https://bonginoreport.com/health-fitness/six-pulling-exercises-to-develop-healthy-shoulders

Make Your Shoulders Bulletproof

Achy shoulders are common for anyone who lifts a lot of weight. Fix them up and keep the strength gains coming with these pulling exercises.


Fix Your Shoulders With Pulling Exercises

Whether your goal is to build a jacked upper body or crush a bench PR, you have to push some serious weight to accomplish it. And if you’ve been training hard for years, your shoulders are probably feeling those heavy workouts. When all that pressing starts to break your shoulders down, you could stop lifting and head to the aquarobics class, or you could just get smarter about training.

If you’re lucky enough to have avoided shoulder problems – and you plan to keep training hard – then start doing preventive exercises before you’re beaten up in the first place!

What kind of exercises?

1. Reclined, Seated Alternating Lat Pulldown

This pulldown variation feels similar to some standard horizontal rowing exercises. Reclining back reduces the need for shoulder flexion.

  • Recline back to a point where your shoulders are comfortable.
  • Reach long while keeping your chest out, then inhale.
  • Exhale and pull down to one side; repeat on the opposite side.

2. Short-Seated Lat Pulldown

This helps restore T-spine and ribcage position while improving shoulder function.

  • Sit on a box at a comfortable depth; you don’t need to be excessively low.
  • Reach long without shrugging.
  • Get long/tall through the spine and inhale.
  • Exhale and pull down to one side. Repeat the sequence on the opposite side.

3. Squatting Lat Pulldown

The seated lat pulldown is great, but if you want to improve shoulder function while improving squat depth and position, give this one a shot!

  • Sit down to a comfortable squat depth – you don’t need to be excessively low, but some prefer a deep squat to restore hip motion.
  • Reach long without shrugging.
  • Get long/tall through the spine and inhale.
  • Exhale and pull down to one side. Repeat on the opposite side.

The hardest part is staying camped out in what amounts to an iso-squat for an extended period, so consider halving the reps you normally do.

4. Cobra Lat Pulldown

This one not only has a kick-ass name, but more importantly, if you’re a meathead, it just feels great.

Reach long. Use the weight to lengthen the pulling arm while actively trying to push the floor away with the “down” arm.

  • Inhale and feel the expansion across your chest and back.
  • Exhale and pull down.

5. Half-Kneeling Lat Pulldown

The half-kneeling pulldown improves shoulder and hip mobility.

  • Reach long with the pulling arm while gently pushing the down-knee through the pad.
  • Inhale and feel the stretch across the shoulders and in the front of the “down” hip.
  • Exhale and pull down.

6. Split-Stance Low Cable Row

If you want a more traditional row, this should fit the bill. You’ll use a split-stance so there’s some balance involved. The rotation you can create through the trunk and thorax feels awesome.

  • Set up in a split-stance position, feeling the entire front foot and using that heel to keep the weight back.
  • Reach long with the pulling arm while keeping the chest up/out and inhale.
  • Exhale and pull back.

Wait. Why Do These?

If you had asked me 10-15 years ago, my answer would’ve been simple:

“To create muscular balance and restore range of motion across the shoulders.”

But that changed when I spent a weekend with the guys at EliteFTS. I got to evaluate some of the strongest bench-pressers in the world. And while you wouldn’t expect their range of motion to be great, I was absolutely shocked at how bad it really was.

Just so you know, “normal” range of motion at the shoulder is 180 degrees: 90-degrees internal rotation and 90-degrees external rotation. So as I’m evaluating these bros, here’s what I find:

  • The first athlete has 90-degrees of shoulder rotation (10 degrees IR, 80 degrees ER)
  • The second athlete has 30-degrees of shoulder rotation (0 degrees IR, 30 degrees ER)
  • And finally, the third athlete has 0-degrees (yes, zero) of shoulder rotation!

Second, pain wasn’t the exception – it was the rule. Quite simply, it wasn’t IF they had pain, but how much.

Now, if you asked these guys about their programs, they were all pushing big weights on the bench, just like you’d expect. But they were also adamant about balancing their presses and their pulls. This is a common piece of advice you hear from coaches: Pull as much as (or more) than you push.

