When it comes to our shoulders they tend to get overworked, which in turn hinders our training. Korey Van Wyk is here with a blueprint to make sure that doesn’t happen.
If you workout and train hard long enough, it’s going to happen – your shoulders will get cranky. Whether it’s nagging pain, tightness, or general creakiness, sometimes they just don’t feel right. On days like that, it can be easy to ditch the overhead or pressing movements and wonder if your days of pressing anything heavy are numbered.
And, of course, there may be a time and place to avoid certain exercises for a while. And if you feel you’re to that point, I’d highly recommend working with a good physical therapist! But in this article, I’m going to share some of my “go-to” exercises that tend to cheer up cranky shoulders and get them feeling ready to take on anything.
Shoulder Prep Goals
When getting ready for a shoulder or pressing-intensive session, I try to target certain areas and joints in specific ways. Here’s a breakdown of my typical shoulder prep goals:
- Mobilize the thoracic spine (mid-upper back) through rotation, flexion, and extension
- Decrease tone (tightness) of the pecs, front of the shoulder, and lats
- Facilitate overall scapular motion (primarily protraction and upward rotation)
- “Wake up” the rotator cuff by forcing it to act as a stabilizer
In general, I try to do something for each goal. As you’ll see in the rest of the article, many of the exercises accomplish more than one at a time!
In general, I’ve listed these exercises in order of how I would perform them in a warm-up. Typically, I will start with the mobility-based exercises and move to the stability-based ones. If you prefer to do it the other way around, go for it! I also tend to start on the ground and work my way up to standing.
Goals Accomplished: 1, 2, 3
There’s not a whole lot the side-lying windmill doesn’t do. It is one of the best bang-for-your-buck mobility exercises for your upper body. However, there’s some nuance to doing it correctly. The biggest mistakes I see are 1) not reaching at the start and 2) letting the hips rotate. The latter is why I recommend using the bottom hand to hold your knees together.
How To Perform:
- Lie on your side with your knees and hips bent to 90 degrees and your top arm extended out in front of you.
- Keep your bottom knee on the ground and knees together throughout the movement
- Start the movement by reaching forward with the extended arm. This step is important as it facilitates scapular motion.
- From there, move your arm overhead while keeping your hand on the ground as long as possible. You may not be able to keep it on the ground for very long, and that’s OK. You will be able to as your mobility improves.
- As you continue to go overhead, let your upper body naturally rotate. You want to think about touching your shoulder blade to the ground. This will ensure that you’re actually rotating through your spine vs. just reaching with your arm.
- Keep rotating until your arm is extended on the other side (or as your comfort allows), then reverse the motion to return to the start
Goals Accomplished: 1, 2
Could a twist on a classic bodybuilding exercise be a simple, yet deceivingly effective, shoulder prep exercise? I definitely think so! However, like the windmill, there is some nuance to getting the most out of this exercise. The video below shows a PVC with a light plate in the middle, which has an advantage over just using a weighted bar that I’ll explain.
How to Perform:
- Place a 5-10lb plate in the middle of a PVC pipe or light barbell and lie on a bench with your feet flat on the bench. Use the same grip width of the movement you’re going to perform that day (e.g., just outside shoulder width for OH press/jerk or snatch grip for snatch)
- Hold the PVC pipe above your chest and press your low back into the bench. Doing the latter essentially “locks in” your low back and prevents it from arching during the movement. This is also something we want to reduce when pressing overhead.
- Slowly bring the PVC pipe overhead and down toward the floor. As you do so, keep your elbows straight and actively reach long overhead. This can be much harder than it sounds, so if you can’t go very far without your elbows bending that’s OK. Go as far as you can tolerate and don’t force the issue.
- Eventually, you’ll get to a point where you feel a stretch in your pecs, shoulders, and maybe your lats. Gently let the weight of the PVC pipe pull you into a stretch while keeping your low back pressed into the bench.
- Hold in the stretched position for 1-2 seconds and return to the start. If you feel that one side is tighter than the other, move the plate slightly toward that side to help with the stretch.
Half-Kneeling Overhead Windmill
Goals Accomplished: 1, 2, 3
While this movement has a lot of similarities to the side-lying windmill, it takes things up a notch and also has some unique benefits. First, you don’t get the ground anymore to help with stability. You now have to move through a large range of motion while providing your own stability; something you will need to do in most pressing movements. Second, the band intensifies the stretch in your shoulders and pecs and aids in the rotation of the mid-back. Lastly, the half-kneeling position usually results in a good stretch for the quads and hip flexors which makes it a great option for bench day.
