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Toward Healthy Shoulders in 2012

July 22, 2012

Last week we began discussing the effects of popular bodybuilding and weight training programs on shoulder health. We noted the major emphasis put into the front (chest, arms, delts) of the body in comparison to the back (traps, rhomboids). We concluded that typical split training programs result in muscular strength imbalances between the overdeveloped primary movers (pecs, delts, lats) in comparison to the underdeveloped and often atrophied stabilization muscles (scapular retractors, external rotators). We also noted a prominent postural deviation manifest in this imbalance – protracted shoulders and internal humerus rotation. Finally, we discussed the most common shoulder pathologies (impingement, rotator cuff strains and tendonitis, subacromial bursitis, and multi-directional instability) experienced.

This week, we’ll discuss ways to improve balance and stability at the shoulder joint. We’ll look at this from the perspective of pre-habilitation – decreasing the likelihood injuries may occur – rather than rehabilitation. We’ll also assume that there are no serious postural deviances at the shoulder joint – such deviances are outside the scope of this article and will be addressed separately.

There are two major issues to address: the first a flexibility imbalance examining the effects of typical weight training programs on the anterior versus posterior capsule; the second, a strength imbalance, specifically weakness in the external rotators and scapular adductors.

Glenohumeral Capsule Flexibility Imbalances

Jason Cholewa

The shoulder joint is comprised of the head of the humerus (upper arm) and glenoid cavity of the scapula. The capsule is a thin bag of connective tissue that envelopes the joint. Supporting the capsule and adding stability are a series of ligaments. For the sake of this article, the ligamentous-capsular restraints will be divided into two anatomical parts: the anterior (front) and the posterior (rear).

Exercises that involve shoulder abduction and external rotation in combination with scapula protraction and elevation stretch the anterior capsule. Such exercises include presses with the elbows flared out and shoulder blades protracted, pull downs or pull ups behind the neck, and all variations of chest flies. The common pectoral stretch with the arm out straight and externally rotated also stretches the anterior capsule without fully stretching the pectoral muscles.

As hyperlaxity (excessive flexibility) is developing in the anterior capsule, a lack of flexibility is developing in the posterior capsule. Thus, a major flexibility imbalance: excessive external rotation flexibility and insufficient internal rotation flexibility. As a result, the rotator cuff muscles must work harder to hold the head of the humerus down in socket and fatigue earlier; fatigue then leads to humeral head retroversion; and shoulder pathologies ensue.


First, use correct technique when performing chest pressing exercises. Bench presses should use a grip of 1.5x that the width of the shoulders and excessive shoulder abduction should be avoided. Keep the scapula retracted and do not allow the shoulder to abduct beyond 60 degrees. To picture the shoulder positioning, imagine performing a lateral raise with a pair of dumbbells. Slowly raise your arms to your sides until a 60 degree angle has been created between your arms and the side of your body. When performing chest presses, do not let your elbows flare out beyond this point, and keep the shoulder blades squeezed together.

Second, over head presses should never be performed behind the neck and the elbows should be positioned 45 degrees anterior at the bottom of the ROM. Perform a front raise until your arms are chest height. Now slowly move your arms out to the sides until they create a 30 degree angle with the front of your body. Do not let your elbows flare out beyond this point at the bottom of the ROM during an over head press.

Next, avoid exercises that place the shoulder in compromising positions such as upright rows, front and lateral raises that exceed shoulder height, and pec deck type machines.

The stretches:
Replace the outstretched arm pectoral stretch with this:

Next, perform this stretch to improve flexibility in posterior capsule:

Keep your shoulder blades retracted, and lightly press down on your forearm.

Muscular Imbalances

As discussed earlier, bodybuilders commonly develop strength imbalances between the primary shoulder movers in comparison to the shoulder stabilizers. Below is a schematic representation of how the translocator forces of the rotator cuff act to keep the head of the humerus in socket when the arm is raised.

If the rotator cuff muscles fatigue early or are cannot match the strength of the deltoid, the head of the humerus will elevate in the shoulder socket, rub against the acromium and impingement of tendons, nerves, and bursa will occur. Constant impingement results in microtrauma, tears and tendonitis. Below is a picture of impingement.

The pecs (major and minor), serratus anterior, and anterior deltoids all function to protract the scapula. As exercises for the pecs and anterior deltoids often outnumber those for the middle/lower trapezius and rhomboids, muscular imbalances between the scapula protractors and retractors occur. As a result, many amateur bodybuilders have rounded shoulders (picture of protracted scapula below)

Furthermore, the pecs, lats, and anterior/medial delts all internally rotate the humerus. How many people do you see training their external rotators? Exactly. Excessive internal humeral rotation (where your hands are no longer parallel to your sides, but rather your palm face behind you) cause several problems. First, the incidence of shoulder injuries are increased since an internally rotated humerus decreases rotator cuff muscle recruitment during pressing movements. Second, internally rotated humerus will negatively affect pec and lat hypertrophy, due to intrinsic nervous system regulation. Finally, excessive internal humerus rotation and scapula protraction often go hand in hand. Below is a picture of the often neglected external rotator muscles.


Jason Cholewa

Balanced Splits
First, design your training program to promote muscular balance, not muscular imbalance. Add up your total sets for chest and anterior delts. This sum should be matched by an equal amount of sets of rowing movements (barbell, seated, pulley) and rear deltoid movements (bent over shoulder raises, rear delt machine, rear delt band pulls). Next, your total sets of over head presses should be equal to your total sets of low pulling movements (pull downs, pull ups, chin ups, etc.).

