The Top 4 Shoulder Stability Exercises You Aren’t Doing… Yet
We need reflexive stability and proper joint positioning to express true savagery. Incorporate these four exercises into your training or movement prep to develop stable, fully integrated shoulders capable of moving big weight.
What You Need To Know
Reflexive stability of the shoulder and mobility of the scapula are vital to maintaining long-term shoulder health and optimizing athletic performance. Like any other joint, the shoulder requires a delicate balance of mobility and stability in order to function properly. Development and maintenance of these qualities is essential to ensuring that an athlete is able to express and improve physiological qualities like strength and power over a long-term training program without sustaining injury.
Let’s be honest though, there is nothing sexy or fun about training shoulder stability. No one, regardless of sport or goal, wants to spend all their time in the gym developing scapular mobility and reflexive stability of the shoulder.
We train to develop power. We train to increase force production. We train to build muscle mass. We train to dominate in whatever athletic endeavor we choose.
Don’t get it twisted though; if the goal is to optimize athletic performance, mobility and stability of the shoulder girdle are essential. Athletes who cannot express full range of motion of the scapula and glenohumeral joints, and who cannot reflexively fire deep stabilizers to maintain joint centration and allow prime movers to perform work, are setting themselves up for injury. Nothing will derail a program and halt progress like chronic pain or injury.
Here are four exercises that we use to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of our shoulder stability and mobility training so we can keep our athletes healthy and devote more time to what really matters: unleashing the beast within them.
Notice the subtle difference in this “bad” position, and the following picture of the “good” position.
Kettlebell Arm Bars
The kettlbell arm bar is the Cadillac of shoulder stability exercises. In my humble opinion, there is no greater way to develop reflexive stability and the feel of proper joint centration during a dynamic movement than the arm bar.
In the words of Charlie Weingroff, stability is “the ability of a joint system to control movement in the presence of potential change.”
There is a significant difference between stability and strength, and one that many people ignore or don’t understand.
The reason I have such an affinity for the arm bar and include it in so many of my athletes’ programs is that it develops true reflexive stability in a low-threshold environment.
An athlete can’t just muscle his or her way through an arm bar. In order to execute the movement properly, athletes must have a rotator cuff that fires at the proper time to center the golf ball (head of the humorous) over the tee (glenoid fossa), and the control to maintain proper alignment as they rotate around a stable shoulder position.
Essentially, the kettlebell arm bar is teaching the athlete control and kinesthetic awareness to resist unwanted changes in position. As the athlete rotates around the kettlebell, the load can move in any direction and threaten the integrity of the joint position. If unwanted movement occurs, the athlete’s rotator cuff must fire without conscious thought to ensure that the golf ball stays on the tee. This is true stability development and is essential to performance in both lifting and team sport endeavors.
For example, an Olympic weightlifter can’t think about his or her rotator cuff firing to stabilize a max-effort snatch overhead, just as a defensive lineman can’t think about it as he staves off a blocker with one hand while making a tackle with the other. The stability must come from properly timed contractions of deep stabilizers at a subconscious level so that prime movers can do their job and support or move the external load.
At the same time, the kettlebell arm bar is a great way to improve scapular mechanics and activation of the serratus anterior. We spend a great deal of time in the weight room teaching athletes to stabilize or lock down their scapula for big lifts like bench presses, squats, and deadlifts. In order to ensure this doesn’t lead to injuries or dysfunctional movement patterns, it is vital that we offset these big lifts with exercises that promote scapular mobility.
As an athlete moves through the kettlebell arm bar, he or she is required to “reach” or protract the scapula on the ribcage, effectively activating the serratus anterior, the only adequate protractor and a key player in optimal shoulder function, (Goyke, 2015).
To perform the arm bar, lay in the supine position with the bell in the right hand and the right knee flexed so that the foot is flat on the ground. Exhale fully to draw the ribcage down to establish a neutral position and activate the anterior core. The left leg should be straight and the left arm should be over the head and out of the way. Press the bell toward the ceiling while allowing the shoulder blade to protract. Center the golf ball on the tee.
