How to Maintain Healthy Shoulders

by William Duffield on January 22, 2021

Before I began doing any specific strengthening and mobility work for my shoulders, I had already spent many years building strength in the shoulders, especially through bench presses, parallel bar dips and overhead presses. Whilst my shoulders were strong by most standards, I learned that they were not as robust and resistant to injuries as they could be because I had only achieved strength in the specific ranges of motion involved in these exercises. They were not strong in all directions and I had also created an imbalance in strength. For many people, strength imbalances can result in discomfort and injuries over time. Keep in mind that strength imbalances can be complex. This article should not be treated as a substitute for professional treatment for injuries if required. There are however some suggestions here which may help to prevent injuries from happening in the first place.

Shoulder impingement and shoulder injuries can be quite common due to an overreliance on traditional strength training exercises and the absence of specific strength and mobility exercises that can keep the shoulders healthy.

Ensuring good mobility and strength in the shoulders in many more directions than what can be achieved through bench pressing, parallel bar dips and overhead pressing should be a priority for all of us.

Many of the shoulder exercises recommended here are not necessarily going to build substantial muscle in the way that many compound movements do, but they may help keep your shoulders healthy and injury free, allowing you to continue training at your best and enjoy getting the maximum benefits for exercise.

I experienced severe pain in my left shoulder a few years ago. It stopped me training exercises like the bench press and overhead press completely for quite some time. Whilst the pain was frustrating, it most likely could have been avoided had I included a greater variety of strength training and mobility exercises specifically for the shoulders earlier than I did.

Whilst treatment for injuries can be invaluable, it should be your priority to do all you can to prevent any injuries or strength imbalances from occurring in the first place.

Shoulders and the Rotator Cuff

The shoulder is one the most sophisticated joints and has the greatest range of motion of any joint in the human body. The shoulder is comprised of three bones including the clavicle (collarbone) scapula (shoulder blade) and the humerus (upper arm bone).

Some of the muscles within the shoulder complex include the anterior deltoid, middle deltoid, posterior deltoid and the rotator cuff. Especially due to the sophisticated nature of shoulders, building strength throughout many different ranges of motion is important to keep them healthy.

Whilst to some extent all parts of the shoulders are involved in exercises like the bench press and overhead press, the anterior deltoids (front deltoids) take relatively more stress. For many lifters therefore, the anterior deltoids tend to become over developed and this can lead to internal shoulder rotation as a result. For most people, including additional exercises specifically for the anterior deltoids is unnecessary and may only serve to further exaggerate an existing strength imbalance.

The dumbbell overhead press is not only a great compound exercise for the shoulders, triceps and trapezius in its own right, but it also places a great deal of emphasis on the middle deltoids specifically.

The middle deltoids are not as heavily involved in most other forms of upper body exercises, which is why it can be beneficial to include the dumbbell overhead press in your strength training programme.

The posterior deltoids are often neglected in many common exercise programmes. Whilst the rear lateral raise can be used, I prefer to do face pulls because not only do they work the posterior deltoids, face pulls are also a compound movement and involve the trapezius, rhomboids, teres minor and infraspinatus too.  

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons in the shoulder which connect the upper arm (humerus) to the shoulder blade (scapula). The tendons in the rotator cuff provide stability for the glenohumeral joint and the muscles enable the shoulder to rotate. The muscles within the rotator cuff include the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis.

Of particular importance is the infraspinatus and teres minor, which are responsible for external rotation of the humerus. None of the standard upper body exercises typically used in strength training routines involve any external rotation of the humerus which is why so many people have an imbalance in strength within the rotator cuff.

To help address the imbalance, the L-Fly and the Cuban press can used for external rotation. Face pulls also include some external rotation involving the infraspinatus and teres minor whilst working the posterior deltoids, trapezius and rhomboids too.  

Build up the resistance very gradually on all exercises (especially the L-Fly and Cuban Press) and remember that whilst progression should always be the goal, neither the Cuban press, face pull or L-Fly have a particularly large weight potential.

Use of resistance bands can be invaluable for external rotation exercises for the shoulders. One simple and incredibly effective exercise you can add to your strength training programme are shoulder pull aparts. Use a band that is very light for you and focus on simply pulling it away from you. The closer your hands are to one another when holding the band, the harder the exercise becomes.

 

 

Summary

The inclusion of face pulls, Cuban presses, the L-Fly and shoulder pull aparts to your programme may go a long way towards ensuring healthy shoulders over the long term, especially for anyone who may have a strength imbalance. Working on improving your flexibility and regular use of a foam roller will help too. Your shoulders will thank you for it!