3 Exercises for Bullet-Proof Shoulders

‘Bullet-proof shoulders’ sounds great but what do I really mean? In freestyle kayaking, we want our shoulders to be strong in a wide variety of positions, ideally throughout their entire range of motion. No matter how we move them, they need to stay where they are supposed to be – in their sockets. The surrounding musculature should be strong enough to maintain a normal articular relationship between the head of the humerus and the scapula even when subject to high levels of force. In a word, they need to be stable.

This assertion tells us two things about how we need to train our shoulders in the gym:

  • We need exercises that train the muscles of the shoulder in all planes of space (ie horizontal, vertical and everything in between)

  • We need exercises that can become progressively more ‘unstable’.

I like to think of all exercises as existing on a spectrum of stability:

At one end, you have the weights machines. As you move along the spectrum you get into free weights; barbells first, then dumbbells. Then at the other end of the spectrum, you have free-weights exercises performed on unstable platforms. This might mean that you do the exercise on one leg or in a half-kneeling position or, more unstable again, on a bosu or swiss ball.

Let’s take a chest press for example. You can start by doing it on a weights machine. Then as you progress, you might move on to a barbell bench press. With some more time, you start pressing dumbbells, again on the flat bench. Then to really challenge your shoulder stability, you bring the exercise onto a swiss ball. Of course, this progression isn’t necessarily linear. You could have a number of these exercises in your strength programming concurrently, just adjusting the loading to suit your ability levels. But what you’ll notice is that as the instability increases, the exercise becomes more challenging and the loading typically reduces.

So, what are my top 3 exercises for bullet-proof shoulders?

1. Half-kneeling Landmine Shoulder Press

With one end of a barbell in a landmine (the kind you find in a gym) and the other end in your hand, get down on one knee like you’re about to propose. If your left knee is on the ground, the barbell should be in your left hand. With a braced core, press the end of the barbell overhead. Check out a nice demo here.

I love this exercise. Both the landmine setup and half-kneeling position introduce instability into an otherwise boring shoulder press. Make sure to train both arms symmetrically. Add weight to the barbell as appropriate. If you want an extra challenge, slow down the reps. Over time, this will really challenge and develop your shoulder stability.

2. Swiss Ball Seated Cable Sword Draws

This video demonstrates a cable sword draw pretty well, but without a swiss ball. Sitting upright on a swiss ball creates an additional challenge for your core and shoulders. Remember to maintain good posture while seated, with your core engaged and chest out and proud. Keep the cable positioned low down - it should look like you’re drawing a sword from your hip.

This exercise always reminded me of the crossbow stroke in a Phonics Monkey. It feels very sport-specific. Again, sitting on the swiss ball and using a cable bring the instability we’re looking for to this exercise.

3. Swiss Ball, Single-Arm Dumbbell Press

Set yourself up by lying on your back on a swiss ball, both feet on the floor, knees bent, glutes engaged like you’re holding a bridge position (like this lady here). Maintain this position as you do your single-arm chest press. If you’re not used to this exercise, you’ll feel the dumbbell want to wobble around at the top of the press. This is the instability. This is what we’re looking for. The asymmetry created by performing this exercise one arm at a time also challenges your core muscles. Want to make it a bit easier? Place your feet further apart.

When you think about how we move the load in these exercises, you’ll notice that each trains the shoulder musculature in a different plane. The first pushes in a roughly vertical direction. The second pushes in the horizontal plane (when you take the spinal column as a reference for vertical). The third pulls in a lateral and also oblique direction, from low to high. Obviously, there are many more directions/planes to consider, these are just some of my favourite examples. I might add, that you don’t have to do all the exercises you can think of for your shoulders in a single session. Generally, they’ll be grouped into push and pull exercises and spread out across a week’s training. This is where a coach’s knowledge is invaluable. They’ll make sure to organise your sessions appropriately to allow adequate rest and recovery so that every time you hit the gym, you’re ready to work hard and get the most out of each exercise.

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