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The Worst Shoulder Exercises

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It was 1999 and as any other 23 year old would be, I had ALL the answers to fitness. To be fair a tiny bit, I had been on a mission going to continuing education programs, internships, whatever I could do to learn from the best in the industry for the past 5 years. When many of my friends were spending their extra money going to Mexico for trips, I would take whatever little I had go to educational programs (a bit crazy I know, but I was determined to be a good coach). 

Once again, if I am going to give 23 year old myself any benefit of the doubt, it was that what I was learning was pretty cutting edge back then. Functional fitness was really getting going and ideas about posture and corrective exercise were becoming more and more popular. Concepts like Dr. Vladamir Janda’s (one of the most respected physical therapists in the world) “Upper and Lower Cross Syndrome” made me feel so confident that I could solve so many issues for people, a great example was helping problematic shoulders by helping people realized what made for good versus bad shoulder exercises. 

shoulder exercises

If you aren’t familiar with Dr. Janda’s work, the concept was pretty simple. It revolved around the idea that due to postural changes a muscle would be “tight and weak,” or “short and strong”. For example, if we are talking about the shoulder and shoulder exercises, if someone had rounded shoulders, we would assume their chest was “short and strong” and many muscles of the upper back were “tight and weak”. Makes sense when you first hear about it. 

What did I then do? Exactly what I had been taught! I spent time with clients and myself stretching the pecs and strengthening mostly the back side of the body. Sounds like pretty good training doesn’t it? We avoided overhead work because those were “bad” shoulder exercises and really minimized any pushing drills because those contributed to the postural problems that we saw in people.

Is this blog about doing now what I did in the ’90’s? At some level it would be nice if it was, that would mean that what I was doing worked! Unfortunately, you may guess that it didn’t. People felt a bit better with what I was doing, but as soon as we introduced any type of pressing exercises those shoulders started to become problems again. Not only that, I didn’t see all that much change in posture even though we were doing all the “right” training that was supposed to be fix both. What gives?!

To say I was frustrated would be an understatement. Not only had I invested SO much time learning these concepts but I invested a lot of money as well! However, results, or lack there of, speak for themselves. What I would eventually learn and even Dr. Janda would change himself, is that original model wasn’t completely accurate. Even though we avoided many of the classic bad shoulder exercises and we did all the right ones in face pulls, rear delt training all the upper back work you could think of, we still had a lot of shoulder issues. What gives? 

Physical Therapist, Jessica Bento, starts to explain why these shoulder exercises don’t work like people think!

Ironically, it would be information that I was reading about the same time but didn’t know what to do with, that would ultimately change everything that I thought about shoulder exercises. At the time I was reading a book by physical therapist, Diane Lee, called “The Pelvic Girdle”. Admittedly, “reading” is being generous, more like being overwhelmed. So much of the information in there was above what a fitness professional would be taught and have the ability to implement. However, something that really made me think was this discussion of “sling systems”. 

These sling systems represented very specific connections of how one muscle worked with another!

Ms. Lee broke down some interesting research showing the great interconnection of the body via this “stuff” called fascia. Weird, what was she talking about? Even though I considered myself a “functional trainer” at the time, the reality was I still thought about the body in terms of parts (as many still do today). What was being presented in this book was a whole new way of thinking that made me very uncomfortable, mostly because I didn’t understand most of it! So, for almost 10 years I didn’t think much of the information.

To be honest, I don’t know exactly what made me think of it again, maybe it was being introduced to the work of Thomas Myers who is a famous massage therapist who has THE book of fascial integration. Mr. Meyers work, like Ms. Lee’s, is A LOT to digest, but I started seeing the connections. Maybe because during that time I was experiencing something severe myself. 

It was the start of my spinal disease getting far more aggressive and I was losing use of my right arm. After spinal surgery I started to rehab myself. When traditional shoulder exercises weren’t working, I started to become more mindful of these concepts and this started my whole change to my approach of not only shoulder exercises, but EVERYTHING I was doing. Like what? 


I keep hammering this point and yet so many people miss it. I first learned this strategy from Pavel Tsatsouline who made kettlebells popular in the US again. When I learned from Pavel in 2003 he emphasized using the feet when you pressed. It worked, but I didn’t understand why! 

DVRT Master, Cory Cripe, helped this fitness coach perform pain free squats for the first time in years! Why? building connections with the feet, this also means powerful for the shoulders!

Then going back to the concepts of fascial lines, it makes sense. Everything starts from the ground up in our body. Being upright animals why would it NOT make sense that our foundation from the feet up changes what happens up the chain?!

Jessica shows how even landmines aren’t actually helping shoulders. Scroll through above to see how we integrate these concepts of functional fitness to create better shoulder exercises. 


If we watch how someone walks we see that are arms and legs swing in opposites. Why does that happen? It allows us to create spinal stability and make a complex movement appear very seamless and simple. What does that help us with our shoulder exercises? 

Most people think that the only issue with problematic shoulders is the shoulder themselves. In reality, we have to look at the chain of areas of the body that work with the shoulder. That would include the feet, opposing hip, and yes, trunk of the body. 

I wrote the other day (HERE) how half kneeling is such a powerful way to build core strength, but with that we also learn why and how to use the feet, opposite hip, and trunk to build proper stability for the shoulders. The BIG irony is that MOST people focus on isolating the shoulders, but the reality is the shoulders aren’t designed to work alone. As Ms. Lee once said, “the criminals never scream as loud as the victims!”

Scroll through these half kneeling progressions that teach you so much about how to develop better shoulder exercises. 


Pavel also taught with the kettlebell the value of the grip in pressing with great strength. Once again, it worked, but I didn’t know why! Going back to our fascial lines and a lot of research, we see the hands have a very close connection with the shoulder, upper body in general, and even the trunk. 

How many times do we see people loosely gripping a weight, or even the ground (in the case of ground based work) versus being deliberate in how they use their hands! 

20 years later, I am not embarrassed by what I use to do for myself and clients. Why? It was the best I knew how at the time. However, I didn’t just continue to do things that didn’t work even though I was heavily invested in both time and money. I wanted what worked and was willing to change as I found information that actually made an impact. 

Fast forward to today, I am inspired to promote these ideas because I continually see how they improve not only shoulder exercises, but people’s hope they can feel better and regain the movement they had lost. Story after story of people doing things they never thought possible is what drives me and what we do at DVRT every day. Does it mean we will never grow more? Hopefully not, but my point is it is okay to change, evolve, and even say we were wrong if it means we keep searching for better solutions to help others. 

Learn how we bring science to life with our DVRT education. You can save 25% ALL throughout DVRT and for a limited time with code “save25” HERE get one of our new L.I.F.T. certification modules for FREE when you invest in one of our Ultimate Sandbags! Why? Because we believe knowledge is really power!