Building Bulletproof Shoulders: Strength, Mobility, Resilience

By on October 1, 2021

It should come as no surprise that the shoulder is so often an area of concern for athletes and lifters. Or that shoulder bulletproofing is one of the most requested topics on the YouTube channel. The main shoulder joint is the most mobile joint in the human body. Like the hip, this is a ball-and-socket synovial joint that can move on multiple axes. Unlike the hip, there is no force of gravity keeping it in place.

Bulletproof Shoulders

We even refer to the shoulder as the “shoulder complex.” And it’s not just one joint, it’s four! The glenohumeral joint, the acromioclavicular joint, the sternocalvicula joint, and the scapulothoracic joint. Around 20 different muscles coordinate movement across these joints, which deal primarily with three bones: the humerus (upper arm), clavicle (collar bone), and scapula (shoulder blade).

See also: How to Strengthen Elbows for Iron Arms

Our main area of focus, though, is the glenohumeral joint. This is the ball and socket joint that connects the top of the humerus to the glenoid fossa (cavity) of the scapula. There are seven muscle tendon units responsible for connecting the humerus to the scapula alone: the four rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis, and teres minor), and the teres major, coracobrachialis, and deltoids.

Shoulder blade mobility

Then there are all the other muscles that play a role in building bulletproof shoulders. The teres major, the traps, the delts, the pecs (pectoralis minor), and the lats. Even the biceps, you may remember from my biceps video, originate at the scapula and aid with shoulder flexion. So, if you feel pain in the front of the shoulder, this could even be an issue with your biceps!

In other words… it’s a bloody mess in here! Or a miracle of engineering, you decide. Either way, there’s a lot that can go wrong and a lot we need to do if we’re going to build powerful, pain-free, mobile, and aesthetic shoulders.

Scapula Control for Bulletproof Shoulders

So, why is the shoulder so complicated?

Essentially, it is to provide the perfect balance between stability and mobility. While we want the maximum range of motion in the shoulder, it’s also important that we be able to lock it in place so as to be able to exert force from a stable base.

The socket is located on a bone that can also move freely, thereby opening up a lot more movement.

This is why the shoulder blades are so ingenious. Unlike the hip, the socket is located on a bone that can also move freely, thereby opening up a lot more movement. The shoulder blade then needs to be held in place by these many muscles, however, in order to provide the stability necessary to generate strength through the arms.

One of the first ports of call to build bulletproof shoulders, then, is to strengthen the scapulae.

Shoulder Pain and the Bench Press

Now imagine a bench press. This exercise is one of the most common culprits for causing shoulder pain (and there’s a good chance it’s what set you on your mission to build bulletproof shoulders). When you lie flat on your back on the bench, you squash the shoulder blades and take them out of action. The bench itself provides the stability, and this allows you to push with all your might from the chest.

Correct bench technique includes retraction and depression of the shoulder blades for this purpose: to increase the stability and pressure and thereby allow greater strength to be exerted. If the shoulder blades are allowed to protract, then the spine becomes the only contact point with the bench. This is a far less stable position and it means a lot of pressure is now going through the acromioclavicular joint.

Dumbbell Press

The issue is that many beginners don’t recognize these subtleties and will run before they can walk. (And we haven’t even discussed internal rotation, or elbow flaring.)

Pulling your shoulders back when your aim is to push a weight forward can seem counter-intuitive and many people lack the mind-muscle connection necessary to control their scapulae at all.  

The result of this, though, is that you end up, essentially, balancing on your spine because your shoulders are off the bench. This, in turn, opens them up to potential injury. Not only that, but you lose all the stability you would normally benefit from.

You end up, essentially, balancing on your spine

Slowing down, lightening the load, and pressing while focusing on scapula retraction/depression can help a great deal.

Push Ups for a Better Bench Press

Bench Press Shoulders

OR you can just perform high-volume push ups for easy, bulletproof shoulders. This is a very similar movement pattern to a bench press but without the bench supporting your shoulders from underneath. The difference? During the extended position of the push up, you are actually encouraged to protract your shoulder blades. And this is good, because it means the scapula protractors aren’t going to get left behind if all you do is bench press (band press works, too!).

So, why is this okay if it’s considered unsafe during bench press? Simple: during a bench press you are sandwiched between two surfaces. During a push up, you are not. The stability is inherent in the movement (you can’t roll off the bench) and the rib cage is necessarily loaded – there is no way to remove the role of the AC joint. The bench is more of an isolation movement and typically involves much heavier weights.

