How To Keep Your Shoulders Healthy

A picture of Arnold performing seated shoulder press with a barbell.

If you’ve ever followed any of the programs I’ve written, you know that there’s a lot of volume with exercises like band pullaparts, face pulls, and Cuban Presses.

However, if I’m not watching carefully, a lot of times the wrestlers I’m training will rush through these.

Even though these exercises are meant to be light, they should be viewed as just as important as a heavy squat or weighted chinup.

Why?

While they do not directly contribute to increased force production, they help maintain proper balance within your shoulder.

In fact, they may not seem important to you if you have healthy, pain-free shoulders. However, if you’re banged up, this may be the reason why.

Taking a proactive approach by implementing these exercises in your plan is a great way to ensure your shoulders stay pain and injury free.

“Be proactive, not reactive,” to quote my old man.

So check these 3 exercises out. If you’re not already using them, I suggest that you start working them into your program.

Band Pullapart

For me, the Band Pullapart is what started it all as far as upper back/rear delt training. They’re super easy to perform and don’t take a lot out of you. This makes it a great exercise to add in without fear of it having a big, negative impact on your strength during other lifts.

Start by taking a double overhand grip on a band. The closer your hands are together, the more tension there will be.

Make adjustments with your grip as you see fit. Just remember- these don’t need to be done with maximum intensity. They’re just being used to help keep your shoulders in balance. Take a page out of a bodybuilder’s book and just feel the burn with these.

Anyway, to perform this exercise, pull the band apart by squeezing your shoulder blades together. Keep your elbows locked throughout.

Once you’ve reached the end of the range of motion feel free to hold the position for a second or two to better activate the rear delts. After that, return back to the starting position in a controlled manner.

As you can see in the video, I’m only using one side of the mini band. It’s not a whole lot of tension, but with the controlled tempo and hold I’m getting plenty of activation through my rear delts.

Ultimately, that’s all you should be looking to accomplish- activation in order to get a pump.

Face Pulls

The Face Pull is another great exercise to add in to your program. It too does a great job of strengthening and balancing out your upper back without taking a whole lot of strength/effort.

Face Pulls can be performed on a cable machine or you can use a band.

In terms of activation, you’ll definitely get your rear delts/upper back firing more with a band. Since that’s the primary focus, opt for a band at least half of the time.

Anyway, here’s a video of me demonstrating the Face Pull:

Notice the hold that I use with each rep. It’s not super long, but you should consider using some kind of hold. Again, it’s just another way to increase the total time under tension of your upper back.

Like I mentioned earlier, it’s important to keep in mind why you’re performing these exercises. The primary objective is to maintain good balance in your shoulders so that they remain pain and injury free.

What I’m trying to say is avoid doing this:

If you ever see someone doing Face Pulls like this, just let them be. It’s obviously very important to them that they have the highest Face Pull in the gym.

And who wouldn’t want that?

I mean, I get asked all the time how much I Face Pull!

Cuban Press

In the past, I had wrestlers I train perform Cuban Presses like this:

Yes, I’m doing Cuban Presses to Pantera. I take my upper back training very seriously.

I’ve since cut some parts out and just have the guys do this:

I don’t think the full Cuban Press in the first video is bad. I just don’t know how important the first and last parts are in the grand scheme of things.

I’m not really sure what the first part even does other than get you into position to externally rotate the dumbbells and the press at the end isn’t worth the time, in my opinion.

Unless you’re rehabbing from an injury or surgery, I don’t really know if a few overhead presses with 5-pound dumbbells will really benefit you.

Besides, the purpose of the exercise is to externally rotate at the shoulders. So why not just put the entire focus on that?

So anyway, that’s why I decided to eliminate a couple steps.

Bonus

It’s bonus time!

…I’m not really sure why I wrote that title. I just decided to add in another, less frequently used upper back exercise that I just thought of.

Although I don’t use them as much (and I’m not sure why, it’s a great exercise), I also have the wrestlers I train perform DB Cleans.

Here’s a quick video of this two part movement:

It’s really just another way to go about performing a Cuban Press.

Anyway, I like those too, so give them a shot.

Conclusion

My buddy, Donnie Vinson (3rd at NCAAs in 2012), battled with shoulder pain throughout his college career. And while he doesn’t make excuses about it, I know it affected his ability to perform at his best.

He’s since had surgery and is rehabbing successfully. And while his future should be pain-free, unfortunately the competitive portion of his career was not.