Next, simultaneously push through the right heel and the bell to drive the right side of the pelvis and right shoulder off the ground and begin to rotate them toward the left. Keep the kettlebell pointed directly towards the ceiling and stacked over the shoulder joint the entire time. Rotate until laying directly on the left side, then bring the right knee across the body and place it on the ground. Take a full breath, then slowly rotate back to the starting position.
At no point should the kettlebell deviate from its position. The goal for this drill is to keep the bell stacked over the shoulder joint and pointed directly toward the ceiling throughout the movement. Remember, the body is rotating around the stable joint position. This is critical.
Perform 3-5 reps then repeat on the other side.
Once the basic kettlebell arm bar has been mastered, try these variations to further challenge reflexive stability and control of the pattern.
–Kettlebell stacked over shoulder throughout
–Reach through the bell/make sure the golf ball stays on the tee
–Keep ribcage drawn down
–Move slowly, rotating the hips and shoulders as a unit
3-Month PNF Pattern with Bottom-Up Kettlebell Hold
The 3-month PNF pattern alone is a tremendous way to improve upward rotation of the scapula while challenging anterior core stability and ribcage control. Combine it with a bottom-up kettlebell hold and this exercise becomes one of the best bang-for-your-buck integrated shoulder and core stability exercises available.
I first saw this exercise on Mike Robertson’s blog, and didn’t think much of it. To my eyes, the 3-month PNF pattern was a regressed version of the dead bug. I could not have been more wrong.
When performed correctly, utilizing the breath to maintain a neutral spine position while slowly moving the arm overhead, this is one of the most challenging and effective core stability exercises I’ve ever performed.
The reason the 3-month PNF pattern is so effective is that most people can’t achieve an authentic overhead position with full upward rotation of the scapula. In order to compensate around this restriction, the athlete will flare the ribcage and arch the lower back to get the arms further overhead, even though he or she isn’t actually achieving greater shoulder flexion.
The 3-month PNF pattern not only exposes these compensations, it presents the opportunity to improve control of authentic shoulder flexion while developing the anterior core strength and stability to maintain a neutral ribcage position as the arm moves overhead.
The bottom-up kettlebell hold increases ipsilateral (same side) anterior core activation and triggers reflexive stability of the shoulder via compression through the long axis of the joint, (Henoch, 2014). It is remarkable how much holding the bell in the bottom-up position increases the demand for reflexive shoulder and anterior core stability.
To perform the 3-month PNF pattern, lay in the supine position and bring both legs off the ground. Push the heels and toes together and externally rotate the hips. Exhale fully, drawing the ribcage down and establishing a neutral spine position with the back flat against the floor. Maintaining a neutral spine and ribcage position is THE most important aspect of this movement.
Hold the kettlebell by the handle with the bottom of the bell facing the ceiling in the left hand. Press the bell, protracting the scapula and centering the golf ball on the tee. Reach through the right arm as well, so that both arms are reaching toward the ceiling.
Reach across the body with the right arm toward the left hip and turn the thumb down. Inhale through the nose while keeping the lower back flush with the floor.
Slowly exhale while reaching overhead with the right arm in a diagonal pattern, turning the thumb toward the ground as the shoulder moves into flexion. Continue to draw the ribcage down. Do not let the back arch or the ribs flare up as the arm moves overhead.
Pause for a second, then bring the arm back across the body and inhale once again. Repeat 5-8 reps each side.
My favorite variation of the 3-month PNF pattern involves a second breath cycle with the arm in the overhead position while performing a kettlebell screwdriver. This increases the demand for anterior core and shoulder stability, and is a powerful way to establish an authentic overhead motor pattern. This is an advanced variation of the exercise, requiring a great deal of kinesthetic awareness and motor control. Master the basic 3-month PNF pattern with bottom-up kettlebell hold first before progressing to more challenging variations.
–Ribs down/back flat on the floor throughout movement
–Maintain breathing pattern throughout—inhale as the arm comes in, exhale as it moves overhead
–Reach through the arm holding the kettlebell and the arm crossing the body
All-Fours Serratus Med Ball Slides
Perhaps no exercise has infiltrated the programming of every performance coach at Parabolic as rapidly as the all-fours serratus med ball slide. It has quickly become a staple in the warm-up of nearly every athlete and client who walks through our doors, and for good reason.
