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  • Writer's pictureMia

What the hell do shoulders do? Part Five.

Fucking hell, I've been trying to post this blog for a WHILE but you may not have noticed that shit is getting hectic in the world and I've been prioritizing other things. Don't worry! I won't forget you and your shoulders, even if it takes a while to put these together.

Well, we've managed to snake our way through part one, where we talked about the bony anatomy of the shoulder; part two, where we went over the very many joints that make up the shoulder; part three, where we talked about each of the giant muscles in the upper body as compared to each of the Baldwin brothers; and part four, where we dived into the rotator cuff as famous musicians and the serratus anterior, the most important muscle you've never heard of.

It's been a fun ride but it's time to give the people what they want: some ways to train their shoulders into goddamn masterpieces of axial elegance.

This the part where I remind everyone that I am not a doctor or a physical therapist and if you need medical attention you need to not be looking for it in a blog for god's sake.

I'm not going to spend too much time explaining what each of these movements is for. There is a buffet of shoulder information linked a mere paragraph away from this sentence. Look north!

We're starting with common movement restrictions but understand that all shoulders are different and that some problems on this list may never give you trouble even if you have them, and other things on this list may give you trouble even if they test great. The key is to look at the movement individually and as a unit with your body.

If your arm doesn't lift all the way up to your ear, that's some information. But is it because of a problem in the front of the shoulder or the back of the shoulder or the spine? If you don't know how to look for this, that's what orthos and physical therapists and personal trainers are for.


Move with as many different forces and in as many different directions as you can.


The "how to improve them" part that I've included below is assuming that your shoulder is relatively pain-free. Clicks, clacks, and whatnot are generally ok. Discomfort moving in and out of unfamiliar positions is ok. Soreness later is ok. Shakiness or wobbliness is ok. But if you have notable weakness or pain, especially sharp pain, you're better off getting it looked at before starting your new movement attack. Furthermore, if your shoulder hits a hard stop, like its hitting a wall, it's probably not in your interests to try and force it further into that very clear stopping point. No means no.

I'm putting about 20 exercises in here, so that you can save them and have them all easily accessible in the same post forever. I'm not saying you have to do all 20 of them in a row, or even that you should. But choosing a few to add into each workout will help bulletproof your shoulders for the long haul. The ones that feel like they are attacking your weaknesses are the ones to do most often. Trust me, you'll know what feels shitty and like it could be improved.


This is important for all joints and movements: Movement is a cornucopia. It's not just lifting your arm over and over. Each of the movements listed below is physiologically and neurologically different even though in the grand scheme they are all "shoulder exercises." The idea of movement improvement is to move with as many different forces and directions to create the healthiest joint ranges of motion that you can.

Different Types of Movement Explained

Free movement. No bands, weights, walls, floors, etc. Just your arm moving in space.

Restricted free movement. Bands, weights, etc, but your arm still moves by itself in space.

Restricted at the far end. Hand pinned against the wall, floor, etc, and your body moves around that point.

Restricted at the near end. Shoulder blade/spine pinned against a wall, ball, bench, etc, and your arm moves freely around your fixed body.

Isometric. No part of your arm moves, just muscles squeezing in a static position.

We're only talking about the shoulder in this blog but these movement approaches hold true for any joint. You'll want to train exercises from each modality in order to get the most complete therapeutic attack that you can. For example, if you stretch your shoulders against the wall every day that's great, but it won't help them learn how to stretch freely in space. (For more on this concept, I've been doing an Instagram series recently. Follow for bad puns and handstands.)

The videos below give an example of each approach for each common movement problem. The exercises are demonstrated in the above order so that you can see examples of each kind of modality.

(All these years I've been reading other people's blogs and watching their videos with no appreciation for the time they've put in to doing it. I'll never take good internet sources for granted again. My dear and gentle reader, I love you and I want your shoulders to be happy. If this post helped you out, I'd love it if you shared it with your friends who love their shoulders not hurting coupled with sassy athletic commentary.)

Common Shoulder Movements And How To Improve Them


This is: bringing your arms up in front of you until they are straight overhead.

You need this for: Putting something away on a high shelf, putting your suitcase in the overhead compartment, picking up small children, and any exercise where your arms go overhead (presses, pullups, handstands, I's Y's and T's, etc).

  • Simple shoulder flexion. Keep your arms close to your ears.

  • Banded shoulder flexion. One of my favorites for rehabbing sad shoulders. Can pull the corners of a washcloth if you don't have a band.

  • Down dog to Up dog. Self-explanatory, but squeeze your abs.