Ultimately, isn’t that why you read my blog?

You want to perform at your best, right?

So control that which you can control and do your best to keep your shoulders in balance.

Even though these exercises are not prime time strength builders, they are essential to maintaining proper balance.

So if you’re not, start working them in to your program today. And if you ever feel overwhelmed with everything I cover in my posts, just shoot me an email and we can talk about a personalized plan.

Related Posts:

Tricep Strength For Shoulder Health

Shoulder Stability- The Next Piece Of The Puzzle

Shoulder/Elbow/Wrist Saving Squat Tips

A picture of Kyle Dake and Dickie White.
Hi, I’m Dickie (the author of this blog). Here I am with my good buddy, Kyle Dake. While he doesn't have a nice coat like me, he is pretty good at wrestling. Here's what he said about my training system:

Before I began lifting using Dickie's system my wrestling skills were getting slightly better. I've now been lifting under his guidance for more than 5 months and I have begun to dominating ALL of my competition. At first I had little faith in Dickie and his program, but now I would run into a wall if he told me I would get stronger! I know it sounds insane, but I would. The bottom line is Dickie is an expert and knows what he is talking about. If you want to defeat those kids whom you've always lost to and reach a level you never thought possible, I suggest you start lifting using Dickie's system immediately.

-Kyle Dake, 4X NCAA Division 1 National Champion
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Want to see what other wrestlers are saying about my training system? Check out my Success Stories page.

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Want to learn more about Dickie? Check out my About page.

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • Dickie,

    Good article as usual, thanks. Last year, I paired down those Cuban Presses to what you showed above. It makes me feel better you’re having people do them that way now as well.

    Cheers,
    Bob

    Reply
    • Thanks for the feedback, Bob. They’ve always been a mainstay in the programs I design; at least for the last few years. The importance of using them, for whatever reason, just dawned upon me recently when I realized I haven’t had one complaint about shoulder pain from anyone I work with in a long time.

      Reply
      • Dickie,

        Forgot to add, and this might help out Ted below, but doing face pulls and Cuban presses has made my shoulders feel much stronger and feel better overall. I use to have some discomfort in my right shoulder, but haven’t after a few weeks of doing them. I even tact them in on an extra day sometimes.

        Cheers,
        Bob

        Reply
  • I’m a 48 year old teacher and high school wrestling coach. I have implemented many of your suggested lifts and workouts for my boys. I have been experiencing shoulder pain for about a year and have worked out and wrestled through the pain. Should I consult a doctor before trying to implement these shoulder activities? I was hoping that these exercises may reduce some of the pain that I am experiencing and would eliminate a trip to the doctor. Many doctors would just tell me to take a break for a few weeks,
    Thanks,
    Ted

    Reply
    • Hey Ted, thanks for leaving a comment. Hopefully I’ll be able to help you out.

      First off, how have the lifts and workouts been going for your boys?

      Next, give me as much feedback as you can on your shoulder pain. Things to consider are:

      1. Does it bother you during certain movements (ie bench, db bench, overhead, etc.)?

      2. Do you wake up in the morning in pain or is it just from activity?

      As far as using these exercises; I think you’ll be ok. Like I mention in the post, they don’t need to get heavy, nor should they necessarily be. The focus is on activating the rear delts/upper back in an effort to promote more muscular and strength balance around the shoulder.

      Comment back when you get the chance with some info from the questions above and I’ll be sure to get back to you with my thoughts. Thanks again man, talk to you soon.

      Reply
  • Dickie,

    Thank you for the quick response. I would like to give you a little feedback from your posts. I have approximately 25-30 wrestlers on the team each year. Half of them play a fall sport, usually football, and are in the weight room under the football strength coach. He does a nice job of building strength with a wide variety of lifts that carry directly over to wrestling. The other half of the kids train with me. I would like to say that they are all dedicated to becoming better wrestlers, but that would be stretching the truth quite a bit. I have typically a half dozen that are not playing other sports that are focused on becoming better and are willing to do the necessary things, go to camps, lift, and put in plenty of mat time. I greatly benefit from your post, I incorporate many of the sport specific lifts and detailed descriptions during our workouts. I have seen improvements in strength, conditioning, and attitudes. I will bring your post up on the tv screen for the kids to read and watch your short clip videos. These are very helpful, because the kids get tired of hearing it from me. An outside credible source is always good.

