For many of us, personal fitness, strength training and conditioning is a hobby. For others, it’s a passion. For a select few of us, it’s our lifeblood. Regardless of where this positive obsession with self-improvement is placed in your lives, we all have something in common – to continue progressing, we must remain healthy.
If you’ve followed my work for the last few years, you know I’ve battled my fair share of shoulder injuries. Now while I’ve never had anything so severe as an actual tear in my rotator cuff or labrum, I’ve experienced a few painful impingements that have kept me out of the pressing game for what seemed to be far too long.
Regardless of how severe your injury, they’re never any fun and are sure to sideline you for anywhere from a few months, to a year or more in some cases.
Previously, I wrote about how I corrected my shoulder issues with the help of Eric Cressey via email and various articles he’s written on the subject.
However, today I want to give you some tips and ideas on how to maintain shoulder health post rehab. If you’ve never been injured, then my goal is to help you keep yourself from ever getting hurt in the first place.
Keep Your Anatomy In Mind When Selecting Movements
If you’re like me, you have a short frame (68 inches) with semi-long arms. I have beefy quads, glutes and hams, so it seems I’m built well for squats. I am decent with RDL’s and sumo deadlifts, but I suck at the bench press.
It’s not a lack in strength, but more so that my arm length creates a range of motion that puts my shoulders in a vulnerable position at the bottom of the movement. In other words, when the bar touches my chest, my triceps/elbows break the parallel plane of the bench (my elbows dip below the bench I’m lying on).
If you were to see me do a floor press, you’d notice that my palms (or the bar) are about 4-5 inches above my chest at the bottom position. Subsequently, when I do straight bar bench, I always stop at a similar distance to prevent my triceps from going past parallel to the bench.
If you’ve never tried this, it will feel awkward at first stopping the bar so abruptly. It can also make the movement more difficult if you’re a prolific chest-bouncer who likes to use momentum in your training. “I just benched 315, bro.”
Below is a video of me doing some dumbbell floor presses – I know it’s a bit difficult to see, but hopefully you’ll notice how far my palms are above my chest when my triceps hit the floor. This is an ideal position if you don’t want any unnecessary strain on the shoulders.
Straight Bar Benching Tips
Every male loves to boast about a big bench press – it’s common in the Alpha code, I suppose. But as much fun as it is to brag about your manly feats, straight bar benching can be a surefire way to lots of shoulder problems down the road. Don’t believe me? Ask Jason Ferruggia (and multiple others) who’ve had a surgery as a result.
My number one tip for straight bar benching is to not do it unless you have to for competition purposes, or if you have no anatomical limitations as I do (which allows for great form).
However, if you need to perform the movement, or are fortunate to have a thick enough rib cage with short arms for a perfect range of motion, then learn how to bench like a powerlifter. This means using your entire body to generate the power as opposed to relying solely on your arms, shoulders and chest.
What does benching like a powerlifter entail?
Here’s a brief explanation. Make sure your feet are planted firmly on the floor, glutes are tight, lower back is arched, shoulders pulled back and packed tightly to the bench. Your elbows should be at a 45 degree angle to your back (or closer), and your grip should be just outside of shoulder width – not too wide and not too close. DO NOT FLARE YOUR ELBOWS.
For a very detailed description, read Lyle’s article on proper bench press technique. Look below for a video on what correct and incorrect technique looks like.
If you can get away with doing weighted dips, do not let your triceps go past parallel with the floor. This will help prevent any excessive range of motion and hopefully allow you to take advantage of an awesome movement with little risk of injury. For more information on limiting range of motion, check out Jason’s post here.
One last note: the bench press is not absolutely necessary to attain the physique you want. I’ve detailed this in my article titled: Getting Big without the Big Three. Also, for a bit of n=1 evidence – I rarely do straight bar bench anymore.
My primary pressing movements are weighted dips, as well as lots of neutral grip incline dumbbell pressing and the carryover seems to be very good because my straight bar bench continues to improve whenever I test it every 5th or 6th workout.
