Programming a Shoulder Workout – from Gym Cloud

Shoulder Series Part 4: Programming Considerations for the Shoulder

This article was taken from GymCloud, written by Jordan Smuts – you can get the full article here. He brings up a lot of really great points that are especially valuable for musicians, as this is an overused area for playing and should be especially addressed in training.

Shoulder Series Part 4: Programming Considerations for the Shoulder

Posted on: Most Popular, Fit-ProJordan Smuts

To this point, we have discussed the anatomy and mechanics of the shoulder, how you would go about assessing your shoulder function, and some ideas and concepts to apply to a warm-up or movement prep before your workout. The only question that remains is, to steal the words from Dan John, “now what?”. What are some guiding principles that you can apply to your programming to both manage shoulder injuries and do your best to prevent injury to the shoulders? While nothing can beat an individualized program developed based on your assessment, the hope for this article is to take some generalities and concepts that could go a long way in helping a good majority of you. There are a few observations that I have found throughout the years as a coach that have been successful in helping my clients achieve better shoulder function and reduce their predisposition for injury.

These considerations are as follows:

  • When programming, establish a 2:1 or even 3:1 pulling to pushing ratio
  • Perform twice as many horizontal pulling movements to vertical pulling movements
  • Allow the scapula to move throughout its range-of-motion during all exercises

As you can see, this isn’t meant to be a do this/don’t do that list of exercises for shoulder health. Likewise, this article is not meant to be constructed into a program. Simply put, these are some of the most prominent concepts that are at the forefront of my mind when I am putting together a program for my clients in regards to shoulder health.

2:1 Pulling to Pushing Ratio

To start, providing some clarity on what is considered a pulling exercise or pushing exercise is important. This table will shed some light into what the differences are:

Pulling ExercisesPushing Exercises
Major muscle groups involved are the back (upper back and lats), posterior shoulder, and upper arm flexorsMajor muscle groups involved are the chest, anterior shoulder, and upper arm extensors
Common exercises include pull-ups, pull-downs, and all row variationsCommon exercises include bench press, push-ups, and overhead presses
Musculature involved is primarily phasic (prone to weakness)Musculature involved is primarily tonic (prone to tightness)

In looking at this table, it is important to note the implications of the differences between pushing and pulling exercises. Most importantly, the back musculature, primarily the rhomboids and mid/lower traps, is prone to weakness while the chest musculature is prone to tightness. When you combine that with some commonalities of the normal gym-goer, things can start to make sense.

A lot of us spend hours at a desk hunched over the computer only to continue to slouch and let your shoulders roll forward while you drive your car or sit on the couch and relax at the end of the day. We spend the majority of our time in a position that shortens our pressing muscles and creates tension in the upper back by putting those pulling muscles on a constant stretch. To put it simply, through our everyday activities we tighten muscles that are already predisposed to being tight and we turn off muscles that are already predisposed to being weak. So, what we do in the gym becomes super important as it can either further attenuate this problem or work to help “undo” some of these issues.

We all know the stereotypical meathead that comes into the gym and heads straight to the bench press, then goes to the dumbbells to rep out some overhead presses, followed by some cable crossovers, and then takes two tickets to the gun show to stretch out the sleeves. What you are left with is a how-to guide to look like the dude in the middle of the ape-to-man evolutionary progression.

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In hopes to avoid turning into that douchey-looking guy dragging his knuckles on the ground going from dumbbell to dumbbell, we can incorporate a lot more volume to pulling exercises to open up our shoulders and improve our shoulder function.

My guideline for programming upper body exercises is a 2:1 ratio of pulling to pushing for people with no history of shoulder or neck injury and a 3:1 ratio for people with a history of shoulder or neck injury. If you do 4 sets of bench press, do 8-12 sets of pulling movements. If you are thinking, “wow, that seems like a lot of pulling” you would be 100% correct. I don’t care if you organize your training into a full-body split, an upper/lower split, or even a push-pull split, you have to spend the time to strengthen your back. I like to look at it from a weekly perspective. If I have 20 sets of pushing exercises spaced throughout the week, I am wanting to get at least 40 sets of pulling exercises in that week. While that seems like a lot, a recommendation that I give a lot of my clients is to pair your bench pressing or overhead pressing with some band pull-aparts or face pulls. Not only is this a cheap and easy way to get more volume in for your back, it can help to keep you tighter during your pressing movements which can help you brag when someone asks you how much you bench.

Horizontal Vs. Vertical Pulling

While I count both vertical and horizontal pulling movements when looking at the ratio previously mentioned, I like to take it a step further. Of all the pulling movements that I program, I like to have twice as many of those be in the horizontal plane as opposed to the vertical plane. What’s the difference between a vertical pull and a horizontal pull?

Horizontal Pulling ExercisesVertical Pulling Exercises
Row VariationsPull-Ups
Band Pull-ApartsLat Pull-Downs
Face Pulls

Horizontal pulling movements should bias more of the scapular muscles such as the rhomboids and mid/lower traps, while the vertical pulling movements will bias more of the latissimus dorsi. Here’s my case for why this is important in looking at shoulder function.

While the lats are pulling muscles and exist on the back, they are unique muscles and affect the shoulder in a similar fashion as the chest. The lats insert on the bicipital groove of the humerus, or simply put, the front of your upper arm. This causes the lats to be an internal rotator of the shoulder (sharing in function with the chest musculature).

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*Photo credit to

When looking at shoulder health, we are looking to try and increase the amount of space that is available in the subacromial space. The subacromial space is the space between the acromion of the scapula and the head of the humerus. The rotator cuff tendons, the long head of the biceps tendon, a bursa, and some neurovascular structures all pass through this space. Sufficient space needs to exist in order for you to have access to full shoulder range-of-motion and function. Not having enough space can lead to impingement and various soft tissue injuries to the rotator cuff or biceps tendons. Overdoing the workload for the lats could potentially lead to stiffness, which could pull your shoulder into a more internal rotation and therefore decrease the amount of subacromial space available.

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I am not telling you to avoid pull-ups as it is a staple movement in my programming. I am simply saying that combining a lot of pressing with pull-ups could have a compounding effect on the positioning of your shoulders. Moral of the story – DO MORE ROWS.

Allow the Scapula to Move

This is more of an observation and critique of the way many people are coached to do rows, pull-ups, and a lot of other back exercises. I am constantly hearing the cues of “lock your shoulder blades down” to “keep the tension in your lats”. Let’s take a look at this: You have 17 muscles that insert on the scapula, the lats not being one of those. If you “lock your shoulder blades down” you are ensuring that none of the muscles are doing anything. If your serratus anterior works to protract your shoulder blade and your rhomboids work to retract your shoulder blade, by not letting your shoulder blade move you are effectively doing nothing for those muscles. Since the lats don’t insert on the scapula, you are left with the lats becoming overactive and developing great amounts of tension until they are wound up tighter than guitar strings and lead to terrible shoulder mechanics.

Allow the shoulder blades to drift forward and get a stretch at the end of the eccentric portion of a row or pull-up. Pull through your elbows and drive your shoulder blades down and back through the concentric portion. Squeeze and hold that end range of the movement and control it. This will help to ensure that optimal biomechanics of your scapulothoracic joint and will not force your glenohumeral joint to do extra work. This can result in increased range-of-motion, increased shoulder function, and even some more definition in the musculature of your upper back.

In conclusion, be aware of the ratio between your pushing and pulling exercises and even the ratio of your horizontal and vertical pulling movements. Allow your shoulder blades to move throughout all exercises and watch the benefits from both a health and performance aspect.

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