In many cases, it wasn’t just balanced; they’d actually skewed their programs so they were doing twice, or even three times, as many pulls as presses! But their shoulders were still messed up. What gives? If these guys were working to balance the front and back sides of their bodies, how come their range of motion was so bad across the board?

They were using pulling exercises that created more compression front-to-back instead of expansion and rotation in the shoulder. Now I realize that’s a big statement, so let’s discuss when you should choose bilateral/symmetrical exercises and when you might choose offset or asymmetrical ones.

Bilateral vs. Unilateral Exercises

If your goal is to maximize force production (think getting bigger or stronger), you want to check these boxes:

  • Simplify the exercise.
  • Minimize freedom of movement.
  • Lift heavy loads.

On the extreme end of this, think about a chest press machine: your legs and torso are supported, the movement is locked into a specific arc, and you can use (approximately) a shit-ton of weight.

But doing this is a double-edged sword. Sure, you can build big, showy muscles or superhuman strength, but over time you’re going to progressively lose range of motion.

Now let’s consider the opposite end of the spectrum – one where we might want to restore range of motion and help ourselves feel better. To do this, we’d probably:

  • Train each side of the body independently.
  • Decrease load to some degree.
  • Work through a wider range of motion.

This is why the pulling lifts I showed you in the video above focus on working unilaterally and with offset stances/postures. This allows your body the freedom to rotate and turn, versus simply squishing us front-to-back like we’re a human bench shirt.

Now before I go on, please don’t run off and say, “Mike Robertson told me never to do heavy bilateral movements again.”

No, just find a balance. If your goal is to get big and strong, choose activities that allow you to do that. And if your shoulders are beaten up and you want to move and feel better, choose activities that allow you to do that.

Cool? Now let’s move on.

Four Technique and Performance Tips

You can follow these tips on virtually any pulling exercise, but when used with the exercises I showed you, they’ll really supercharge your progress.

Tip 1: Use Goldilocks Load

This may sound counterintuitive, especially because I just said that too much load is compressive and reduces range of motion. Think of it like this: If you bench press 1,000 pounds and want to use a band to traction your shoulders, would you use the thinnest band imaginable? Absolutely not – you’d get zero benefit.

The same thing applies here. If you want to open up and expand the areas around your shoulders, you need to use load to create that space. I refer to this as the “Goldilocks” weight because you need to find the sweet spot: Too little, and you won’t get the desired expansion/decompression. Too much, and you’ll end up squeezing/compressing to compensate, making things worse.

Tip 2: Reach Long

This is a difficult thought process for many, especially those that subscribe to the “scaps back and down” mantra for everything in the gym.

Remember, the goal is to create space and restore motion, NOT build your bench press max. By reaching long, you allow the muscles around the shoulder blades to eccentrically orient and shut off, which helps restore range of motion.

Tip 3: Inhale

Inhalation is the secret sauce, especially when you consider that almost everything we do for strength and muscular development also emphasizes an exhalation/Valsalva strategy.

Instead, we should combine all three of these cues to make the magic happen:

  • Use enough weight to offset our natural tendency to pull down/stay tight.
  • Reach long to allow those muscles to relax and shut off.
  • Then inhale to expand that area and create space.

Once you’ve done this, then we get to the only real performance tip…

Tip 4: Turn (Versus Squeezing)

I may not be the strength athlete I once was, but I haven’t forgotten the “rules” of scap motion.

When you row, you squeeze the shoulder blades back. When you chin/pull-up, you squeeze the shoulder blades down. But what happens when all that well-intentioned rowing and chinning leaves you with scaps that never move?

Again, remember the goal: If you want to get big and strong, by all means squeeze back and down until the cows come home. But if you want to restore motion and feel better, use a more integrated approach.

Instead of squeezing back or down, think about turning instead. Take a row, for example: Instead of just pinning that shoulder blade back, allow for a little bit more controlled motion throughout the scap and trunk.

When you’re reaching long, allow the thorax to turn as well. When you’re pulling, think about turning the thorax and scapula together.

I like to think of it as “athletic” pulling versus bodybuilding-style pulling. And once you start doing it, you’ll see (and feel) a difference.

Mikes stuff is always a good reminder to think about the whole picture when we think of training.

Great to see you still writing Mike. Takes me back to our Ball State days. Thanks for keeping us old guys healthy!

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