Shoulder health often dominates a program or is completely neglected. But if shoulder health is considered during developmental ages, it can save athletes in the long run. When done correctly, rotator cuff exercises won’t dominate your workout, but supplement it as needed. Here are three general rules to help ensure athletes’ shoulders are healthy from the beginning and not negatively impacted through strength training.

Plan More Pulls than Pushes in Each Workout

With this day and age, we all spend too much time looking at our computer and phone with a hunched back, and not near enough time with good posture and our scapulae set correctly along our rib cage. Also, with so much of sport involving internal rotation and a caved chest, it is important to counteract this with a higher pull to push ratio. Typically we do a 2:1 ratio, but with overhead athletes and females, sometimes 3:1 is more appropriate.

This ratio can be achieved through number of exercises or through volume (doing 2x as many sets or reps). It is also said there should be more horizontal pulling than vertical, because it opens our chest better and puts are scapulae in a better position more easily. Additionally, consider doing something single arm every workout. Rarely do we use both arms in synchronicity during sport, so it is important for both arms to be strong and stable independently from the other.

The Scapulae Should Control the Movements and Move Freely Along the Rib cage

This refers to pulls and pushes. During pulls, the scapula leads the movement, and the arm only follows that lead. The elbow should not go past the body. If it does, there is extra pull with the arm and an anterior dump of the head of the humerus. This can cause irritation to the anterior part of the shoulder and athletes already get enough of that.

When doing vertical pulls, it is imperative the athletes don’t dump their shoulders forward, especially at the bottom of the pull, for the same reason. Often our athletes, especially overhead athletes, do push-ups and landmine presses instead of bench presses and military presses. The serratus anterior muscle is vital in creating upward rotation of the scapula during overhead motion.

During bench presses, the scapulae are locked down in position in order to have a sturdy base. This is important in power lifting, but not beneficial for athletes that already have a lot of stress on their shoulder. It is important their shoulder is controlled and moves well through the entire range of motion. Push-ups and landmine presses require more serratus anterior activation, and allow the scapula to move through and control the movement of the exercise. These exercises should finish all the way through the top, so the scapulae stretch all the way around the ribcage.

Stabilize Overhead First

I often start with Z carries and waiter walks, ensuring the athlete’s ribs are down and hips are tucked under. If they cannot get overhead with their ribs down, they should not be lifting overhead. Kettlebell-bottoms-up-carries are excellent as they require more stabilization throughout the exercise. As these get easier, more traditional overhead pressing can be integrated. I usually start with a ½ kneeling single arm overhead press, and lean towards landmine presses more than traditional presses. If athletes have strong control and stabilization overhead, other more dynamic movements can be progressed to. Turkish get ups and windmills are other examples of overhead stabilization exercises that move through other planes of motion.

Shoulders can be a bit more complicated than other joints of the body. They should not be considered delicate, and coaches should not shy away from them. Shoulders need to be strong, but they need to functional and strong through the entire range of motion. It is important to do more pulls, allow the scapulae to move freely, and stabilize through all different planes. If this is done, you have a better chance of creating a shoulder that is protected and ready to compete during sport.