Floor Press).

One of my personal favorite variations of the floor press is performed with a SWIS bar. Not only do you decrease the range of motion, but the neutral grip opens up that shoulder joint and decreases stress as well.

The board press works in much the same manner. When you shorten the range of motion, that puts less stress (and mobility demands) on the shoulder joint.

Furthermore, if you have a series of boards you can slowly work your way down over time (i.e. 3-board, 2-board, 1-board) to slowly increase range of motion..

Single-Arm Overhead Press

If your goal is to overhead press, start off with a dumbbell variation (again, not to “tether” the shoulders together). A personal favorite is the single-arm, neutral grip overhead press.

Single-Arm and Alternating DB Bench

Finally, if you want a bench pressing variation that is not only easier on the shoulders but will simultaneously give you a super-strong core, try single-arm dumbbell benching.

Focus on locking down the core, and staying tight from your feet up through your trunk and shoulders.

Often I’ll progress a client or athlete from the single-arm version to the alternating version. The key is to start with a more self-limiting exercise, and then progressively increase load, intensity, range of motion, etc..


Having stiff, immobile or beat-up shoulders isn’t a death sentence to your training.

However, that doesn’t mean you can ignore it.

Do the things necessary to get your shoulders fixed up first, and then use the progressions I’ve outlined above to get yourself back into the lifts you know and love.

And last but not least, if you’ve enjoyed this post, please take a moment to share it on Facebook, or blast it out to all your friends on Twitter.

I appreciate your support!

All the best




Leave Comment

  1. Great and timely article!
    Just recovering from minor shoulder arthroscopy (no repair, just bone spur removed), so a good plan for when I get back in the gym.

  2. Hi I love your emails and articles, I have found that when I do extra shoulder and chest work namely extra pressing and a lot of lateral raises my neck and upper back get a pinch and I get pain and tingles, I am going to try the info above to insure I have balance as I did find when I do my back work the pain and tingles go away

  3. What a solid post. This is a great piece of supporting education that I’ll be sharing with my trainers and a good number of my own clients. It’s great to offer more tools than just hammering thoracic mobility for clients that can’t wait to get back into direct pressing & shoulder work.

    Thanks Mike, for providing a pragmatic and accessible approach that’ll find it’s way into lots of my programming.

  4. Thanks for the great article Mike. I am an older lifter that just started
    lifting again after a thirty year layoff and my shoulders are an issue. I am
    taking it slow and easy with the bench and overhead press. These exercises
    will help.

  5. Great article Mike. After someone is moving their scapula better with the neutral grip rows, is it ok to do some pronated grip work for more rear delt activity or is this position overly stressful for many beat-up shoulders?

  6. I have an injured volleyball player, and this is almost exactly what I have her do. One thing you don’t mention is waiters walks. I have her do those with dumbells going up stairs, adding a shrug on the step up and lowering the weights to walk done. Any opinion on that?

  7. Love the KB armbar Mike! When would you use the exercise in the workout warm-up/mobility etc.)? Thanks 🙂

  8. Hi Mike,
    I am a 38 year old competitive Masters swimmer – a sprinter. I have done gym work all my life as well as bodyweight exercises such as pushups and pullups. Just this week I was diagnosed with rotator cuff tear and AC joint degeneration. Do you have any thoughts about the best way to stabilize and strengthen the scapulae and shoulder joints without stressing the AC joint? Any lifting or cross-body motion is out of the question. I am trying to put together a non-surgical recovery plan to get me back to lifting and competing in the water….
    A great article BTW 🙂

    • Brian –

      There are two different issues there, and I’d treat them both uniquely.

      Unfortunately, they go far beyond the spectrum of a Q&A answer. You might consider working with a qualified therapist/coach online if possible. Two immediate names that come to mind are Bill Hartman and Charlie Weingroff.

      Regardless, good luck!

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