Shoulder Stability Exercises
Chances are high you’re already doing some sort of overhead pressing or overhead stability exercises in your workouts. With the increasing popularity of Olympic lifting and CrossFit, daily fitness vernacular has evolved to include terms like HSPU(Hand Stand Push ups), Jerks and Strict Press. This evolution has occurred for good reason. Those exercises do hammer most of the upper body musculature as well as provide an active core stimulus. But are you ready for overhead movement? Do your rounded shoulders have enough stability to execute the movement properly? If your body isn’t ready for overhead movement the risk of injury goes through the roof.
Long story short. Overhead pressing can get you jacked, but it can also jack you up, and no, I don’t mean like this guy.
I’m talking about injuries. Loads of postural issues (rounded shoulders) caused by: inactivity; too much activity through improper ranges of motion; or prior injury can be a recipe for disaster.
From years of rugby, I can barely put my arms over my head without some kind of compensatory movement, much less add 60kg and not increase my injury risk. But shoulder size and strength is key to injury prevention in a game where your shoulder is literally used as a battering ram. So I’ve taken a step back, added more range of motion and traditional “rehab” exercises, as well as found alternatives to a strict military press for shoulder health and stability.
First off, let’s talk about what a healthy overhead range of motion should look like. Find a mirror or a friend and raise your arms over your head to where your elbows align with your ears, palms facing each other. You should be able to get all the way overhead with straight arms without excessively curving the lower back or driving your head forward.
If you can’t, you’re likely cheating by bringing your lower back underneath or your ears toward your elbows due to muscular tightness or joint positioning.
Even if you’re in the clear here, I see a lot of lifters begin to compensate once asked to press a barbell overhead. This provides a balancing load, which taxes the core and rotator cuff, externally rotates the shoulders, and requires that both arms work in tandem rather than by themselves.
Here is a list of problems which cause compensation in movement which could potentially result in loss of stability. In this specific case, overhead movement:
- Limited mobility throughout the glenohumeral joint itself
- Core weakness
- Improper pelvic positioning
- Poor thoracic mobility
- Spinal curvature (forward neck, flatback, swayback, rounded shoulders etc.)
Don’t leave your pecs, traps, and lats so stiff and tight that they cause compensatory movement. This tight musculature makes us look like a hunchback and creates injury. Instead, let’s consider some movements to help challenge anterior stiffness (pecs, traps, and lats), scapular depression/downward rotation, and poor thoracic mobility. Because no one wants to have rounded shoulders and look like the hunchback.
I use wall slides with almost all of my clients, whether it’s as part of the warm-up or as a shoulder strengthening exercise in itself.
This movement is key in preventing rounded shoulders and potentially reversing them. It teaches one to hold good position throughout regular everyday movements when done properly.
Wall slides encourage proper pelvic, lumbar, thoracic, and cervical positioning by adding the external cue of a wall. They also facilitate scapular upward rotation and retraction through an externally rotated, bilateral shoulder movement. This is good!
You begin wall slides by packing the shoulder blades down, relaxing the neck and upper traps, and flattening the back along the wall. For many, getting the arms overhead and forearms against the wall from this position will be surprisingly difficult.
The key is to minimize or negate compensation as you slide the forearms up and down the wall from a W to a Y shape, so only travel through a range of motion you can sustain without arching the back, moving the neck, or shrugging the shoulders.
Manual Overhead Press
Once you’ve gotten the hang of proper postural positioning through wall slides, you’ll be ready to move on to a manual overhead press. For this one, you’ll need a friend, so recruit your little brother, trainer, or gym buddy to help you. Begin seated (to remind the back/scaps of their proper position) and have someone grab onto your wrists and resist as you press overhead.
I like this variation because the resistance can be adjusted as movement compensation begins to occur. For example, if you struggle as you reach closer to overhead, have your friend provide less resistance the higher you get. Or maybe you have a tough time at the bottom of lifts. Who knows. But with these, you can really enhance certain areas of movement.
Another benefit of manual presses is the eccentric portion—you can actively resist as your partner presses you back down, which will facilitate eccentric activation to “wake up” the weaker, less dominant muscles (lower trap, serratus, etc) which results in… wait for it… more stability in the shoulder! PLUS, the combo of eccentric and concentric contractions will increase time under tension to put on size and strength.
Single-Arm Loaded Variations
I love the landmine. It’s such a useful tool for training different ranges of motion due to the forced arc, and it eases the vertical load by adding an anterior anchor as the fulcrum.
For the shoulder, a barbell landmine press extends the lats and activates serratus as you’re almost punching forward. It also adds a little bit of the traditional shoulder raise for anterior deltoid strength.
The neutral grip natural of a landmine press allows you to pull the bar back down after pressing up and out, training rotator cuff stability and proper movement mechanics. AND it even acts as an anti-rotational and anti-extension core exercise—the unilateral load and overhead pressing requires you to dynamically contract your abs to keep from dropping the weight.
Another benefit of single-arm, neutral-grip pressing is the ability to press with limited spinal mobility and pectoral tightness. Taking out the external rotation bit doesn’t require too much pectoral length, and pressing with one arm allows for smoother thoracic movement.
This isn’t an excuse to keep your bad posture and continue overhead pressing, however. Rather, it’s a way to maintain shoulder strength while doing corrective stretches and mobilization techniques until proper motion is restored.
Doing these from a half-kneel position will also help control lumbar lordosis (lower back curving) if that’s an area you’ve identified as a struggle. Or, you can progress to standing for more of a challenge to the core—but again, only if proper functional movement remains.
In addition, doing these with a dumbbell mimics more of the traditional barbell press, as you will go all the way overhead to complete the exercise, but it’ll definitely highlight some of your weaknesses. True pros will want to move to a neutral grip, single-arm barbell press for a serious challenge of dynamic stability—but greatness has to be earned.
So check your ego at the door, and start doing things that your body will thank you for later.