3 Unconventional Shoulder Health Exercises

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I was going to run with the title “3 Unconventional Shoulder Health Exercises (That Aren’t Band External Rotations)” but I didn’t want to come across as a pompous a-hole.


Alternatively, I was considering “3 Unconventional Shoulder Health Exercises (That Aren’t Band External Rotations) and STOP DOING KIPPING PULL-UPS FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.”

But again, kinda douchy.

To that end, I suck at intros.

3 Unconventional Shoulder Health Exercises

Just so we’re on the same page: I am NOT against external rotation drills (band, side lying, whatever else you can come up with here).

On the contrary I use them often when working with clients who exhibit shoulder discomfort or have a lengthy history of shoulder pain – specifically with the rotator cuff.

Many EMG studies have shown that when it comes to activation…

…Side Lying External Rotations are the Don Corleone of rotator cuff exercises.

They’re wonderful and are a home-run for most people, most of the time (when done correctly). They’re also, you know, about as exciting as watching another parent’s kid’s Clarinet recital.

No one gets excited to head to the gym to perform Side Lying External Rotations. You can make them more palatable, of course:


But even still…


I’m a firm believer that training, especially rehab, should look (and feel) like training. So today I wanted to pass along a few drills I think you should add to your repertoire.

1. Seated Reach & Row


I got this one from strength coach (and person who makes me feel like an old curmudgeon), Conor Harris.

I’m starting to fall into the camp that addressing Serratus weakness is the answer to everything:

  • Shoulder pain?
  • Neck pain?
  • Back pain?
  • Lawnmower won’t start?

More Serratus work my friend!

Reaching (or protraction) is a bonafide way to target the Serratus anterior and improve shoulder health. Likewise, working on ribcage expansion is also part of the equation.

The ribcage is shaped in a convex manner.

The scapulae (shoulder blade) is concave, or rounded, in nature. The ability for the two to play nicely together is an often overlooked mechanism of what I like to call “my shoulder fucking hurts syndrome.”

A stiff ribcage can lead to one of two things:

  1. Lack of rotation.
  2. Inability to expand during inhalation.
  3. BONUS: Also less likely to win an arm-wrestling match vs. a Lumberjack. Trust me.

By combining a reach with an alternating row (and then adding a pause to INHALE in order to induce posterior expansion of the ribcage) we can sorta “unglue” it, which can have profound implications (in a good way) to shoulder health; namely, the scapulae have an increased ability to move.

I think we’ve been programmed to think that shoulder health begins and ends with rotator cuff. I’d make the case that the more germane approach – or attack point – is to address scapular function via the ribcage.

If the ribcage can’t move, neither can your shoulder blades.

2. Elbows Up Banded Press


Pigging back off my Serratus obsession above (<– totally not creepy),1here’s a splendid drill I stole from my friend (and person I hate because he’s way stronger than me), Dr. Jonathan Mike.

Too, what I dig about this exercise is that it very much has a meathead vibe to it.

OMG – the pump you feel after performing a set of these is insane.

After a killer upper-body session, instead of Band External Rotation drills, do this for 2-3 sets of 10-20 reps.

3. 1-Arm Band Upper Cut


This is a drill I’ll often pair with things like squats or deadlifts. Both entail “setting” the shoulder blades in place in a more downwardly rotated (or depressed) position.

This is ideal for lifting heavy things – and for keeping the joint “safe” – but as I alluded to above, not for overall shoulder health.

The scapulae are meant to move in a myriad of ways up, down, and around the ribcage.

The Banded Upper Cut not only targets the Serratus (reaching), but also the upper traps which aid with scapular UPWARD rotation.

The key is to make the movement one seamless movement by thinking about directing everything through the pinky finger. I like to tell clients to think about pointing their pinky out in front of them…

…then UP towards the ceiling.

This ensures the shoulder blades moves around (and up) the ribcage. It feels great.

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  1. Okay, it’s creepy

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