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Written by Head Coach Drew Spriggs, in association with AEP/AES Tom Haynes
If there’s any one area of the body that tends to take an absolute beating in
strength sports, it’s the shoulders. Not only do they get abused for all pressing
work across strongman, powerlifting, Crossfit or weightlifting, but they are
involved in almost all strongman event – needing to stabilise and hold potentially
hundreds of kilos for the farmers walk, reach and squeezing for atlas stones and
also having to get into extreme externally rotated positions while doing a yoke
walk to name a few.
Why would a strength athlete have a focus on shoulder health you might ask?
Two important reasons:
 if there are niggling shoulder injuries (particularly those that cause pain while
pressing), the body will limit pressing strength to avoid further issues. No better
is this demonstrated than with a friend of mine with a torn shoulder labrum
whose bench hasn’t moved in 3 years, despite adding almost 200lbs to both his
squat and deadlift. Until that’s fixed, I dare say his bench won’t move at all!
While that’s an acute injury, irritation of any of the shoulder structures will
result in the same issues.
 the healthier your shoulders are and the better they function, the more often
you will be able to press. Pressing strength, in my opinion, is largely determined
by muscle mass, and the biggest driver of increasing muscle mass is being able to
handle higher volumes of training.

As it can be clearly seen, it’s very beneficial for everybody to have strong and
stable shoulders – regardless of what they compete in.
The much-maligned rotator cuff is often blamed for the majority of shoulder issues
not caused by acute injury (ie. shoulder dislocation) or by general wear and tear (AC
joint degeneration, arthritis), however in my experience and reviewing the diagnoses
of clients with these issues, many of them seem to stem from something entirely
different – poor stabilisation of the scapula (shoulder blades). This issue is more
complex than just stabilisation, as structures such as the thoracic spine and powerful
muscle groups can also be involved (such as the lats, traps and biceps) in the
dysfunction which can lead to everything from shoulder pain, to elbow tendinitis, to
lumbar spine flexion/extension cycles while squatting. Let’s first look at the
structures involved in this complex issue.
Your scapula (shoulder blades) are a pair of triangular shaped bones that form the
posterior (back) bony aspect of the shoulder joint. Rather than being a fixed
structure, the scapula ‘float’ on the thoracic spine while serving as an attachment
point for 3 separate groups of muscles including the rotator cuff, the muscles
responsible for adduction/abduction of the arm (part of the biceps, triceps and
deltoid) and also the scapula stabilisers (rhomboids, trapezius, serratus and levator
scapulae). Due to its complexity and proximity to tendons, incorrect stabilisation or
function of the scapula can lead to a whole host of problems. A common issue and
tell-tale sign that the scapula aren’t correctly being stabilised while bench pressing is
one elbow flaring out considerably more than the other, and on further inspection it
can be seen that this is because the lifter is shrugging on one side – the body will
always try to stabilise structures in whatever way it can (in this case with the upper
trap), which isn’t always for the best!
Rather than being one physical muscle or tendon, the rotator cuff comprises of 4
separate muscles (infraspinatus, supraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis) that
all work together to externally or internally rotate the humerus, while keeping the
humeral head in the correct position inside the gleno-humeral joint. Due to their
location, these four muscles can often become impinged (by getting compressed by
other bony structures of the shoulder), develop tendinitis or tendinopathy (from
overuse, or incorrect loading patterns) or develop tiny tears (either from injury, or
repeated extreme loading). Quite often, these muscles themselves won’t hurt unless
you’re directly prodding them, but will refer pain to other muscles. For example,
bicep tendinitis is often given as a cause for shoulder issues, but the problem
may actually be tendinopathy of the supraspinatus – once this is alleviated, the
biceps usually no longer hurt!
The thoracic spine comprises of 12 vertebrae that make up the ‘middle’ part of the
spine (with the cervical above, and lumbar below). Unlike the lumbar spine that is
designed to be stable (relatively immobile while loaded, braced by the ‘trunk’
musculature), the thoracic spine is designed to be mobile through flexion, extension
and rotation. If the thoracic spine is immobile or being pulled into excessive flexion
through poor posture or tight muscle groups (think lats, biceps or pecs), it is highly
likely that the scapula will no longer glide over the rib cage in the way they are
meant to. As an example of this, try sitting with a hunched over upper back and
reaching overhead – now imagine doing this loaded with over 100 kilos! If the
thoracic spine is immobile, there’s a good chance the mobility will have to be
acquired from some other structure – usually the lumbar spine, which may have
many negative consequences.
Although that is only a brief rundown of the mechanisms for dysfunction from a
strength coaches limited understanding, it can be easily seen why improving these
problems will go a long way to helping you deal with upper body issues. The
following release, mobilisation and activation program is designed to release the
muscle groups that could possibly be leading to an immobile thoracic spine, mobilise
the thoracic spine directly and shoulder complex itself, as well as activate the
muscles responsible for correct scapula stabilisation.
The following exercises are just a brief rundown of some of my favourite warm-ups,
releases, mobilisations and activations to do prior to training, followed by some
beneficial patterning work. Patterning work is an easy low-impact method for
repetitively practicing good movement patterns, and can be done frequently without
any negative effects on your other training.
Warm Up
90/90 Breathing
Focusing on overhead reach with palms facing together. Ensure complete inhale and
exhale to fully inflate and deflate the lungs.

