It’s a common gym mistake to overstress the most fragile joint in your body, your shoulder. The shoulder is critical to all lifting movements, and that includes the squat as well as the bench press. This structure of three bones, the humerus, or upper-arm bone; the scapula, or shoulder blade; and the clavicle, or collarbone is the most feared injury site for athletes because the ligaments, tendons and muscles that hold this ball-and-socket joint in place in all planes of movement are both strong and weak.
Particularly delicate is the rotator cuff, a strengthening and supporting structure that includes the capsule of the shoulder joint, as well as tendons and muscles. Needless to say, a sound shoulder-training routine begins with some easy exercises to reinforce the rotator cuff, as well as prepare the deltoid for the work to come.
In addition, there are some very simple things you can do to keep your shoulders healthy and happy for a long time. These include common exercise flaws you can correct, and some movements that are best left out of your routine all together.
The Big Four to Avoid
When it comes to shoulder problems, the four biggest culprits are the behind-the-neck press, behind-the-neck pulldown, cambered-bar bench press and any bench press machine that allows you to go deeper than your chest. These are the first movements to take out of your routine if you’re experiencing shoulder pain. Note, however, that they are not all shoulder exercises.
1) Behind-the-neck presses.
This exercise forces the shoulder in a range of motion that goes beyond where it’s safe and protected. Behind-the-neck presses are usually performed with a wide grip, which forces the rotator cuff muscles into a primary role. Being smaller, they fatigue quickly, causing technique flaws that can lead to injury. What’s more, the range of motion can cause impingement of the shoulder joint at the bottom of the movement, and it also takes the tendons of the rotator cuff muscles through too great a range of motion.
The best replacement for the behind-the-neck press is the military press, performed with a narrow grip. When I teach my football players to substitute the narrow-grip military press, in most cases the shoulder problems they’ve experienced disappear. The key is to sit and place your hands on the bar so that your wrists and elbows are in line with your shoulders.
The easiest way to illustrate the greatest strength range of the shoulder is to shove someone; so pantomime that movement. Where are your elbows? They’re in line with your shoulders. Now, where are your hands and wrists? They’re pronated in such a way as to transfer the force from your chest, shoulders and triceps. This same movement performed on a flat bench with a barbell in your hands would be a medium-grip bench press. Done over your head, it’s the best way to perform a military press.
In football the linemen and linebackers don’t turn their elbows outward in order to separate from another player who’s trying to block them; they’d have no power. So to maximize your power, keep your elbows in and drive the bar in an arc; that is, in an up and back motion.
Why not press straight up? When you lift the bar out of the rack, it’s over your eyes. If you lowered it straight down, it would hit your face. Consequently, you lower it in an arc and then press it up in a reverse of the same motion. So the correct movement for a military press is an S with the ends cut off. When performed this way, the seated military press will help eliminate the common problems associated with the behind-the-neck press.
2) Behind-the-neck pulldowns.
Everything I said about the dangers to the shoulder joint associated with behind-the-neck presses applies to this exercise as well. Specifically, the behind-the-neck pulldown impinges the shoulder the same way the other movement does.
In addition to leaving you susceptible to injury, the behind-the-neck pulldown isn’t very effective at training the lats, which many people use it for. The typical performance of this lift is to pull the bar down to the midpoint of the back of the head and then rock forward as you continue pulling down so you can get the bar to touch the tops of your traps. To begin with, this movement does very little for the latissimus dorsi. What’s more, the shoulder is not constructed to move comfortably in this fashion and in this range of motion.
The best way to train your lats and upper back is with the variety of grips available when you’re pulling the bar to contract your chest. This includes pulldowns to the front and various rowing motions.
The key to training your lats is to think about pulling with your elbows as opposed to your hands. Your elbows should move past the back of the rib cage in all lat movements. The wide-grip pulldown trains the upper-hack muscles of the scapular region (the traps, teres group and rhomboids) more than it works the latissimus dorsi. To stress the lats you must keep your elbows in rather than out.
