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How to Have Healthy Shoulders & Better Upper Body Workouts

Having been into weight training since the age of 14, I like to think I have made so many of the classic strength training mistakes that I could write a better book on things NOT to do in the gym! I learned a lot of things the hard way…experience. The internet wasn’t really anything and we learned our great strength training ideas from the popular muscle magazines, what could go wrong right?! Being a young man, I of course was more interested in “ab workouts” and how to build great upper body workouts. After all, your chest and arms mean EVERYTHING to you when you are that age!

upper body workouts

My upper body workouts had a VERY health dose of curls and of course every type of bench press ever created (you need to make sure you get those decline presses in don’t you know?!). So, it probably won’t surprise you to hear one day performing one of these legendary upper body workouts that on the bench press I felt a sudden HUGE pain in both my shoulders during a rep. Fortunately, my buddy who always worked out with me was there to grab the barbell because it could have been very bad! Right away I could tell something NOT good had just happened. The pain was pretty intense and I knew right then that it meant spending more time at a place that I spent WAY too much time at as a kid, the orthopedic’s office!

Of course I didn’t know what was wrong, but it didn’t take long to have the doctor tell me I had torn both my rotator cuffs. My “understanding” Dad simply commented, “of course he did.” Following that time, I was actually really cautious about my shoulders. Not only did it hurt, going through physical therapy made me really paranoid that lifting was going to hurt my shoulders. It wouldn’t be till MUCH later that I found out I was committing some of the most common mistakes people do in their upper body workouts.

Is The Bench Press Or Overhead Press The Problem?

I’m old enough in the industry to remember when there was a theory that was stated as very convincing fact that if you lowered your arms below the 90 degree angle during any type of pressing your shoulders would just fall apart. For several years I followed this “sage” advice and I found my shoulders only felt okay, but more alarming was how weak I can become through a fuller range of motion. While I didn’t know quite yet why, this was NOT making me better!

Even today we hear people try to make it appear like the bench press or an overhead press is a bad thing to have in your upper body workouts. Personally, I find neither to be the case, typically there are two issues that make people have these big shoulder problems…

  1. The volume of pressing is imbalanced: If you look at my early upper body workouts you would have probably seen a lot more “pushing” exercises than pulling. I see this ALL the time, even in some pretty elite programs. One of the simplest things to do is to make sure your upper body workouts have balance between pushing and pulling. What do I mean pushing? Any time you do a horizontal or vertical push. That could be a push-up variation, any type of bench press, an overhead press, a get-up, heck, even a snatch (while not pushing the shoulder girdle is still heavily taxed).

I remember after going to my first kettlebell certification that I was SO pumped that my shoulders felt good pressing (explain why shortly) that I started performing really poorly planned upper body workouts. Because I felt good, I did A LOT of overhead work, my excitement got the best of me. That joy of my shoulders not hurting was short lived as my overtraining of the structures started causing different issues in my shoulders. I was mad at myself because I knew better, but it goes to show any of us can make these simple mistakes.

upper body workouts

Going from being so scared of my shoulders to cleaning and jerking a 132 pound kettlebell for reps really was empowering, however, I also lost focus on good principles of training!

Making your upper body workouts smarter in this regards shouldn’t be THAT difficult. When you create your training should have a balance of pushing and pulling drills. Even if you do full body workouts (which I do more of nowadays), you still aim for this balance. I try to look, am I pressing horizontally or vertically? Am I pressing one hand, two, alternating, etc.? Whatever it is I tend to follow the opposite in pulling. My only caveat to that is I do the opposite direction. What do I mean? A push-up is horizontal pulling movement, in that workout I may do a vertical pulling exercise like a pull-up. This small change to your upper body workouts just tends to manage fatigue a bit more simply.

2. You Still Think Pressing is About the Upper Body

Of COURSE your upper body plays a good role in any type of pressing movement. However, most people think it is ONLY the upper body. One of the most profound concepts and techniques I ever learned was how the core and lower body are JUST, if not more, important for not only a stronger press, but keeping your shoulders healthy and mobile as well. As I have discussed quite a bit, our body functions off specific chains. The “spiral line” is a great example to help illustrate why your lower body (especially feet) and core play such a BIG part in your upper body workouts.

core training

That is a cool image, but how do you get people to really appreciate these functional training concepts?

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🔈🔈🔈 How is it in the first exercise pressing overhead was very difficult for this @fitnesslyingdown client, but in the second clip the same client, same resistance excels in the overhead press? One word, two syllables: tension. . . . The secret sauce in the second video is what’s going on with the right foot and left hand compared to the first attempt. Generating this tension creates stability through the core allowing for more mobility in the shoulder giving the body the freedom to be strong and press with delight. Not having authentic stability turns this into an arm & shoulder press with little, to no, core participation. Not strong. Integration, not isolation.