Earlier I described how valuable the serratus anterior is to shoulder health. It is the prime mover in upward rotation of the scapula, and the only adequate protractor (Goyke, 2015). It is an essential muscle for optimal shoulder function, and one that seems to be asleep in many people, especially those who complain of limited shoulder range of motion or discomfort.
Enter the all-fours serratus med ball slide. This exercise activates the serratus via protraction and upward rotation of the scapula while also challenging the stability of the supporting arm and rotary core stability.
This drill also helps to offset the extended posture that most people are stuck with by restoring thoracic flexion and posterior pelvic tilt. One of the most valuable aspects of corrective exercise is to get people out of the postures and positions they spend most of their lives in to give them more movement variability. This variability is essential to preventing overuse injuries and improving movement quality.
To perform the all-fours serratus med ball slide, begin in the quadruped position with knees directly under the hips and hands directly under the shoulders. Perform a posterior pelvic tilt by tucking the tail to activate the proximal hamstrings and glutes. Push through the floor and round the upper back as much as possible. Shift the weight forward slightly, so that the nose is over the fingertips. If done properly the abdominals should reflexively fire.
Lift one arm and place the wrist on a large, soft medicine ball weighing between four and eight pounds. Maintain posterior pelvic tilt and flexion of the upper back and take a long, slow breath in through the nose, trying to draw air into the upper back. Push through the medicine ball, crushing the ball with the wrist and forearm. Exhale forcefully and draw the ribcage down while simultaneously pushing through the ball and reaching the arm up and out slightly. Continue to push through the hand that is still on the ground throughout the movement.
Slowly draw the arm back into the body, inhale again and repeat. Make sure the torso doesn’t fall to the side and the back remains rounded at all times. Perform 5-8 repetitions per side.
To increase the challenge to anterior core and shoulder stability, perform in a pushup position.
–Tuck tail under, reach through the ground to round out the upper back
–Crush the medicine ball as hard as you can throughout
–Push through the hand that remains on the ground
–Inhale into the upper back; exhale as the arm reaches overhead
–Do not allow the torso to fall to the side or the back to arch
While standard inchworms are a great way to challenge anterior core and shoulder stability, reverse inchworms are a great way to increase the difficulty and effectiveness of the exercise and drive more upward rotation of the scapula.
It may look like a stretch of sorts, but the reverse inchworm is actually a far more effective way to develop anti-extension core stability than it ever will be a flexibility tool.
Begin by bending over and reaching the hands to the ground. Once the back is rounded and the hands are firmly on the ground, inhale through the nose, expanding the ribcage 360 degrees.
Walk the feet backwards one foot at a time while forcefully exhaling through the mouth to draw the ribcage down. As the feet walk back, push through the ground with the arms to protract the shoulder blades and activate the serratus anterior.
Take a breath at the farthest position where a neutral spine can be maintained, then begin to walk the hands in one at a time towards the feet, pushing through the floor the entire time. Repeat for 4-6 reps.
–Actively push through the floor the entire time
–Inhale in flexed position, exhale as the feet are walked backwards
–Keep ribs drawn down/neutral spine throughout
Bringin’ It All Back Home
Remember, it’s often the little details that can make the difference between a successful long-term program that yields tremendous gains and training that is wrought with setbacks and disappointments.
Stability and mobility of the shoulder are details that must be attended to in order to maintain health and optimize performance both in the weight room and on the field.
Incorporate one or two of these drills into daily corrective exercise or as part of a comprehensive warm-up to maximize shoulder health while minimizing the amount of time that has to be devoted to these qualities.
Goyke, L. (2015, April 14). Hey Fitness People, Let’s Talk About the Serratus Anterior |. http://www.lancegoyke.com/serratus-anterior
Henoch, Q. (2014, October 13). The Shoulder Health Essentials – Juggernaut. http://www.jtsstrength.com/articles/2014/10/13/shoulder-health-essentials/
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