By Jared Meacham

The shoulders get a lot of attention from fitness professionals- rightly so. If a person trains regularly, chances are their shoulders are getting more work than just about any other part of the body. This could be a great thing, if you’re guiding them with an intelligently designed plan, or it could be compounding the chances that something could go wrong if you’re just throwing workouts their way. We hear a lot about painful shoulders, and the limitations that creates for an exerciser, but we don’t often think of the fact that some of these setbacks might stem from the practices that people have learned from working with a personal trainer. This article is a common sense approach to discussing some basic do’s and don’ts for training the shoulders.

The Do’s of Shoulder Training

1. Do Train Breathing

Breathing is one of the most fundamental and essential processes in the human body. Without breathing, nothing else is really happening, so we have to consider breathing important to anything and everything we do. We also know that shoulder mobility and core function are related. Core function is deeply impacted by the many mechanisms associated with breathing. Deep breathing requires the diaphragm to move through a full range of motion, up and down, inside the cylinder we consider the “core.” Diaphragmatic breathing creates an environment where our internal organs and the musculature of the core are receiving all the oxygen, blood and nutrients they need to function properly and that function expands outward into the other areas of the body including the shoulders. Quality breathing practices often relaxes the thoracic spine and the musculature in the neck, both of which have a direct impact on shoulder mobility. When our thoracic spine is tight and immobile, and the muscles of the cervical spine are under constant stress, we tend to find that the shoulders have reduced mobility which decreases their training capability and could increase risk of injury. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing is a quality practice that should be considered a foundational aspect of any fitness training program.

2. Do Assess Mobility

Before we begin training the shoulders, it’s probably best to figure out just what they’re capable of doing. There are a number of shoulder assessments that can be done, but a comprehensive shoulder mobility screening process will quickly tell you if there are any shoulder joint shortcomings that you need to take into account. Two of the most detrimental movements to the shoulder are two of the most commonly practiced. Overhead pressing and bench pressing, with elbows wide, are responsible for most of the shoulder injuries found in the gym. Unfortunately, these injuries often happen little-by-little, over a long period of time, so we often overlook these techniques when trying to pinpoint why a client’s shoulder is hurting. While there is nothing inherently wrong with these movements – they both require a very mobile shoulder joint if they are to be done without creating tissue damage – and most of us just don’t have that kind of mobility. A fundamental screen should be at the center of any fitness training process.

3. Do Train for Core Integrity

The core is the body’s primary stabilizing mechanism and the concept of “bracing”, or holding a position, is something the core should be trained to do very well. When the core is strong and mobile it performs with great integrity – we can trust it to do its job. The core is the foundation upon which all other aspects of the body’s physical capability is built. We know that core integrity is paramount to shoulder mobility, stability and stability endurance. When we lose core integrity (as when the core fatigues) we often see shoulder stability and mobility compromised as well. Train the core to be the central pillar of strength, upon which all other strength is built, and your client’s shoulders will perform at their best.

4. Do Mobilize the Thoracic and Cervical Spine

Thoracic (T-spine) and cervical spine extension and rotation are directly related to the mobility of the shoulders. When a client’s upper back and neck are mobile and strong, we tend to see shoulders that function properly. The ability to train the shoulders, through a wide range of motion, is essential to optimal shoulder development and function. Ensuring upper back, neck strength and mobility will go a long way to supporting strong, healthy shoulders. Train regularly to mobilize the upper back and neck and you can’t go wrong.

5. Do Create Multi-Directional Strength Balance

The shoulders train in multiple planes of motion. While we know this is true, we find ourselves stuck in a rut, training our shoulders with only a few movements that are done over and over again. I would bet that the vast majority of shoulder strength training programs focus on overhead presses and laterals. Perhaps some programs include a reverse lateral variation and an upright row. These are great, but there is so much more to offer our clients and potential to maximize the quality of their shoulder training. Varying shoulder training to encompass a wide variety of angles and planes of motion will ensure shoulder joint integrity and will help to build a highly mobile, stable shoulder joint that can train in virtually any way you need it to work.