Train your Scapula Depressors
Often there is a major imbalance in strength between the upper traps and levator scapula in comparison to the lower trap fibers. As a result, the scapula easily elevates during pressing movements and the power output of the rotator cuff muscles is compromised. Use the following exercise to train the lower trap fibers. Begin the exercise at the bottom of the ROM shown on the right. Then, keeping the arms straight, depress the scapula (the reverse of the shrug) and end as the picture on the left. Begin with bodyweight 2-3 times a week and progress in weight.

Train your Scapula Retractors
The rhomboids and middle trap fibers retract the shoulder blades. A weakness in this movement is often apparent in pressing exercises where the scapula protracts and the load is shifted from the pecs to the anterior delts. This can often be seen in overdeveloped front delts.

As mentioned earlier, balance your chest and anterior delt movements with an equal amount of rowing movements and rear delt movements. Here is the key: Keep your shoulder blades depressed and concentrate on a full retraction of the scapula. Second, use only a pronated (over hand) grip. Doing so will increase the involvement of the external rotators.

Train your External Rotators
Finally, it is necessary to strengthen the external rotators. The exercise is not fancy; however a simple modification to the external rotation movement must be made. When the movement is done with the arm against the side of the body blood flow is compromised, the deltoid may be used to compensate, and the subacromial space is decreased which can lead to impingement. To increase blood flow, inactivate the deltoid, and avoid any possible impingement, place a towel roll or 3” foam cylander between the upper arm and the side. Squeeze down upon it as your perform the exercise. Make sure to keep your shoulders back and rotate the arm in controlled motion. Below is a picture demonstration:

So, to recap:

First, design your training program with balance in mind. This will not only ensure a decreased risk of injury, but will lend to a more aesthetic look (forward shoulders, over developed front delts and fake lat syndrome are only cool on the Jersey Shore).

Second, avoid exercises that increase hyperlaxity of the anterior capsule. This means no over presses or pull downs behind the neck, minimal chest flies, and no upright rows. Next, keep your shoulder blades retracted and do not let your elbows flair out to the sides. Next, perform the modified version of the pec stretch and make sure to stretch to posterior capsule in order to increase internal flexibility.

Third, do not neglect your shoulder stabilizers. Train your lower trap fibers with as much vigor and volume (and perhaps with high frequency) as your upper trap fibers. Next, train your scapula retractors with a pronated (over hand) grip. Finally, train your external rotators.

Healthy Shoulders….

Jason Cholewa

Further Reading:

Durral, C., Manske, R., & Davies, G. Avoiding shoulder injury from resistance training. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 23:5, 10-18. 2001.

Kolber, J., Beekhuizen, S., Cheng, S., Hellman, MA. Shoulder Joint and Muscle Characteristics in the Recreational Weight Training Population. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(1):148-157, January 2009.

Kolber, MJ., Beekhuizen, KS., Santore, T., Fiers, H. Implications for Specific Shoulder Positioning During External Rotator Strengthening. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 30(4):12-16, August 2008.

Tyson, A. The importance of the posterior capsule of the shoulder in overhead athletes. Strength and Conditioning Journal 27(4), 60-62. 2005.

From → Training

  1. Jason,
    I just stumbled on you blog and love it. I noticed you mentioned typical bodybuilding splits result in GH-joint problems. I’ve also noticed this in a number of my patients that are olympic weightlifters, and powerlifters and don’t think it’s just the splits, as much as the lack of knowledge of the coaches/trainee. Also, what’s you opinion on fixing the humerus to fixate the axis of rotation during external rotation exercises for more effective recruitment? I know Janda, Lewitt, and Chek have all talked about this to an extent.

    • Thanks Dr. Gonet,

      You bring up a good point, in that it is not necessarily the splits used in bodybuilding, but rather the lack of programming knowledge and focus on anterior muscles over posterior muscles. As for fixing the humerus during rotational exercises, I agree that it is important. By squeezing down on a towel roll (or some other objects) you get reciprocal inhibition of the deltoids, create space between the acromium and humeral head, and (as you pointed out) ultimately ensure the external rotators are performing the movement.

      • Jason,
        Thanks for the response. Once proper stability using a stable surface, do you like to have the athlete do the exercise on a unstable surface? For example, having them moving from fixing the humerus with a towel or on a bench to something like a airex pad or swiss ball. I’ve used this to help athletes, but only once ability to perform the exercise in a fixed humeral axis of rotation is obtained.

      • I don’t often use unstable surfaces in training, as I find it can take away from the prime movement itself when used with large exercises such as squats, bench press, etc. Perhaps with a small movement such as the external rotation it will increase kiniesothetic awareness, but its not something I have often done. I think to add a level on instability I would prefer the athlete to balance on one foot as that closer related to situations encountered within sports.

        On Wed, Mar 6, 2013 at 1:11 PM, Jason Cholewa – Strength and Conditioning Lecturer

      • I agree with the larger/more complex movements and usually only use unstable surfaces once the pattern is can be achieved with a stable surface. I think some of the unstable surface guys take it a bit to far some times….like doing a loaded squat on a swiss ball.

  2. Michael permalink

    What is your reasoning for the suggested pec stretch? Having the elbow flexed or extended would have no effect on the shoulder capsule. Please think into this fully and I would love to hear your thoughts.

    • Good question. It has been a while since I looked at that article. My reasoning is as follows: It is easier to hold the scapula in a retracted position with the elbow bent and applying pressure against the humerus vs. the hand. With the arm outstretched scapula has the tendency to rotate upward and protract, putting it in a winged position which (as I understand it) places stress on the anterior capsule and AC joint, while minimizing the lengthening of the pec. I’m curious to hear your thoughts as well, as I am continually learning about the biomechanics of the shoulder joint, and having recently suffered and injury am always curious to learn more.

      If I was to rewrite this article, I would include more information regarding soft tissue work, exercises to strengthen the upward scapula rotators, enhancing internal rotation ROM, and probably remove the sleeper stretch.

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