Three Exercises to Fix Your Shoulders and Lift Heavier
I love pressing heavy. Or at least I loved pressing heavy, because for the past 7 years or so my capacity to bench press or military press heavy weights went the way of the dinosaur! It took me a long time to understand what the issue was: my rotator cuff muscles, especially the subscapularis, were severely inhibited. Making it impossible to stabilize the shoulder when pressing. This made it impossible to press heavy weight, despite having the same amount of upper body mass as I had when I bench pressed in the mid-400s, and being as strong on pulling and accessory exercises.
Once I figured that out, I started to do external rotation work three times per week. It helped a little. While I did get stronger on external rotations and start to feel the subscap (instead of the delt) doing the work, it didn’t transfer readily to pressing performance.
Since then, I started to include more stability training for the shoulders. Both as activation prior to pressing and as accessory exercises. I do them three times a week and it has led to a significant improvement in pressing performance, makes the bar feel lighter and the shoulder pain is gone.
See, it’s one thing to have strong rotator cuff muscles, it’s another to be capable of recruiting them fast enough to stabilize the shoulders when pressing.
Here are three of the exercises I use every week. I do them on all my pressing workouts (twice per week) as well as on one additional day, that third day being an easy workout where I only work on injury prevention by working on shoulder stability and doing high rep band work for the hamstrings.
OSCILATORY HBT RAISES
I learned this one from my friend, expert strength coach Stefan Jones. I use this exercise as an activation tool prior to pressing exercises.
Using the HBT technique (hanging weight via resistance bands to make the source of resistance unstable) I lift the weight up to the finished lateral raise position then proceed to make rapid and sharp up and down moves while also bringing the arms to the front and then back to the lateral position. This creates a large need to stabilize both because of the oscillation of the weight (up-down, forward-backward, left-right) and the movement of the arms.
I also routinely include sudden and abrupt stop-holds during the set. In the video I do them at the end of the set, but I often will do them mid-set. This abrupt stopping and holding action is what has the greatest impact on shoulder stability.
For activation purposes, I normally recommend going for about 15-20 seconds and if you want to use it as a development exercise you would go for as long as 40 seconds.
HBT LATERAL RAISES
I use this mostly as an accessory/development exercise done after the main pressing work has been completed. It both improves your capacity to stabilize the shoulder joint and increase the recruitment of the muscle fibers of the deltoids. For that reason, I most often do it as a superset with regular lateral raises (as shown in the video), the HBT portion making the regular lateral raises more effective at stimulating the deltoids because of a better muscle fiber recruitment.
During the HBT laterals set, I will vary the speed at which I’m lifting the weights to create a change in “bouncing/moving” which requires more adaptation from rep to rep, leading to a higher capacity to adapt to various situations.
When I do it as a stand-alone exercise, I will do 10-12 reps, and when I use it in a superset with regular lateral raises, I normally do 8 reps and 8-10 reps of regular laterals.
HBT BRADFORD PRESS
Note: I have lousy thoracic spine mobility and a natural anterior shoulder posture. It’s something I’m working on but natural structure and years of training makes it hard to change.
In a proper Bradford press you bring the bar behind the head not by rotating the shoulders, but by bringing the elbows back. Basically, what you are looking for is to have the elbows directly under the bar at all times. As you can see in the video, the later reps are better as my muscles are loosening up. Also understand that “tightness/lack of range of motion” is often due to lack of stability: the body contacts/tighten other muscles than the ones supposed to be stabilizing the joint to compensate and increase stability. This, of course makes you tighter. As you become more efficient at stabilizing properly your compensating muscles will loosen up, improving your mobility. This is what is happening during my set.
I often use the HBT Bradford press with little resistance as a preparation/activation exercise for overhead pressing exercises. I also use it as an accessory/development exercise after my overhead lifting in which case, I will use more weight on the bar and go close to failure, shooting for 5-6 reps (1 rep is forward to backwards to forward again).
OTHER EXERCISES I USE
At the moment, I’m doing a variation of the Conjugate/Westside barbell methodology. The only difference is that I do not do the dynamic effort work for the upper body. Instead, I do repetition work with instability. I won’t do dynamic effort work until I am 100% efficient at stabilizing the shoulder joint; if the shoulder joint is not fully stable it is impossible to be good at explosive pressing movements.
During those repetition method with instability workouts, I will do both the bench press and military press with the HBT technique. I normally do 4-6 sets of 6 reps for each. In that workout, I also do the three exercises mentioned earlier.
And once a week (the day after max effort upper body and before max effort lower body) I do a quick “pre-hab” workout lasting around 30 minutes. It consists of:
1. Oscillatory HBT raises
3 sets of 30 seconds
2. Stability-Tension lateral raise superset
3 sets of 8 reps + 8-10 reps
3. Band seated legs curls
100 total reps in as little time as possible
4. Bradford press HBT (light)
3 sets of 8 reps
5. Band pull-apart
100 total reps
Not only do my shoulders feel more solid, I seem to have gained some roundness to them.
If you have shoulder issues, or if you want to avoid future shoulder issues, give these exercises a try!