Tag Archives: shoulders

Moving Toward Shoulder Sanity–Dumbbell Shoulder Press

One of our most abused areas are our shoulders. We can give them—the front part, especially—too much work, considering the obsession with things like bench press and other pushing exercises that constantly hit the anterior (front) portion of the deltoids (muscles of the shoulders). (though I, as your at home personal trainer, won’t be instructing you to do barbell bench presses as part of your home exercises, you can still abuse the shoulders in other chest pressing movements)

Even back exercises, like rows, can contribute to unstable shoulders and poor posture, such as excessive rounding (as you lower the weight too far). This not only will cause you less attractive appearance and muscle imbalances, but also opens the door to injury.

Further, our society’s tendency to sit for long hours at a computer, texting, etc adds tremendously to this forward lurching and shoulder rounding. As you can tell, the need for proper deltoid balance is tremendous today. Shortly, I will post on exercises specifically designed for this.

this shoulder rounding is more common than ever as a result of excessive non-physical activity and abuse

shoulder rounding is more common than ever as a result of excessive sedentary activity and abuse

The dumbbell shoulder press is an exercise that can either help your shoulders, or exacerbate the problem further. The more you point your elbows forward, the more you’ll work the front portion of your shoulder; the more you keep them pointed to the sides, the more you’ll hit the lateral (side) portion. You want to target this side area as one way to provide your deltoids some sound balance.

Preliminary Phase:

Test your ability to keep your elbows out to the side (called the frontal plane—think of the way your arms and legs travel in jumping jacks) of your body without any weights initially. Pretend you’re in the set position to lift weights (or any object) overhead. Your upper arms (humerus) should be roughly parallel with the ground (again, elbows out), palms facing forward. Now raise your arms as if you’re lifting said object overhead.

As you’re raising and then finishing lifting the arms as high as you comfortably can, are your elbows still mainly pointed to the side (frontal plane), or have they moved markedly forward to some degree?

My own elbows, at this juncture, tend to move a bit forward, not totally in the frontal plane anymore without extra warm up and careful stretching. To that end, I’m working on flexibility (another subject and article for the near future!). The more sideways from your body that you can safely maintain your elbows, the more you’ll be able to develop the side of your shoulders and, as a result, the less emphasis you’ll place on the front area, which as noted gets plenty of work automatically from other activities.

the lateral/medial part of the shoulder often needs extra attention

the lateral/medial part of the shoulder often needs extra attention

When you have these flexibility issues, it not only limits the level of overall deltoid development due to limited range of motion, but it also forces you to bend your torso back more than normal to keep the weight from moving too far forward. This can cause lower back discomfort.

Let’s assume you’re able to keep your elbows mainly out to the side as you raise your arms. You’re then ready to start your presses as part of your home workout.

Seating Considerations:

First, determine what you want to use for seating (we’ll assume seated presses for now, rather than standing). If you have a bench with a back support (or can raise the back of your bench up to at or near perpendicular), then great. You won’t be using your stabilizer (core) muscles like you would if you had no back support, but for some it’s safer to have it, and you can also focus more on hitting the deltoids hard.

If you don’t have a bench or chair with a solid back support and need something for your back, you may want to try sitting on the floor (legs crossed Indian-style) and against a wall. For lower back comfort and support, place a cushion of some kind between you and the wall. (*if needing to do presses from the floor, you may be  safer doing them one arm at a time, allowing for using your non-working arm to help hoist the weight into position)

Another option is to sit on an exercise ball or simply to find any firm seating (even if it doesn’t have a back support) that you can use to do your seated shoulder presses. Without a back support, you will need to really focus on engaging your core muscles, keeping them tight in order to ensure back safety.

client using exercise ball in this instance, with spotting behind him for safety

client using exercise ball in this instance, with spotting behind him for safety

Now that you have your platform for performing your shoulder presses, the question is how much weight do you want to use? A lot of folks use too much weight, which leads to either sloppy form to get the dumbbell up (and can aggravate shoulders and other areas). Others may decrease the distance their arms travel, ie shortening their range of motion. This also hurts your shoulder development. It’s far better to use a lighter weight, concentrate continually, and execute the movement fully and feel the deltoid muscles through the whole set.

