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A healthy shoulder doesn’t always feel tight or tweaky, but rather resilient and able to do what you ask of it without complaining.

From the inside out, there are three general requirements to get there: T-spine mobility (i.e. the thoracic spine, or the area bordered by the base of neck down to the base of the ribs, can move adequately), scapular stability (i.e. the shoulder blades connect nicely to the collarbones and provide good support for the arms), and shoulder joint mobility (i.e. the top of the upper arm bone/humerus moves smoothly from where it sits just inside the shoulder blade).

Important Reminders

Super important: be smart with your shoulders! As essentially the most (supposedly) mobile joint in the human body, they’re also one of the most delicate. Please remember:

  • Nothing I recommend should ever supersede information that your own health care professional gives you; this is to complement other input, not replace it.
  • Only nudge your joints to see what they’ve got available; never force anything. If you can breathe well through some mild discomfort, often it will be a game changer, but true pain is never a good thing!
  • Before loading any move with weight, first ensure that you can perform it well without the weight.

T-spine Mobility

We need to get our mid/upper back doing the exact opposite of where it spends most of its day; this is particularly true for sedentary workers. Drills can include:

  • Capital T’s (wall / elevated / ground)
  • Supine T-spine extension with reach
  • Rib pull
  • Arm bar

(Click here for video.)

Scapular Stability

Next, the shoulder blades need to provide a solid base for the shoulder. Drills can include:

  • If tolerated, extended mermaid holds (must maintain impeccable parasympathetic breathing throughout)
  • Arm bar (ideally, with partner spots to check positioning and provide safety)
  • Bent arm bar (load progressively and with caution)

(Click here for video.)

Shoulder Joint Mobility

There are so many ways to come at this. For example, Indian clubs can be a wonderful tool, particularly if you’re interested in learning the classical patterns. If you’re ready to dive into the windmill and bent press, however, any basic range of motion warmup should do just fine.

Raising the Bar (Get It?) with the “Support Lifts”

The old-time “support lifts,” as practised by circus and exhibition strongmen (I know; it’s hard to find references to many females doing it at the time) teach us to manipulate our own body alignment while underneath an external weight.  Digging into the archives can be fascinating! Here are a few tidbits to spice up your routine. (I never would have thought of using a broom to work on grip strength!)

Let’s dive in with two support lifts that are back in favour. (Click here for video.)

The Windmill

  • Heels are in line with each other; feet are 45 degrees to the line; back leg stays straight; moderately narrow stance.
  • Push back hip to 45 degrees also (the same direction as the back heel), and once it’s gone as far as a neutral spine allows, then push hip UP. (Some type of line in front of the toes can test that the torso is coming forward at 45 degrees.) “Shift and lift” takes the torso forward. (Partner drill: heavy band around the thigh can provide a good line of pull. On your own, push your back hip into the corner of a wall.)
  • Memorize this: “The depth of our windmill is established by our ability to maintain a neutral spine.” ( with many other moves, for that matter – including the bent press, which we’ll tackle next.)

The Bent Press

Popular in the early 1900s as an old-time strongman move par excellence! If you enjoy this lift and want to explore it further, here is some great archival material, and here.

Two bent–press-specific comments:

  • Differing body proportions means that there are a lot of individual variations in this move (for example, squat style vs windmill style).
  • Also, the name itself is a bit of a misnomer, in that we’re not actually pressing the weight itself per se, but rather bending ourselves underneath it.

To perform the actual move:

  • Starting position: The non-lifting-hand leg will typically point outwards about 30 degrees. As with the windmill, rear/lifting-hand leg is straight, and the front one has some bend. When racking the bell, if you start too low, there’s nowhere to go, so make sure the bell doesn’t sink down with you. (Again, varying architectural considerations of each body, now of the wrist, mean that grip will vary regarding centre of mass of the weight regarding supination/pronation.)
  • Final, or bottom, position: The “rope press” is a useful drill to find the feel of keeping the bell at the same height as we come under it. Anchor a non-stretchy strap, gi belt, or jump rope, say, under your back foot, then step forward over it with the front/lifting-hand leg so that it runs behind the body. Body proportions will determine if you will support your same-side leg with your elbow (which most lifters will do) or the opposite one with your palm – and that supporting hand will help to keep your spine safely neutral.
  • The actual press transitions between the two positions. Note: it’s highly recommended to use a spotter when you’re getting used to the move with weight, and no matter what to leave space around you in case you may have to drop it. This is about getting yourself under the bell as soon as possible, while keeping your lat connected to your body as long as possible (to be clear, only at the armpit around the long head of the triceps, not the entire upper arm), then “wedging” to create more tension, equally loading the legs, and standing up strong. Kettlebells are ideal for this particular lift, due to the offset centre of mass. (Even if you’re not (yet) familiar with the kettlebell ballistics lifts, you’ll need to “cheat clean” the bell anyways, once it’s heavy, to get to the rack position.)
  • If you want to work on your bent press, use heavy isometric rack holds (from the top position), and lighter weights for bottom position iso holds. Further programming could include working into heavy singles, alternating with pull-ups to support the lat “shelf,” then training the full lift with a moderate weight, 5×5.

As Always, Stay in Touch!

How did these moves feel for you? They’re definitely a different paradigm. Please let me know what you thought!