    I attend the NCAA Div. 1 Tournament each year. This year I was sitting by a group of Cornell fans. I asked them if they were familiar with you. They were very positive in their comments about your knowledge and commitment that you have to the youth in that area.

    I will give you a bit more information on my shoulder issues. As I have said, the problem has been going on for about a year. It also has affected my elbows and forearms when gripping extremely tight. I don’t experience any pain during a routine day. When I warm up well before lifting, I experience little discomfort until I start to go heavy. Bench and shoulder presses don’t bother me until I go heavy, but certain lift, like upright rows bother me with little weight. I have limited flexibility in my shoulders, might be a good post for you, “shoulder flexibility.” I have tried your latest lifts. The band pullapart, and the face pulls felt very good. The Cuban Press caused pain using 5 lbs. I would like your opinion on further exercise for flexibility and possible rehab.

    Also, most of my shoulder pain occurs at night. I sleep on one side for about 20 minutes, and then I need to switch to the other side. This takes place most of the night. I tried sleeping on my back, but as all good wrestlers tell you, that is not a place you want to be. When I awake in the morning, I do not feel the pain.

    Thanks,
    Ted

    Reply
    • Hey Ted, thanks for getting back to me and sorry for the slow response. Laura and I went out of town for the weekend and I’ve been playing catch up since we returned.

      Anyway, here are my thoughts on the shoulder:

      1. If you visit any Physical Therapist they’ll tell you to keep it pain free, and I try to do the same. So, to start, avoid things that are causing it pain- upright rows, Cuban presses, etc. Both of those movements are similar at the bottom of the movement and I’ve read that upright rows can lead to the acromion head can pinch something in the shoulder during that movement (I can’t remember which muscle, tendon or ligament). So that leads me to think that there’s something going on from a structural standpoint in terms of a bone causing damage/irritation to a specific piece of tissue. But after that, I can’t tell you much at this point. But I’d be happy to do some more research on it; just let me know.

      2. The way that you sleep sounds like it’s contributing and, if you sleep with your arm under your head when you’re on your side, it may be producing a similar effect as it would if you were performing an upright row or Cuban press. So, as much as it’s going to be a pain to work on, try to improve that. I used to do the same thing, and still do from time to time, but that really caused a lot of additional stress on my shoulder. Fortunately, things have improved for me.

      3. Without seeing you, I’d venture to guess that the mobility within your shoulder joint isn’t the best. Try these two stretches throughout the day and any time you’re in the weight room and/or wrestling room getting warmed up.

      The first is a lat stretch:

      lat stretch

      Do whatever you need to do and position yourself in any way that allows you to maximize the stretch on your lats.

      The second is a pec stretch:

      pec stretch

      Again, adjust as you need with the focus being on “opening” your chest and shoulders (without pain) as much as possible.

      4. Add holds to any upper body pulling exercises you’re doing to add more time under tension to your rear delts/upper back in an effort to promote a better balance around the shoulder joint.

      5. Look at the total volume between your upper body pushing and pulling exercises (just look at sets and reps and the total they come out to, don’t worry about weight). Then make adjustments to increase your pulling exercises. For instance maybe you find this:

      Pushing exercises:

      Bench- 3×10
      DB Bench- 3×10
      Overhead Press- 3×10

      90 total reps

      Pulling exercises:

      Chinup- 4×6
      Pulldown- 3×10
      Cable Row- 3×10

      84 total reps

      Here I would look to either lower the volume of the pushing and/or bring up the volume of the pulling so that the pulling volume was higher than the pushing. I don’t have a set percentage scheme to follow, but to start, you may want to consider a pulling volume that’s 50% higher than you’re pushing. Try that for 4 weeks and if things get better consider lowering it to 15-25% and see how things go.

      I normally don’t do this, but in the case of an agitated shoulder I will. However, one principle I always like to stick to is this- add 2 reps to each pulling exercise you pair up with a pushing exercise. So, say I have someone performing a DB Bench for 3×8. I’ll more than likely superset that with some kind of row for 3×10. This isn’t always the case, but it’s a good “rule” to stick to which has helped the wrestlers I train maintain proper balance of forces and musculature around the shoulder.

      Anyway, sorry for the long winded response, but hopefully it’s full of a lot of easy to implement info for you. Let me know what questions you have, keep me posted, and talk to you soon.

      Reply

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