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Building Stronger & Healthy Shoulders


It is something I hear all the time, especially because of our infamous clean and press test. “I’d like to do those things, but I have really bad shoulders.” Listen, I am the first to be empathetic to people that have had surgery, or going through an injury and so forth. However, what I am really talking about are those that just have chronic achy issues with their shoulders. They would often never think pressing would be the SOLUTION to their shoulder issues. 

How in the world can that be? The reality is, time and time again, I find that people’s issues with their shoulders comes back to they just don’t know HOW to press. All the rowing, “postural” exercises, scapular isolation drills, and mobility drills don’t solve the major problem. Sounds crazy right?

healthy shoulders

We believe so much in what we teach because we live it. Tearing both her shoulders badly in swimming derailed Jessica’s chances of going to the Atlanta Olympics. Seeing her press overhead pain free is one of the coolest things I could witness. 

Let’s understand the issues that are probably impacting one’s shoulders, as I am a big believer in the saying by renowned physical therapist, Diane Lee “the criminals never scream as loudly as the victims.” In other words, the issue may not be the shoulders at all!

Issue #1: The Hands

I’ve been in some of the top facilities in the world and the thing that shocks me the most is how the hands are never cued. I see people holding kettlebells overhead, hands being inactive on push-ups, and many other times. When I ask the purpose of the exercises being performed, I’ll hear for “shoulder stability”. How can that be though if we aren’t using the hands?!

healthy shoulders

When we worked with the Marine HITT (high intensity tactical training) instructors this was one of the keys in helping them prevent issues and build healthy shoulders. 

Why do the hands matter so much? The hands are where force enters our upper body. If we look at what Thomas Meyers calls the “front arm lines” we see how the hands are so interconnected with muscles of the upper body, especially what is happening around the shoulder. 

healthy shoulders

That is why in DVRT we speak so much about grip. Here are a few different ways we teach how to use grip to build success. 

  1. Grip the ground: Whenever we have our hands our the ground we want to pretend there is almost a ball on the ground we are trying to grab. That means the fingers are spread and our whole hand is really creating tension into the ground. You feel a slight lift of the palm that resembles the arch of the foot. When we think about the feet, we know that flat feet cause many issues in the knees and low backs. It makes sense then that a hand in contact with the ground that is flat would cause issues up the chain including your shoulders!

2. Breaking apart: Just because we have handles on the Ultimate Sandbag doesn’t mean we ALWAYS use the handles. The fact we can grab directly on the Ultimate Sandbag represents some of the drills that people find most challenging. That is because not having a handle really makes us use our fingers and true grip. 

sandbag trainingsandbag training

You see in the first picture DVRT Master, Sean Lettero is allowing his hands to be relaxed. Trying to press from here will cause issues at it places excessive stress in the shoulders and upper traps. In the second picture he is trying to break apart the Ultimate Sandbag engaging more the lats and core to save his shoulders and actually give him a stronger press. 

This isn’t just to build a strong grip though. You see when we actively try to “break apart” the Ultimate Sandbag it results in better engagement of the lats and core. This simple technique allows us to use our entire body and not rely on the smaller shoulders to lift a weight. 

3. Squeeze!: One of the reasons we wanted to integrate tools like Lever Bells and kettlebells into our L.I.F.T. program was because they offer unique opportunities. Most specifically to teach people to actively squeeze the handle which helps us create stability in the shoulder and activates the core in a more significant way. Studies like these (HERE) state, “The results of the present study show that grip strength can be reliably used to assess the function of the lateral rotators of the shoulder in normal individuals.”

Here are some great examples of how I use “squeezing” the weight to create stability though connection of the body. This not only allows me to keep healthy shoulders, but once again, makes me stronger!

Issue #2: Driving Into The Ground

The feet have a lot in common with the hands. They are very similar to being the hands of the lower body, where force enters our body from the ground up. In fact, when I got to spend a few days this with world renown physical therapist, Gray Cook, he used the term “upper and lower core”. 

No, he wasn’t talking about your upper and lower abs. Rather, the fact our body tries to control our core from our upper region and lower regions of the body. The way I like to explain it is that we have to control the core from the bottom up and the top down. We already talked about the impact of the hands, so it makes sense we have to do the same with the feet. 

Force always comes from the ground up and as physical therapist, Gary Gray says, “creates a chain reaction.”

In our system we do so through a variety of ways. One of our favorite positions to improve the shoulders is the half kneeling position. Many use half kneeling for the fact we have to resist forces pulling us side to side, but they miss the fact of pressing down at the same time. When you do so, you can’t move the hips forward and you can’t lose the position of the ribs. Both are important because they create a weak foundation for the shoulders to try to perform on. Think about it, an you build a tall building that is strong if it has a weak foundation. 

DVRT Master Kari Negraiff, shows how we combine concepts of pressing with gaining the benefit of being half kneeling to build those healthy shoulders. 

This is the same idea behind using bands around our feet. Giving some reinforcement can help correct pelvic imbalances and instantly gives us a neutral spine without having to do too much other than drive our feet into the ground. 

sandbag exercises

Issue #3: Building A Reflexive Core

When people see our drills like the Around the Worlds, they think this would help the shoulders because of all the movement of the shoulders. However, in reality, the REAL magic comes in building a more reflexive core. What do we mean? 

In many of the instances we have already discussed, there is a lot of tension that we create in our core. That is important to start in a foundation, but eventually we have to build a more reflexive core. Which means one that learns to contract and relax at the same time. If we actually planked as we walked, we would look like Frankenstein’s monster. 

Drills like the around the world teach this very idea. If we are super tight we won’t be able to move the weight fluidly and efficiently. The movement of the Ultimate Sandbag allows us to use diagonal patterns with a plank getting the very best of both worlds of core training. This added stability of the core gives the nervous system the ability to give our body “permission” to allow better movement of the extremities like the shoulders. Such a concept is the popular PNF saying, “proximal stability for distal mobility.” 

Once we build the foundations of the movement, we can use these concepts in a variety of more dynamic ways as you see below!

I love seeing people share with us how fast and good they feel from doing these simple but powerful functional training drills. As we understand how the body really works, we can create such smarter solutions so people can feel their best and be inspired to make exercise a stronger part of their life!

Jessica breaks down some of these concepts that are fully explored in our DVRT Online Education HERE and you can save 30% on our Online Education as well as our Ultimate Sandbags and workout programs with code “summer” HERE