6. Do Make the Shoulders Strong

Depending on the information provided from your shoulder mobility assessment you can develop a strength training program that maximizes shoulder strength without risking injury. Ground-based strength training can be incredibly beneficial if you have that skillset. Standard resistance training movements are also great ways to strengthen the shoulder- as long as the trainer ensures that balanced training practices are used to create strength throughout the entire shoulder joint and it's musculature.

Some exercises do a better job at strengthening, stabilizing and mobilizing the shoulder than others. A few great exercises to help create great strength, stability and mobility in the shoulders are:

  • 1 Arm Overhead Press (if assessment indicates it’s okay)
  • Bottom up Kettlebell Press
  • Cuban Press
  • Neutral Grip Overhead Press
  • Face Pulls

Do each of these things when you are training your client’s shoulders and you’re sure to get the best results from the work they’re putting in.

The Don'ts of Shoulder Training

1. Don’t Overlook a Quality Warm-up Process

I personally like to use body weight, ground based movements to warm-up the shoulders but that requires a special skill set that I highly recommend trainers acquire. In the absence of this type of warm-up option it is important to take the shoulders, unloaded, through a wide range of motions that will ensure the entire shoulder joint and all of its supporting musculature are prepared for exercise. Once they’re warm and functioning optimally more loading can take place safely.

2. Don’t Exercise Through Pain

No one can override the body’s response to pain and part of that response is to modify how the movement is being done on a fundamental level. Your brain is going to reroute impulses to fire muscles differently in an effort to avoid the pain you are pushing the client through and that is going to change how the body performs that movement. This is almost never a good thing so just avoid pain at all costs. Working through pain is never going to create the outcome you’re working to achieve.

3. Don’t Ignore the Assessment

I can not tell you how often I’ll see a client’s assessment scores and look up to see their trainer having them perform movements the assessment clearly indicates they should avoid. Assessments aren’t just something to do. They directly inform and, in many ways, dictate the development of your client’s training program. Ignoring the information an assessment provides you is negligent and places your client’s health at risk. Use the assessment as a way to dig deeper into the capabilities your clients have, instead of looking at it as limiting your options. The term “inch wide, mile deep” perfectly illustrates this situation. Sometimes we just don’t have a lot of options but we can always get better at the ones we do have. That’s where your value as a trainer will shine through each and every time.

4. Don’t Forget Your Client is Human

Humans have good day and bad days. Some days we come in feeling great- we’re hydrated, fueled, motivated and ready to take on all the gym can throw at us. Some days we’re tired, stressed, mentally-drained and just can’t get in the groove of things. Remember the PTA Global Behavior Change in Exercise credential coursework, where it discusses “meeting your client where they are.” It’s important to understand that sometimes the best thing you can do for your client is to modify your training plan to ensure they walk out of the session feeling like a winner, instead of waking up tomorrow morning with shoulder stiffness because they just weren’t ready to do what they did. Don’t forget that your client is human.

The above are straightforward and useful ways to approach training the shoulders. If you do the things listed as do’s and avoid the things listed as don’ts, you can’t go wrong in developing a great system for shoulder training for your clients.

To your success.

Jared MeachamOver a decade of fitness business and large health and wellness club management. From major athletic clubs around the USA to hospital and community-based wellness centers and entrepreneurial ventures my experience in facility operations and business management is vast.

Have overseen and professionally developed hundreds of fitness professionals and numerous health club business systems nationwide. Now directing all fitness aspects of a progressive, massively successful fitness programming enterprise. Developed a grass-roots in-home personal training business into a multi-state, seven location fitness authority within 18 months. I have also directed new club pre-sale, operations and staffing multiple times.

Always open to new challenges, I took an opportunity creating and directing all fitness services for a progressive and expanding health club based in Tulsa, Oklahoma.