Straight Bar Overhead Pressing Tips
This is another movement I’d get rid of in favor of a dumbbell variation. However, if you’re adamant about strict overhead pressing, many of the above tips apply. Mainly I want to stress the importance of selecting a weight you can do safely in whatever rep range you prefer and to progress in manner that is both practical and assuring of good form. Strict presses only – no cheating.
Another point I’ll mention is to keep your elbows close to you. I know it’s sometimes easier to move more weight when your elbows are flared, but this simply puts a lot of strain on the shoulder girdle and poses an unnecessary risk of injury over the long haul.
Here’s a video of me with my elbows tucked in as opposed to being flared like most do when performing a bench press or strict overhead press.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m quite partial to dumbbell variations. Here’s a video of the Arnold Press
And another on the seated neutral grip dumbbell press.
And this video is a good lead into my next point.
Use A Neutral Grip When Possible
When using a neutral grip, you place less stress on the shoulder joint in general, which allows for more training with less risk of injury and hopefully will allow you to remain injury free for a long time, if not forever.
So now you know I’m a big advocate of neutral grip pressing, but I’m also adamant about neutral grip pulling, too.
If you have the option to do trap bar deadlifts as opposed to the conventional version, you know what I’m going to choose. The same goes for rowing, and chinning as well.
Here is a list of movements that enable you to use a neutral grip when performing pulling movements.
- Neutral grip chins
- T-Bar rows
- Seated Cable Rows
- Trap bar deadlifts
- Various hammer machine rows (I’m very partial to some of these)
- Single arm dumbbell rows
- Chest supported dumbbell rows (video below)
Here’s a video doing chest supported dumbbell rows – one of my favorite rowing variations.
For further reading, check out this post on doing chins with rings (if possible) and how it can impact your shoulder health. For even more reading – check out my post on why you should be doing more pulling than pressing.
Keep Your Muscles Guessing, Bro
That’s right – swap out your movements every 6-8 weeks for other variations to keep you fresh and to prevent any overuse injuries that might occur.
Example: if you’ve been doing incline dumbbell bench for a while, consider switching over to floor presses for your next training cycle – you’ll be better off in the long-run for varying your training.
Maintaining Shoulder Health
So what if you’re already doing this stuff, post-shoulder woes like me? Or what if you’ve never had any issues, but are now freaking scared outta your mind and want to take the right steps to ensure you remain injury free?
Well then, keep reading.
There are many, many movements that we now call prehabilition, which are basically a bunch of exercises we do with hopes of reducing our risk of injury.
There is no one-size fits all prehab routine and it will take a little experimentation to find something that you’re comfortable doing and will continue doing.
For most of these movements, I normally perform a certain few on off days and then do different stuff on my training days.
However, here are a few of my go-to exercises for my own shoulder health and what I also give to clients for general shoulder health.
On my off days, I do a lot of band pull-a-parts.
Here’s an example:
Then, I also do plenty of scapula pushups.
Alongside lots of band dislocates.
One more I try to do daily are wall slides – while you’ve probably seen these before and thought they were easy, I challenge you to try them exactly as prescribed in this video – you will thank me later!
On training days, I do these after my warmup, and then finish myself off with facepulls and some myofascial release work on a medicine ball (actually stole this one from Nick Tumminello at the 2009 JP Fitness Summit as he demonstrated it during his lecture).
Below is a video demonstration I shot a few weeks ago of a circuit I do fairly frequently. First I’m doing facepulls followed up with Myofascial Release on a medicine ball. Typically I’ll do 20 reps each for about 3-4 sets in a super-set fashion.
For the second exercise, you want to get the medicine ball in the area right between your pec and deltoid. Try pronating and supinating your hand for added effect/slight agony. You can also do a similar movement with a tennis ball against a wall.
For the second exercise, try using your free hand only for balance and aim to support yourself primarily on the medicine ball.
Remember – if a movement is uncomfortable, DO NOT DO IT. This is your warning – there is no sense in being stupid and risking an injury for sake of your ego. I lift my virtual glass of whiskey to your prolonged shoulder health and a lifelong pursuit of strength, size and looking great naked.