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DVRT Master, Cory Cripe demonstrates how we can help people appreciate that ALL pressing comes from the ground up. More than doing face pulls, external rotation exercises, wall slides, THIS concept can be MORE game changing for people’s shoulders, their strength, and their mobility! That is because when you look at diagrams like that spiral line you see how our feet connect to everything including our core! So, really engaging the core is about what we do with the feet and also what we do with our hands.

Unknown - How to Have Healthy Shoulders & Better Upper Body WorkoutsUnknown 1 - How to Have Healthy Shoulders & Better Upper Body Workouts

In the diagrams above you can see just as our feet are essential in what happens from the ground up, our hands play an equally important role in our upper body and “activates” more muscles in their use than any specific exercise. That is why when it comes to better upper body workouts, or many times core workouts, teaching to use the hands is essential in strong and stable shoulders. In fact, I would say that if you aren’t connecting your feet and hands then it really doesn’t matter what shoulder “corrective” you try to use, it won’t transfer like you think!

If you look at what I have DVRT Master, Greg Perlaki doing in the video below, I am putting him in a position where he should be driving with his feet and pulling apart the Ultimate Sandbag at the same time.

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The Half Kneeling position is probably the most under-utilised body position. It teaches so many great fitness qualities at once. So doing it with the right intention is key for getting the most out of it.⠀ ⠀ 🔥It helps to build strong lunges by pushing the feet into the ground and build that stability from the ground up. It feels unstable because it challenges frontal plane stability (side to side movement). Just as you can see in the first video where I work on one side of the body pushing into the ground and @joshhenkindvrt controls the tension of the band. The tension in the band helps me to use the right muscles at the right time. ⠀ ⠀ 🔥This stability that I create with the feet works its way up on the chain and integrates the #glutes and #core giving a stable platform for the #shoulders⠀ ⠀ 🔥The same way we can use kettlebells to teach the body to get the glutes, core and shoulders work together to train lateral strength. @jessicabento_mpt shows how to use them independently to add another layer of the same concept and get the most out of the kettlebells.⠀ ⠀ 🔥Progressing that lateral strength forward we can introduce a more advanced position the split squats and use the core strap with a resistance band to keep challenging that stability where the all these muscles need to fire on a higher level. ⠀ ⠀ 🔥Finally, @ultimate_lady_badass shows how to keep improving #corestability through gripping the leverbell with the hand and resisting frontal plane movement. ⠀ #shoulderworkout #shoulderpress #kettlebellworkout #kettlebell #leverbell #steelmacetraining #glutetraining #fitnesspro #personaltrainer #fitnesseducation #ultimatesandbag #dvrt #coreworkout #lunges #mobilitytraining #stabilitytraining #absworkout #ukfitspo #london #londonfitness #movementismedicine #movegb

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You see this ALL the time with people. Whether it is how they engage the ground in exercises like push-ups, or in what should be great drills for better upper body workouts like the kettlebell press. Physical therapist, Jessica Bento shows the SO common flaw of releasing the grip which actually causes destabilization of the shoulder!

upper body workouts

Teaching these concepts are simple in theory, but can be difficult to actually get people to be mindful and truly understand. What can we do to help?

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Sometimes the solution is easier than we think 💡 Being able to see and help @joshhenkindvrt to give people better solutions alongside @s3_fitness feels very humbling. One of the biggest takeaway from today’s session is how something so simple like grabbing the floor with the hands makes such a difference in activating the #lats and creating #stronger more stable #shoulders. Josh is using @valslide to engage the opposing #glutes when creating tension through the hands. I have only just heard about how people have lightbulb 💡moments when they experience these simple concepts before. I feel grateful for being part of something bigger and help others to experience what DVRT @ultimatesandbag is about!

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Making sure that people BEGIN with proper alignment and giving them awareness of the intent is definitely a good start. However, even with the best cues some people can really struggle! Finding feedback tools like we do with bands can be one great option, especially for the feet.

sandbag workout

Even with a good cue like that, we sometimes need to get a bit more intensive. Just like we can try to pry people’s toes when they should be grabbing the ground, we can do the same for the hands when on the ground. The reflexive acton is to “grab” and create the tension we want!

squats

Below are two great ways to teach these concepts for not only better upper body workouts, but fixing so many issues that usually plague people’s shoulders. It isn’t necessary the exercise, but our intent in how we perform it! Once you learn these ideas you will find that these strategies are SO much more effective than the common “shoulder fixes” you see that try to isolate the shoulder in training. Shoulders are somewhat complex joints, they rely heavily on joints that extend from them as well as what is below them. When we understand better ideas about movement, we can create better solutions!

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