How to Perform:
- Assume a half-kneeling position with the inside leg up. The band should be approximately shoulder height.
- Grab the band with your outside hand and raise your arm straight out in front of you. Make sure you’re far enough away from the band’s anchor point that there’s slight tension in it. It doesn’t need to have a lot of tension, but it shouldn’t be slack either.
- Start the movement by reaching slightly forward and begin to raise your arm overhead and behind you. Just like the side-lying windmill, actively reach long with your arm as you rotate.
- As you go overhead, the stretch in your pec, shoulder, and lat will become more intense. You should be able to move smoothly through this movement, so if you find yourself holding your breath or fighting through the movement, decrease the strength of the band or move closer to the anchor point.
- Once your arm is on the other side, hold this position for 1-2 seconds and let the band pull you further into rotation as well as stretch your pec. Then reverse the movement back to the start.
Goals Accomplished: 3, 4
While the body saw is often considered a core exercise (which it is), it has a lot of benefits when it comes to shoulder prep. These stem from needing to bring your arms overhead without letting your shoulder blades collapse together or your hips sag toward the ground. Not only does this accomplish two of our prep goals but is a great teaching tool for low back and pelvis positioning when pressing overhead. There are also many ways to progress the movement. But whether you are using a physioball, rollers, sliders, or TRX, the tenets of the exercise remain the same.
How to Perform:
- Start in a plank position on elbows or hands, depending on the piece of equipment you’re using. Your hands/elbows should be actively pushing into the ground, your hips level, and your body in a straight line from your heels to your head. As you push back, your goal is to maintain this position!
- Push yourself back while continuing to press into the ground with your hands/elbows. If you let your shoulder blades collapse together, you’ve now lost the scapular benefits of the exercise.
- The farther you push back, the harder it will be to keep your hips from sagging and letting your low back arch. Your ability to keep your hips stable will determine how far back you push. If you can straighten your arms fully, great! But if you feel your hips start to sag at any point in the motion, stop there and go back to the start. As you get stronger, you will be able to push farther back.
KB Arm Bar
Goals Accomplished: 1, 3, 4
One of the great things about the arm bar is that it’s very easy to scale the intensity to fit your needs. You can go light and truly make it a warm-up exercise. Or go heavy and really challenge shoulder stability. You can also increase difficulty by going bottoms up, adding rotation, or both! I really like performing this exercise in between warm-up sets of overhead press. As you ramp up in weight for both your press and the arm bar, your shoulders will feel ready when it’s time to hit that first working set.
How to Perform:
- Lie on your back and put the non-working arm on the floor overhead at approximately a 45-degree angle. With the working arm, press the KB straight above your chest. For your lower body, the leg on the non-working side should be straight and the leg on the working side should be bent with your foot flat on the ground.
- Initiate the movement by simultaneously pushing the KB to the ceiling and driving into the ground with your bent leg. If you don’t drive with the leg, you’ll never be able to handle heavier weights.
- Keep reaching to the sky and pushing with your leg until you are on your side. At that point, let your leg rotate all the way over. Your arm should be directly above your side. Don’t let the KB drift toward your head or your feet.
- Hold this position for 1-2 seconds while actively pushing the KB to the ceiling. Don’t let the weight of the KB push your shoulder blade down. Return back to the start position under control.
Half-Kneeling KB Windmill
Goals Accomplished: 1, 2, 3, 4
While this is a shoulder article, the half-kneeling KB windmill is really a total body prep exercise. Yes, the weight is supported by your shoulder but this movement challenges the mobility and stability of multiple areas. At the shoulder, it has many of the same benefits as the arm bar but is more challenging due to starting overhead. But if you are tight through your low back, lats, and/or hips, this movement will benefit the mobility of those areas greatly. On top of that, since this is essentially a side-bend movement, you will find your obliques working hard to control your torso and keep you from falling over.
How to Perform:
- Start in a half-kneeling position with one arm overhead and the leg on the working side up.
- With your eyes on the KB overhead, start to bend over by reaching the elbow of your other arm toward the ground. It may take some time to get a feel for the balance of the movement, so don’t be surprised if you can’t get all the way to the ground. You may also be limited by low back and/or hip tightness.
- As you bend toward the ground, actively push the KB to the ceiling. Don’t let the weight push your shoulder blade down. Once you’ve gone as far as you can tolerate or handle, return back to the starting position.
There you have it! I hope you took away a movement or strategy that will make your shoulders happy and ensure they are ready for anything you want to throw at them.
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