Shoulder press

Like I say, retracting the shoulder blades during a bench press feels fairly counterintuitive. That’s possibly because it is. If you never went into the gym, this is a movement that 90% of us would never utilize. Push ups, however, are a different story.

Performing push ups with proper form – retracting at the bottom of the movement and protracting at the top – can help to build strength in your scapula protractors and increase overall stability.

See also: Tendon Training for Injury Prevention and Explosive Power

Of course, the push up also involves a lot less weight as compared with the bench press. And by performing high-rep push ups, you can flood the area with blood to encourage growth. Remember: tendons get less blood than muscle and take longer to respond to training stimulus.

Scapular Control for Bulletproof Shoulders

We can also target the scapula independently with movements like the scapula row – and these are crucial for proper shoulder bulletproofing. Here, you hang from dip bars, rings, or a barbell in the squat rack, and then pull your upper body toward it, keeping your heels on the floor. The rub is that, rather than bending at the elbows as you normally would, you instead keep the arms straight and pull yourself up only by retracting the scapula.

Scapula Push Ups

You can also use other movements to practice that scapula protraction. The best is perhaps the pseudo planche push up, or planche lean. You can also perform scapula push ups in much the same way you perform scapula rows.

The L-Sit, which is a movement I talked about a lot lately, is fantastic for training scapula depression – which provides further stabilization during bench press. Here, your arms are locked straight, and you are attempting to push through the ground through the shoulders.

See also: Why You Should be Doing the Bodyweight Row

Shoulder Mobility

But here’s the inherent contradiction of the shoulders: the also need great mobility to perform properly at a range of different angles. They need to be able to get into a wide range of positions and then lock in that place. Building bulletproof shoulders is not all about strength and stability – like the bamboo that bends in the wind.

For example, to perform an overhead press or handstand, you actually need to create space in the glenohumeral joint. If you have tightness in your pec minor and/or weakness in your traps, this can lead to anterior tilt of the scapulae. This makes it hard to upwardly rotate the scapula as the humerus abducts and flexes. What we’re actually looking for here is a slight posterior tilt to create more space, coupled with upward rotation.

Handstand Shoulder Bulletproofing

Scapula winging also prevents normal movement here. This is caused by weak serratus anterior, which should be holding the scapulae tight to the rib cage. Without this, the shoulder blades move away from the spine. These are all issues we need to address if we want truly bulletproof shoulders.

Likewise, if you suffer from internal rotation – meaning that your arms are twisted inwards due to tightness – you increase your risk of impingement. This is again because that position leaves less space in the joint and means it’s easy to irritate the tendons of the rotator cuff as they pass through the subacromial space.

How do you know if your shoulders are internally rotated? Try letting your arms hang down by your side and observe where your palms face. If they point backwards, you may have an issue.

Shoulder Internal Rotation

How it Happens

These issues are extremely common owing simply to our modern lifestyles. Sitting at a desk all day means that we are in a hunched forward position, which can lead to tight pecs and weak rotators. Combine this with a strength training program that is biased toward pushing movements for the shoulders, and you have a recipe for disaster.

The other issue is simply that we don’t raise our arms over our heads often enough. Moving your arm requires the coordination of a whopping 17 different muscles, and yet we can’t independently move any of them. Our body coordinates them perfectly based on our goals and our environment.

But this is fine! Despite not knowing anything about these muscles, my two year-old daughter has insanely impressive overhead shoulder mobility. The problem is when she stops moving in that way, and those neural pathways lose their definition – they effectively fuse. She retains the ability to move in all the ways she should. We started out with bulletproof shoulders. But then life got in the way.

Fixing Internal Rotation

One solution for internal rotation is to try strengthening the rotator cuffs with movements like the side-lying external rotation. This can be effective with a light dumbbell and is one of the most commonly recommended exercises for bulletproof shoulders. But I much prefer using a band held in both hands: this way I can train external rotation with two hands simultaneously. And I can do it wherever I am, throughout the day.

Start light. If your rotator cuffs are indeed weak and tight from disuse, you don’t want to suddenly put them under a whole lot of distress.

Bulletproof Shoulders

But what’s more important than your resting position, is how you’re able to control rotation during a movement. During the press, try to externally rotate the upper arms by attempting to bend the bar in front of you, or point your triceps forward. This will create more stability AND mobility, allowing you to get the bar directly over your head. You can feel the difference instantly. Plus, that very motion will naturally train your strength in this position.

