Shoulders: You’re probably doing it wrong (Part 2)

Last week we discussed the order of operations required for addressing shoulder function—specifically the mobility component.

If you didn’t read part one here are the highlights:
1) Learn to Breathe diaphragmatically
2) Teach your Core to function like a core
3) Mobilize the Thoracic Spine and Neck
4) Teach the Scapula to have mobility and stability
5) Don’t beat up on your Glenohumeral Joint.

Today I want to discuss how to strengthen your shoulders on top of good movement quality.

Skin the CatMovement Quality
Movement Quality, as defined in Ultimate Athleticism is, “Range of motion plus coordination.” Once you can take your joints through their full range of motion in a coordinated fashion, it’s time to lay down some serious strength on top of it. In order to do this we have to have a quick discussion about vectors and joint centration.

Don’t get scared–I’m going to make this as simple as possible.

First, vector is a fancy way of saying the direction of force. In order to have the musculature around the shoulder stay balanced, you need to train all the vectors evenly (push/pull, up/down) so you don’t strengthen (tighten) one side of the joint too much. This is important because the stronger and more tense a muscle gets, the more it pulls on the joint, even at rest. This is called it’s resting muscle tonicity (tension). If a muscle pulls too much on a joint in just one direction that takes the joint out of it’s ideal position. This ideal position is called joint centration.

Once you have a solid base of movement quality at the shoulder, you need to strengthen the shoulder in a balanced fashion to maintain joint centration.

A simple way of looking at this is through the two planes of motion at the upper body (examples in parenthesis):

Push (Pushup)
Pull (Row)

Push (Overhead Press/Handstand)
Pull (Pull-up/Chin-up)

In short, if you strengthen one side, you have to strengthen the other equally.

In this way of thinking you also need to understand that a hypertonicity (too much tension) of the “pushing muscles” (Pecs, delts, triceps) is going to be a common cause of problems at the shoulder. A good rule of thumb that many experienced trainers and physical therapists suggest is to do 2 pulls for every 1 push.

The horizontal pulling vector is arguably the most important because it is the polar opposite of the postural problems that we encounter from too much sitting down at computers, watching TV, etc.

Now you may have seen this and thought, “hey, there are more than just vertical and horizontal!” You are correct. You can actually move in a practically infinite number of vectors that move along a circle.

My favorite hybrid movements that strengthen the shoulder through their full range of motion in pushing and pulling are the L-sit to handstand and the Skin the Cat, respectively.

Furthermore, you can separate these upper body movements into bent-arm and straight-arm maneuvers. With traditional weight training this would be the difference between overhead presses and lateral raises—both are training basically the same movement, but the length of the lever and stress on the joint is different.

Understanding all of that, here is how to plug all of this in to your training:
1. Make sure you have a solid base of movement quality through good range of motion and coordination.
2. Strengthen your shoulder along all the possible vectors, emphasizing the pulling side to strengthen the back muscles, especially the horizontal plane.

Better Every Day,

ps. I just finished up my Healthy Shoulder Webinar Series and it was a blast! If you missed it, you can access the recordings and links here for FREE.

Shoulders Part 1
Shoulders Part 3

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 thoughts on “Shoulders: You’re probably doing it wrong (Part 2)

  • Patrick Redlich

    aaah, i see, interesting. and yeah, i agree with the dips. sounds like my shoulders. but actually my right shoulder even hurts if i do a liiiitle bit to much l-sit, too. i think i´m getting old, haha.

    thank for the answer

  • Max Shank

    My pleasure Patrick!

    Typically vertical down as in a dip can be damaging to some types of shoulders, and in my experience is not as essential for balanced shoulder strength. A support position or L-sit however, is a different story, and critically important (this is highlighted in Simple Shoulder Solution).

    The upright vertical pulling tends to cause more problems at the shoulder by creating hypertonicity (excessive tension) in the upper traps especially.

  • Patrick Redlich

    hi max, great stuff you do – i like all of it !!! but i wonder why all the people – when they speak about planes of motion, mention the vertikal and the horizontal plane. yes, you said there is a whole bunch of directions, but personally i think the 3rd main direction of emphasis for a balanced muscularity and co ist the vertical down. that is your dips for example for pushing and it may be a clean or high pull for pulling. what do you think, max ? don´t they own a category for themselves ?

    greeting from patrick