Note that the other back muscles listed are trained no matter where you hold your elbows; it’s just that the amount of work done by the individual muscles changes when you alter the path of your elbows. So if you want to stress your lats more, keep your elbows in; if you want to stress your upper back and scapula, keep your elbows out.
3) Cambered bar bench presses.
This next culprit to avoid involves a piece of equipment that is commonly known as the cambered bar because of its U-shaped bend in the middle. The technique of using a cambered bar for the bench press was undoubtedly devised because it would supposedly help you power out of the bottom of the movement. It was a nice thought, but the fact is, your shoulder just can’t take going past its intended range of motion, which is what the cambered bar enables you to do when you bring the bar lower at the bottom of the rep. The cambered bar also tends to rotate considerably in your grip, and this, too, can lead to injuries. If you’re doing this exercise and your shoulders don’t hurt, it’s a sure bet that eventually they will.
4) Certain bench press machines.
For all intents and purposes these were first marketed by Nautilus in the early ’70s. Many more brands and designs have become available since that time. The basic design has changed dramatically since the first Nautilus models, and many are very good, but there are some features to avoid, features that have the same effect as the cambered bar bench press.
The bench press machines of today emphasize what’s called the prestretch,” which means that the bar goes past the plane of your chest before the weights touch the stack. These stretches can take your shottlder past the safe zone when the machine is loaded with weight. The bar on a bench press machine should only come to the point where you’d bring it if you were benching with a barbell. To avoid the problem, make sure that even if the bar can go past your chest, it doesn’t. That way you won’t injure your shoulders.
Shoulder Routines for Every Body
The following workouts cover three levels of bodybuilding expertise; beginning, intermediate and advanced. Each is designed for a twice-a-week shoulder program, so you alternate high-rep and low-rep sessions. Proper form is critical to the success of this program, so a technique like bending your knees to aid in throwing the weight up is a no-no.
Note that the directions ‘super-set and “rotate sets” appear in the intermediate and advanced routines. A superset is two exercises performed one after the other with no rest until you complete one superset. Rotating sets involves the same principle with two or more exercises except that you rest after each exercise, simply performing one set of each movement in turn instead of doing, say, four sets of dumbbell military presses before moving on to the next exercise.
Starting your shoulder routine with some rotator cuff exercises will get you ready to train hard and strengthen the small weak areas of the shoulder. Cutting out movements that are detrimental to shoulder joint stability will enable you to enjoy the iron game for many years. If you don’t heed the warnings discussed above, you and your orthopedic surgeon will be getting very friendly. A shoulder injury can take you out of sports and can keep you out of the gym for a very long time, so train smart.
High-Rep/Low-Rep Shoulder Program
|Dumbbell military presses||2-4 x 12-14|
|Dumbbell lateral raises||2-4 x 12-14|
|Dumbbell shrugs||2-4 x 12-14|
|Dumbbell bent-over laterals||2-4 x 12-14|
|Dumbbell front raises||2-4 x 6-8|
|Barbell shrugs||2-4 x 6-8|
|Dumbbell bent-over laterals||2-4 x 6-8|
|Dumbbell upright rows||2-4 x 6-8|
|Barbell military presses||4 x 12-14|
|Barbell shrugs||4 x 12-14|
|Dumbbell lateral raises||4 x 12-14|
|Dumbbell bent-over laterals||4 x 12-14|
|Cable bent-over laterals||4-6 x 6-8|
|Standing dumbbell military presses||4-6 x 6-8|
|Cable front raises||4-6 x 6-8|
|Dumbbell lateral raises||4-6 x 6-8|
|Dumbbell military presses||4-6 x 12-14|
|Dumbbell lateral raises||4-6 x 12-14|
|Dumbbell front raises||4-6 x 12-14|
|Dumbbell bent-over laterals||4-6 x 12-14|
|Smith machine military presses||4-6 x 6-8|
|Smith machine shrugs||4-6 x 6-8|
|Dumbbell tri-set||4-6 x 6-8|
|Dumbbell military presses||4-6 x 6-8|
|One tri-set equals one set of dumbbell laterals followed by one set of dumbbell front raises followed by one set of dumbbell bent-over laterals performed without stopping.|