Shore up your Shoulders


I am a man and one of the hallmarks of a man’s physique is broad well defined shoulders. As a personal trainer it’s important that I look the part. My body serves as a billboard; advertising my own skill and expertise. How can my clients take me seriously if I don’t look like I take my own advice? On the other side of that I am an avid outdoor enthusiast, Obstacle Racer, and adventure junkie. My shoulders are the foundation of many of the activities I do and without them all my strength and stamina would be useless. Unfortunately many of us concentrate so intently on the muscles we see in the mirror that we neglect the supporting cast buried beneath the deltoids. These rotator cuff muscles and scapular retractors are essential to every movement involving the shoulder joint. Weakness here is a stepping stone to sure injury.

I briefly covered this topic last week on Legion Fitness Training’s Facebook page but I will post it here for my blog readers and add a little more detail. The shoulder joint as a whole is actually very instable. It was designed this way though and is what enables it to move in such a wide range. The joint relies on a network of support muscles to keep it stabilized and from dislocating. While most weightlifters are familiar with the Deltoid muscles, and upper Trapezius; most pay little attention to the Serratus Anterior (the finger like muscles of your upper rib-cage beneath your armpit), the Supraspinatus, Teres Minor, Infraspinatus, Subscapularis (rotator cuff muscles.) Without these muscles you could not move your shoulder and if you fail to strengthen them properly in your weight workouts not only are you playing Russian roulette with injury but you’re also limiting the strength and ability of your Deltiods.
In addition to these rotator cuff muscles; your Pectoralis Major and minor of the chest and Lattimus Dorsi in the back along with the Rhomboids play a huge role in shoulder stability. In fact every major movement of your upper body originates at the shoulder joint so it soon becomes apparent why it’s so important to build a solid foundation here. If you’ve ever injured your shoulder then you know firsthand how debilitating it can be. Now that we’ve identified the major players let’s talk about the exercises all of us should be utilizing to build up strong shoulders and ward off injury.

The Pushup is a very underrated exercise. While the bench press gets all the glory the pushup remains a more realistic way to train the upper body. Try dedicating one day a week to pushups and their many derivatives instead of the bench press. This move is a great one for conditioning the Serratus Anterior and one reason it is so well defined in boxers and MMA fighters. The pushup also utilizes the rotator cuff muscles and deltoids more than a Bench Press. In a Pushup your joint is floating in space and must work hard to stabilize itself while simultaneously raising and lowering your body. On a bench many of these muscles are actually rendered inoperable by the bench’s support as are many of your back muscles that would otherwise be engaged to help control your decent. During a pushup focus on pulling your shoulders back and down. When you rise all the way up pause for a moment then visualize raising your back to the sky by lowering your shoulder blades. The actual movement will be very slight but trust me you will soon feel its effects.

Another great move for the Serratus, is the Serratus shrug or reverse dip. Sit on the end of a bench as you were about to do tri-cep dip but instead of lowering your body raise it by pushing down with your shoulders for a count of ten. Again the movement is very minimal, you will only rise up maybe two inches at most but the effect will soon become apparent. Repeat ten times as a set at the end of your normal chest or shoulder routine.

While you’ve got the bench out or if you have none sit on the floor in a relaxed position one leg lying flat, the other bent 90 degrees knee off the floor. Hold a light dumbbell in one hand and extend your arm out over the raised leg resting your elbow on your knee. Now curl the dumbbell up until your forearm is perpendicular to the ground. Your arm should form an “L” shape while your raised leg forms a “^” beneath it. Now rotate your arm down and in, keeping your upper arm still and parallel to the floor, and then raise it back up again. This same movement can also be done in the “scarecrow” in which you stand holding two light dumbbells arms held out beside you bent at the elbows to form tow “L”s. Keeping your upper arms still, rotate your forearms forward and down much as you would in arm wrestling. Lower all the way down then rotate back up again. Focus on slow controlled movement and squeeze the shoulder as you move.

There are literally dozens of exercises to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles and I have only listed a few for the sake of brevity. However I encourage anyone who is seeking a cure for shoulder pain or wants to increase their strength gains to begin incorporating rotational exercises into their normal shoulder routine. I advise any serious weightlifter or exerciser to invest in the “Big Book of Exercises” line from MensHealth and WomensHealth magazines. These books are filled with hundreds of movements along with detailed photos and explanations of the exercises that I just cannot duplicate here. If you are interested in a more detailed workout plan for your shoulders feel free to contact me here on the blog or by email at

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