If you struggle with this and you find the overhead press painful, you can alternatively try using dumbbells to allow for a neutral grip. Another option is to use the landmine press. This slightly less vertical angle allows you to move within a larger space while still loading the delts. But of course, it doesn’t address the root of the problem!

Landmine Press With Log

Keep in mind that external rotation during overhead positions can be confusing. That’s because external rotation is measured in relation to the body with the arms by your sides. If you’re confused, try externally rotating here, and then raising your arms up to see where they should be.

Once again, proprioception is just as important as raw strength for bulletproof shoulders.

Proper Overhead Scapula Movement

As we’ve discussed, during an overhead press, the scapula should have an upward rotation and slight posterior tilt to create space. This may look like a slight retraction, but too much retraction will actually prevent proper rotation.

This is called “scapulohumeral rhythm” and is as much about mobility as it is about proprioception and mind-muscle control. It’s one of the most important things to focus on, if you want bulletproof shoulders. If you can consciously try to tilt the scapular backward like this before performing an overhead press, you may find that you instantly gain more pain-free range of motion. I did!

This is called “scapulohumeral rhythm.”

This can be pretty hard to figure out if you’re not used to moving this way, so to ascertain whether you’ve achieved that tilt, try tilting just one side and then use your spare thumb and try and tuck it under the bottom of the blade. You are effectively trying to remove the space so that this isn’t possible, without necessarily retracting as you would during a bench press. This is your “instant” overhead mobility fix.

Scapulohuermal rhythm bulletproof shoulders

Overhead Shoulder Stretches for Shoulder Bulletproofing

Mobility is not just about flexibility, it’s also about strength and control. This can help with control, but we still need to release tightness and increase strength.

See also: Movement Training Explained – Movement Flows and More

For the former, get into a passive “dead hang” position so that your shoulders are up by your ears and your lats and pecs feel as much stretch as possible. Ido Portal actually encourages his students to hang for 7 minutes (non-consecutive) every day for 30 days. This has a bunch of other benefits, which we’ll cover in future. But suffice to say, it’s great for releasing tension so that you can fix your posture and achieve proper scapula rotation.

Dead hang shoulder bulletproofing

Similarly effective is the dumbbell pullover, which can also help stretch the lats. With all these things, you need to build up slowly and never work through pain. 

To build strength in the overhead position, we can use something like a lift-off. Here, you get your hands into a stretched position on something like a dip bar, using a little external force. Then you lift yourself off the bar and try to use your isometric strength to stay in that position. This requires strength and control in the agonist muscles, enough to overcome the antagonistic muscles providing resistance. Tom Merrick has a great video on this.

See also: Training Weak Points and End Range Strength

You can also use resistance band overhead extensions or do the same thing with a bar. The Y exercise is also very good for this, as demonstrated very well by FitnessFAQs. You can also use the W exercise for developing that scapula retraction and rotator cuff strength. Focus on moving the scapula at the same time. And if you want to make the W exercise more interesting, try catching two tennis balls at the same time.

Y exercise

Overhead Broom Squat

If you lack mobility in your shoulders, you’ll find that the thoracic (or even lumbar) spine often extends to compensate. Hold your hands directly over your head as far as you can. Can you cover your ears with your humerus? Now try standing against the wall to keep your back perfectly straight: it should be touching the wall all the way down to the bottom. Can you still lift your arms the same?

Overhead squat

Imagine trying to do a straight arm handstand when you can’t straighten your back and keep your arms overhead! Bit of a lost cause, really. And again, this is far from the picture of bulletproof shoulders!

Worse, is that this issue often goes even deeper and is related to tight hips. If you have an anterior pelvic tilt due to tight ups, you’ll have a lordotic lumbar spine and a kyphotic thoracic spine to deal with. The result is that your back is curved forward, meaning you’d practically have to dislocate your arms to get them directly overhead! What a mess!

See also: Back Training: Spine Strength, Mobility, and Resilience

This is also why a lot of people shouldn’t do a full back bridge. If you lack shoulder mobility and thoracic mobility, you’ll likely find you bend primarily at the lumbar spine. This is not what we want.

Back bridge shoulder mobility

Performing the overhead squat, filming it, and watching it back, can be a fantastic cue to help you recognize this and work toward fixing it. If you can get into a deep squat with your arms extended overhead, this is a great benchmark for your overall mobility.

This is also why you shouldn’t think of mobility as isolated but rather a global trait. To get the most from your shoulders, you should also be fixing your hip flexors, ankles, spine, and everything else.

Handstand Push Up

So now we have bulletproof shoulders, I guess we’ve got to do hips next?

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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