“Everybody wanna be a bodybuilder, but nobody wanna lift this heavy-ass weight.”
But something similar could be said about the bench press:
“Everybody wanna bench press a house, but nobody wanna take care of their broken-ass shoulders.”
Lots of people have really lousy posture and slouch too much. This can wreak havoc on your shoulder health. Our scapular retractors (muscles that pull the shoulders back) and thoracic extensors (muscles that help us sit up straight) get tired, lazy and weak from sitting all day. So we slump over, our shoulders roll forward, and we inevitably lose mobility. And most of us work out our chest, front deltoids and upper traps way more than our upper back, rear delts and lower traps – and this just compounds the problems.
Then the symptoms slowly creep in – that pinching feeling every time you reach overhead. That ominous throbbing after a set of push-ups. And then one day you can’t wipe without feeling like your collarbone is getting sawed in half.
You may think it’s inevitable – you can’t quit your job to save your shoulders. Or you may think it’s the price you pay for hard work in the gym – you lift heavy day in and day out for years and you get beat up, simple as that. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Here are three simple exercises that you can do every day to help keep your shoulders healthy. All you need is a light resistance band.
BAND PULL APART
This simple exercise works on scapular retraction (pulling the shoulder blades together) and reinforces good upper back posture. My buddy Miguel demonstrates it beautifully:
You’ll notice from a side view how he keeps perfect spinal alignment. His chin is tucked, his back isn’t arched, and his rips aren’t flared. This allows the shoulder to move freely without compensation from other muscles/joints. Keep your spine in line by flexing your abs and squeezing your glutes during the whole set.
Use various grips: overhand, underhand, palms facing. Squeeze the shoulder blades together for a split second and repeat.
“Do twice as many back exercises as chest exercises.” “More rows, less bench.” “Do a pull-up for every rep of bench press.”
You hear these recommendations all the time. You think more rows will save your shoulders from the big bad bench boogieman? Think again.
Why does the bench press ruin shoulders? Constant, heavy shoulder internal rotation. An imbalance between the muscles that externally rotate the shoulder (think waving ‘hello’) and the muscles that internally rotate the shoulder (think giving a noogie) can cause impingement syndrome and all kinds of other problems. Well guess what? Rows and pull-ups internally rotate the shoulder too.
So not only do we need to balance pressing and rowing, but internal and external rotation. The face pull is essentially a row with external rotation, killing two birds with one stone. My fellow fitness friend Harold demonstrates a cable face pull below:
And the same can be done with a band. Actively pulling the band apart increases the awesomeness:
Again, keep your abs and glutes tight so all the movement happens at the shoulder joint. Point your elbows out and raise your upper arms parallel to the floor, but don’t shrug your traps. Keep your hands above your elbows and pull toward your face, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
If you find it too hard to keep good posture while standing, try face pulls in a lunge stance. The half-kneeling position makes it easier to keep your back from arching or head from poking forward.
First things first – not everyone should do shoulder dislocations. If you get discomfort in your shoulder with resisted external rotation (commonly seen in people with labral tears), don’t do these. They’re also not a good idea for most overhead athletes (baseball, lacrosse, volleyball, etc.) since almost all of them have a lot of external rotation range of motion, and stretching further into external rotation can cause problems.
However, if you’re the average desk-jockey-by-day, bench-press-meathead-by-night, shoulder dislocations with a band can be a lifesaver.
I prefer the band to a broomstick or other rigid object because the band reduces elbow stress. You can let the band go slack a little if you encounter an area in the range of motion that is uncomfortable. A broomstick doesn’t give you that freedom.
Hold a band with your palms down, hands spaced just outside shoulder width. Pull the band apart slightly so it’s taut, then lift your arms overhead and back until the band is behind your back. Keep the band tight, and reverse directions to return to the starting position. You should get a great stretch in the pecs and armpit region.
CONSISTENCY IS KEY
There are lots of ways to incorporate these exercises into your routine, but to ensure their effectiveness, you have to be consistent.
At one of his seminars, Jason Ferruggia recommended doing 100 band pull-aparts, face pulls and shoulder dislocations a day, every day. That was some great advice, and I don’t know why it took me so long to listen.
That’s how I like do it. 100 reps of each, every day. It won’t take long, and it’s easy if you break it up into smaller chunks. I like to do 5 sets of 20 reps per exercise. I do a set of each first thing in the morning, 3 sets during my workout, and then a final set at night.
Oh, and there’s another sneaky benefit – building some serious upper back mass. Even though these are easy movements, the volume builds up over time. Think about it – 3 exercises for 100 reps a day, and if you do that for 100 days, that’s 30,000 contractions. The body has to adapt, even if the weight isn’t heavy. The same thing happens with cyclists. They usually have pretty diesel quads even though they don’t do a lot of heavy lifting. But thousands and thousands of reps of pedaling eventually forces the legs to grow.
You don’t have to jump right in with 100 reps of each per day. Here are a few other options:
- Start with 10 of each per day, adding 5 reps per day until you reach 100.
- Do 5-10 reps of each between every set of bench or shoulder press.
- Do them as an upper back finisher after your rows and pull-ups.
The options are endless. Try these 3 exercises daily for a few weeks and notice how much your posture and mobility improves. Your shoulders will thank you.