3-6 minutes total

Supinated Pec/Bicep/Forearm Stretch
Focus on keeping your shoulder blade depressed, and gently leaning forward into the
stretch. Quality and quantity beats intensity.

30-45s per side

Infraspinatus Trigger
Hard to show while rolling, but here is the approximate area of this problematic
muscle. Aim for a max of 6/10 pain, and spend a little time gently rolling around the
area on a trigger ball.

30-45s each side

Overhead Banded Lat Stretch
Again, quantity and quality beats intensity. Gently lean forward into this stretch
while trying to keep your arm above your shoulder, facing straight backwards.

30s each side

Thoracic Spine Foam Roll
Roll approximately from the bottom of your ribs to the top of your shoulders. Reach
backwards as you roll, and use gravity to help create extra extension.

60s total
Side-Lying Thoracic Rotation
Work on keeping your hips lying vertically, and using gravity to help drop your higher
shoulder to the ground as you roll over.

3 sets of 10 reps each side

Shoulder Dislocations
Starting with your hands wide, slowly raise your arms while trying to keep your
shoulder blades depressed. Don’t allow your shoulders to go all the way over into
external rotation. Throughout the movement, slowly bring your hands together to
increase the intensity of the stretch.

2 sets of 20 reps
Activation and Patterning
Band Pull Apart with Shoulder Protraction
While performing a band pull apart, start with reaching your shoulders as far forward
as possible, and as you pull the band to your side focus on pulling those shoulder
blades in (retraction) and down (depression).

3 sets of 12 reps
Overhead Dumbbell Shrug
Using some light dumbbells, stand against a wall and make sure you’re keeping your
hips/shoulders stacked on top of each other (rib cage tucked down to your hips,
activated thoracic erectors and a deep breath to active your torso musculature.
Slowly reach out above your head as far as possible, then lower the dumbbells down

3 sets of 15 reps
Incline Front Raise
With a moderate incline and lighter weights, slowly raise the dumbbells until your
arms are just above horizontal to the ground. Focus on keeping your shoulder blades
retracted and depressed to stabilize the shoulder joint.

3 sets of 8 reps
Chest Supported Rear Delt Row
Setting up around a 45-degree incline, start with your shoulders slightly protracted
but keeping them depressed. As you start the movement, think about lifting your
elbows up, as opposed to pulling the dumbbell to your chest. Squeeze your shoulder
blades together at the top.

3 sets of 8 reps
Face Pulls
Starting with a band at chest height on a rack, think about pulling your shoulder
blades back and together, and slightly externally rotating your shoulders so the band
is coming back at chin height. Squeeze shoulder blades at the end of the movement.

3 sets of 10 reps
Seated Thoracic Extension with Safety Bar
One of the most beneficial exercises for activating your thoracic erectors. While
keeping rib cage ‘tucked’ in to the hips, focus on rounding your upper back as
forward as possible for the start position, followed by going into as much extension
as possible (while keeping the ribs ‘tucked’ down).

3 sets of 20 reps
Putting It All Together
As always, start light and make sure you are actively concentrating on the muscles
you’re aiming to work. Heavier isn’t necessarily better! As always, I am not a health
professional, so please don’t take any of this as a diagnosis or exhaustive list of
prescriptive exercises – it’s simply what I do with my clients to ensure everybody
remains healthy and can get strong.
How I would usually program this for clients is to pick one movement out of each
group, and have that the focus prior to any pressing you may do. If you find one
movement particularly difficult, then this may become your focus movement until
it’s second nature. If it’s painful, then it’s time to consult a professional as all of this
should be possible for you to do.
It is possible to scale the movements as your proficiency increases but remember –
this is accessory movement work; it is NOT something we are looking to max out
with! Take your time and ensure that you’re performing each movement correctly. If
you are unsure, find yourself a good exercise physiologist or great personal trainer to
work with.
If you’d like any more information on anything in this book, please feel free to get in
touch on any of the following channels as our coaches are always happy to help!

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