A shoulder warm-up is essential for keeping your shoulders healthy during workouts and your sport. If you’ve been working out for any reasonable length of time, you’ve probably experienced some shoulder aches and pains along the way. This is completely normal, as the shoulder joint is one of the most common areas of pain among the lifting population.
But though this is the norm, it really shouldn’t be. Lifters need to take better care of their shoulders with proper shoulder warm-ups and lifting techniques before they’re stuck with doing legs for the rest of their lifting lives!
Below is an excellent shoulder warm-up and some additional shoulder-saving strategies.
Most lifters walk into the gym, shake their arms around a little, do the cross-body shoulder stretch and then jump right into heavy presses. That may work for some, but if your goal is longevity, it’s wise to get your shoulders loosened up before you start your main lifts. Your shoulder warm-up should consist of two phases: the scapulae and the rotator cuff.
The scapulae, or shoulder blades, are an often-forgotten element of shoulder health. In order for the true shoulder joint (glenohumeral joint) to move properly and without pain, the scapulae must be mobile. For every two degrees your shoulder moves, your scapula should move one degree (2:1 ratio).
Here are some exercises that help warm up the muscles that move your scaps.
Back-to-Wall Shoulder Flexion
What it works: scapular elevation and upward rotation
- Keep your back completely flat on the wall.
- As you raise your arms, reach outward and make a semi-circle motion with your arms.
Forearm Wall Slides
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What it works: scapular elevation, upward rotation, retraction and posterior tilt
- Place your arms on a wall making a 90-degree angle at the elbow.
- Slide your arms up and slightly out making a “Y” shape.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together to pull your hands off of the wall.
What it works: scapular retraction, protraction, elevation and upward rotation
- Complete a regular Push-Up.
- As you push up and reach the top, shift your weight backward and allow your head to fall between your arms.
Once you have mobilized your scapulae, it’s time to warm up your GH Joint and rotator cuff muscles. The muscles of the rotator cuff keep the head of the humerus in the shoulder socket and allow movement at the shoulder joint.
Band Internal and External Rotation
What is works: subscapularis (internal) / infraspinatus and teres minor (external)
- Grab a resistance band and attach it to a pole at about hip height.
- Keep your elbow fixed to your side as you internally and then externally rotate your shoulder.
External Rotation from Half-Kneeling Position
Kneeling External Rotation
What it works: teres minor and infraspinatus
- With the same resistance band from the last drill, set up in the half kneeling position with your arm at 90° and face the band. The half kneeling setup is better than standing, because it widens your base and decreases the likelihood of slipping into lumbar extension.
- Slowly externally rotate your arm.
Note: NEVER pass 90 degrees of internal rotation with the band
With the band behind you, the resistance is pulling you backward and causing the humeral head to ride forward in the shoulder socket. Over time, this causes anterior capsule laxity and, you guessed it, shoulder pain!
Putting these exercises together creates a full shoulder warm-up that will take about 5 to 10 minutes to complete.
- Back-to-Wall Shoulder Flexion – 2×8
- Forearm Wall Slides – 2×8
- Yoga Push-Ups – 2×10
- Band Internal Rotation – 1×6-8 each arm
- Band External Rotation – 1×6-8 each arm
- Half-Kneeling External Rotation – 1×6-8 each arm
The shoulder warm-up is key, but there are some things you can do during your workout to protect your shoulders.
Bench Press Blunders
The Bench Press has a bad reputation for causing shoulder pain and even injury. There are multiple reasons for this, but the most common one is that people allow their elbows to flare out. Flared elbows not only place additional pressure on the shoulder, they are also less efficient and could cause your strength numbers to suffer. For traditional Bench Press, the best way to avoid shoulder pain is to keep your elbows tucked.
If you want to avoid the Barbell Bench Press all together, I recommend using a neutral grip bar or neutral grip dumbbell bench pressing to avoid placing too much stress on the shoulders while still working the chest.
Unpack on Rows
When doing rowing motions, it is often cued to “pack” the shoulder and/or retract the scapula. This does help squeeze the back muscles, but it also takes away from a key element of shoulder health—scapulothoracic movement. You just spent 10 minutes trying to mobilize your scapulae and now you are going to lock them back down into a retracted and depressed position for your rowing motions. That makes no sense. Allow those scapulae to move as you row. You will still be able to squeeze them as you pull in, but as you release back out to the starting position, allow your shoulder blades to move and protract as well.
Practice good scapular movement before doing the full row so that you can get the feel for how your scapulae should be moving in the row.
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Range of motion is a good thing, but on an exercise like Pull-Up folks often get too much range of motion, particularly at the bottom of the movement. Similar to rows, you want to allow good scapulothoracic movement. However, you do not need, or want, to lower yourself all the way to the bottom. This causes the head of the humerus to ride up in the shoulder socket as gravity pulls your body back to the floor. Any time you pull the humeral head out of the socket, your rotatory cuff muscles are forced to work harder than they should.
Left: Bad Pull-Up / Right: Good Pull-Up
You certainly want to use full range of motion to get the most out of your Pull Ups, but by stopping just short of the bottom, you will avoid unnecessary wear and tear on the shoulder.
Keeping your shoulders healthy and pain-free is beneficial not only for allowing you to do upper-body workouts, but also for long-term functional health. As with any joint, you don’t want it to become immobile or limited in range of motion. By implementing a simple 10-minute shoulder warm-up routine and keeping some of these basic exercise tips in mind, you’ll keep your shoulders strong, healthy, and most importantly, pain-free.