Getting set for the movement:

There are multiple ways to get the weights you’ve now chosen into the set position (weights held up near neck level, perhaps touching shoulders lightly, prior to pushing them up toward the ceiling). If the weight you’re using is fairly light (it should be, especially if you’re not highly experienced and already using excellent form), then you can probably just hoist the weights from the floor into starting position as you sit back.

If you are on an exercise ball, though, you will need to ensure it’s “stable,” or you can fall off of it. So if using this to sit on for presses, it’s best to already have the weights in hand as you sit on the ball.

If said weights are on the heavier side, you can bring them to your knees first and then raise the knees up while also pulling upward with your arms simultaneously to hoist the weights into the starting position.

As to your starting position: many advocate starting with your upper arms parallel to the ground. I disagree, as this will give you a good tricep workout with some shoulder involvement, but you’ll be cheating yourself of some gains for those deltoids. Instead, start with your upper arm lowered to where the dumbbells are touching, but not resting on, your shoulders. This extra movement will give you significant additional deltoid growth.

though standing in this version, this is about as far down as you want to go with the weight

whether seated or standing for the shoulder press, this is about as far down as you want to go with the weight

Ensure your feet are firmly planted on the ground, both helping to provide you stability and also some extra power for lifting.

One last thing about the starting position: keep your shoulders back and down. This will help ensure you’re keeping your elbows out to the side, which again will help maximize lateral (side) shoulder development.

Executing the Lift:

Now, press the weights up, attempting to maintain a smooth trajectory upward. You may see that your arms start coming together naturally as you press the weights toward the ceiling. That’s totally acceptable, provided you avoid clanking the dumbbells together at the top, as you’ll lose tension on the shoulders if you do.

Press the weight up only as high as your arms naturally travel. If you feel (or see, if you have a mirror) yourself shrugging your trap muscles (those back muscles leading to the neck) and allowing your whole shoulder girdle to raise, then you’re going too far up. Just go until your arms no longer naturally can move up further.

Avoid locking out entirely, as you lose some of the tension in your shoulders as well as possibly aggravate your elbows, especially if you “pop” them up into the finished position. It’s better for you to stop just shy of that point to avoid those problems.

dumbbells can drift toward each other as long as avoid clanking them together

dumbbells can drift toward each other as long as avoid clanking them together

As you come back down, maintain control of the weights, actually resisting gravity with your shoulders. This should greatly enhance what you get out of the exercise. Sure, you’ll do less repetitions and/or weight, but what’s important is maximizing the stimulation your shoulders get. By also maintaining good form and a controlled pace, you’ll be protecting them as well.

To summarize:

*Determine your flexibility for doing the shoulder press and whether you need to focus more first on careful stretching before taking up the weights.

*Find an ideal place to perform your dumbbell shoulder presses

*Hoist the weights into position for pressing

*Press the weights overhead without going into a shrug

*Lower the weights back to your starting position under control by keeping your shoulders engaged fully

*After your set, place the weights back on the floor

As always, for home workouts we emphasize dumbbells over the barbell, partly for convenience of space, but also because, as legendary bodybuilder Dave Draper (“Blonde Bomber”) aptly states, “Dumbbells are much safer than restricted bar pressing ’cause they may be altered in motion to accommodate rotation cuff’s particular mechanical requirements. This is done by “feel” and focus to avoid abuse and to work around an injured or weaker area.”

Definitely! To sum what he says, focus first on safety and secondly on proper feel, always being aware of what you’re doing to help ensure your healthiest and maximal deltoid development.


Treasure Chest: Creating Safe But Effective Movements For Your Chest Muscles

One of the most emphasized (sometimes overly so) muscle groups is the chest. In fact, Monday is often referred to as “National Bench Press Day,” since so many would-be bodybuilders and powerlifters robotically run to the gym the first day of the new work week to hit the benches.

They lie on a bench, grunt and groan to lift the barbell off of the rack, descend and hoist, descend and hoist, again and again and again. They’re dead serious about what they do, but their results don’t often show it. Instead, you might as well have this:

No clowning around with this exercise

No clowning around with this exercise

Despite such dedication by so many, few actually develop their chests to any satisfactory level, and some that do pay a heavy long-term price with shoulder issues and more as part of their badge for bench press bravery.

Neither of these discouraging outcomes needs to be realized. You just need to know how to make the most of your chest exercises, and do so in a safe manner in the process. You can do these as part of a home workout and avoid the crowded scenes at the public workout places.