  • Hollow hold shoulder flexion. Helps practice keeping the ribs in while bringing the arms overhead. Important for gymnasts and lifters who like to use their lower backs to achieve all movement (ahem, stares at myself in a mirror).

  • Isometric flexion holds. Pull back as much as you can and hold. Holding onto a paper towel roll will help keep your arms narrowed by your ears rather than floating out into a Y shape.


This is: bringing your arms behind you.

You need this for: getting up off the floor, putting on tight jeans, carrying something close to your body, pulling something towards you.

  • Reach to touch something behind you. Put it far away!

  • Banded straight arm pulls, no shrugging

  • Crabs, one of my favorite starting places for people with stiff shoulders

  • Face down scap retraction + extension

  • Isometric extension holds

Internal rotation

This is: crossing your arm across your body or behind your back.

You internal rotation for: Throwing, reaching across your body, putting earrings in, stirring dinner, turning your car with one hand, keeping your arm from falling out of the socket.

NB: It doesn't make too much sense to me to separate internal and external rotation as two independent events. They're too closely integrated in my opinion. Thus, the next two videos have a mix of both, but the former is more internally-focused and the latter is more externally-focused.

  • Slow flexion + fold behind head (Fun fact: this is external rotation. Why would I choose an external rotation as my first example for my internal rotation category? WHO THE FUCK KNOWS 2020 SUCKS WE ALL MUST ACCEPT IT.

  • Side-lying eccentric rotations. (uh, see video note and above note.)

  • Bear position flip to crab position. The idea is to be tight enough through the core that you can flip over without falling onto your hand. In a perfect rep, your hand and foot would lift simultaneously and land simultaneously on the other side. (Note: You turn under your body, not over it.)

  • Banded overhead internal rotation

  • Isometric (or not) scap retractions with hands behind back. Got front of shoulder tightness? Start with this one. Reps with shrugs don't count!

External rotation

This is: reaching sideways away from your body or behind your head.

You need this for: Throwing, putting on a jacket, putting on a bra, putting on a seatbelt, scratching behind your head, reaching for the glove compartment and rooting around in there for a while before remembering that you actually left your sunscreen in your kitchen.

  • Shoulder controlled articular rotations (these are meant to be SLOW).

  • Standing 90 degree external rotations.

  • Plank to side plank. Like the bear to crab, you want to turn in one tight body position.

  • Diagonal upward pull with band. (LOVE these. These are a flexion/external rotation combo.)

  • Isometric (or not) banded external rotations. If you don't have bands, you can just gently push against a doorframe. Make sure your shoulder blades are pulled back.

I spent the previous four posts talking at great length about the shoulder blades, but I want to return again to one really important point before we go. The shoulder blades...




At the same time.

No matter what direction you're moving your arm, there is something above, around, or below your shoulder blade which is bracing in order to give your arm a platform to move from.

Because of this, it's important to remember that you'll need to practice both the movement of the arm AND the shoulder blade platform beneath it. It can change your life to spend some time pinning your shoulder blades back and doing nothing else. In the words of my dear friend Jackie, a physical therapist and badass adult gymnast who keeps all of the Dinos happy and healthy, "Sounds silly but I always start with just teaching patient scapular retractions with correct form. It is shocking how many people can't do a scap squeeze without activating their upper traps."

Ya hear that? LEARN HOW TO SQUEEZE YOUR SCAPS WITHOUT SHRUGGING TO YOUR EARS. Video can be very helpful if you don't have someone to watch you do it. You're looking for equal pull inward from both sides, no shrug, and a strong, steady finish point in the middle. (A weak hold can look like the shoulder blade is twitching instead of holding steady, or slowly sinking back towards its resting position, or never quite making it to the middle in the first place.)

Well, I've gotten through all this and realized I need to do one more shoulder blog so that I can talk about the spine and abs as they relate to the shoulders, because the above exercises won't do much if your trunk can't support you while you're doing them. So while I get my shit together for part SIX, make sure that you're working your shoulders with some core and some good goddamn posture. Get to work. Love you.

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Jul 21, 2020

Love this shoulder series (even if I don't comment, which I should....). I happen to need this series; I don't think that I did anything wrong other than getting older (don't bother, it's too much work). Doctors are great for fixing or mitigating broken parts of you. THIS training is great to not break things in the first place. One essential addition, by my own observations: shoulders, arms and wrists "do stuff" for you; hips, legs and ankles "get you there to do stuff". Two different jobs, and you need or want both. It is striking (to me anyway) that despite my focus on activity, working out, doing stuff outside, getting off my ass -- how little I kno…

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