Bench press-free home exercises that develop your chest musculature include push offs (using a counter top, for instance), push ups, dumbbell chest presses on an exercise ball or bench, and standing push presses with bands.

Lending "helping hands" of extra resistance to client's pushups

Lending “helping hands” of extra resistance to client’s pushups. Note his excellent form, keeping whole body rigid, not resting on the floor at the bottom of the movement

Regardless of your exercise of choice for the chest, a couple of basic instructions can both greatly increase chest activation and safety in your efforts.

Preliminary: The Focus

As we mentioned earlier, many folks attempt to work the chest but see very discouraging results. That’s often because the individual is overly focused on the end goal of moving the weight or resistance from point A to point B. With that tunnel vision, he/she is missing the key element, which is engaging the muscles in question, instead often throwing other bodyparts too much into the process.

The end goal of finishing the lift/rep should not be the main focus. That merely is the aftermath of what you’re doing through the movement.

a main purpose of chest (pec) muscles is to pull the arm across the body

a main purpose of chest (pec) muscles is to pull the arm across the body

You need to first focus on engaging the chest, and the best and easiest way to do this is to practice that sensation without any weight at all. While standing, raise your arms in a position as if you’re about to begin a pushup or bench press rep (elbows back, forearms facing forward, upper arms raised about 45 degrees from your torso, hands slightly ahead of your chest).

As you do so, pull back your shoulders and stick out your chest, as if you’re “bowing up to someone” like you’re going to intimidate them with your physical presence. If you experiment just a bit with it, you can feel when your chest muscles are activated. It may help also to think about pulling your arms back enough to stretch your outer chest area a little.

At this point, practice on slowly moving your arms forward while keeping those chest muscles activated. After a short while, you will likely be able to maintain that mind-muscle connection through a full range of movement while increasing your speed.

Lifting Details:

Accomplishing this and then applying it to the actual exercise provides two huge advantages: actually working the chest effectively and helping to protect the shoulders through keeping them somewhat back and down during your movement. When you allow them to round forward, that can, especially over time, cause shoulder issues. Shoulder injuries are among the most commonly cited among lifters, often due to abuse.

Regarding this emphasis on feeling the chest muscles engaged through the movement, a contrast may help provide why it’s important:

When many people do various chest pressing exercises or pushups, they think about pushing the weight or moving the arms out and away. This can be effective in finishing the repetition, but it often causes your shoulders and traps (upper back muscles near the neck) to become overly involved. The chest muscles only contract marginally in such a case.

exercise bands can offer a great way to ensure your chest is contracted thru the whole movement

exercise bands can offer a great way to ensure your chest is contracted thru the whole movement

By keeping the focus on the feel, a la the chest contraction, rather than the end result of completing the rep, you’re going to get a lot more muscular activity in the chest area, and you’ll avoid overworking the shoulders and traps.

One more detail to cite in this article regards the location of your hands to start the repetition (ie. where you begin before moving your arms forward). Regarding how close in or far out to hold the weights (or positioning hands when doing pushups or chest presses with bands); that’s somewhat personal preference, though it’s not recommended to be too far out away from your torso, as it can strain your shoulders too much. However, too far in becomes more of an inner chest and tricep exercise, less of a full chest one.

Generally, you want to have your hands positioned a little wider than shoulder width. *Tip: keeping your upper arm separated roughly 60 degrees from the side of your body will help determine hand placement (to an extent, this will be individualized based on your own structure).

Pic on right, note the angle of the upper arm from the body. Not entirely perpendicular to it. Helps increase chest involvement

Pic on right, note the angle of the upper arm from the body. Not entirely perpendicular to it. Helps increase chest involvement

You also don’t want to hunch your traps (muscles that blend to the neck) upward in order to be at a certain hand position (i.e. moving hands upward). That puts you back in a pattern of excessive use of your traps and shoulders, as cited earlier with many folks.

Speed Matters:

Finally, the speed of reps; the general rule is to go up controlled yet explosively and down controlled and deliberately. The deliberate, slower speed on the eccentric (down, withdrawal) portion will help you avoid bouncing out of the bottom or stretched position, which helps keep you injury-free. As a bonus, many studies have shown that a controlled descent creates greater muscle growth!

As always, inhale as you come down, exhale as you push up.

This may seem like a good bit to follow, but mainly just making that mind-muscle connection will provide you with a great home workout while giving you safety to boot.