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The Most Overlooked Muscles in Your Upper-Body Workouts

by
author image James Cerbie
James Cerbie is certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Precision Nutrition, USA Weightlifting and CrossFit. He's worked with athletes from middle school to professional level, is the owner of Rebel Performance and specializes in helping people be more than fit.
The Most Overlooked Muscles in Your Upper-Body Workouts
Sculpting sexy shoulders has tons of real-life benefits besides making you look good. Photo Credit Adobe Stock/GaudiLab

In Greek mythology, Atlas was responsible for bearing the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. And while you aren’t tasked with such a demanding feat of strength, you should still concern yourself with having strong, healthy and functional shoulders.

Think about it: Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to press yourself up off the ground? To be able to pull yourself up on a ledge? Carry things and be confident in your ability to handle yourself? While these may seem like simple tasks, they go a long way in providing you with the freedom, confidence and ability to live your life — especially as you get older. To not have to depend on others for simple tasks and to give yourself the potential to enjoy a wide range of activities are both essential parts of a happy life.

There are obviously more foundational and scientific reasons behind why your shoulders need to be strong (keep reading for those), but think back on the last several weeks and ask yourself: “Was there a time when I felt incapable because my arms and shoulders weren’t strong enough to do X?” That’s often more important than any of the science.

Relying on Stress and Adaptation

How do you think we, as humans, adapt? In other words, how do you think we improve? How do we get stronger, smarter, faster etc., etc.? Stress. Stress is the only way we as humans can adapt.

Here’s how it works: First, you encounter a stressor of some kind. For example, let’s say you’re doing push-ups. The brain recognizes this struggle to do push-ups and says: “This activity is presenting a real challenge and may hinder my chances of survival if I encounter it again. I better adapt to this stressor so that it doesn’t have as large of an impact on me the next time I encounter it.” And thus adaptation occurs. You get stronger from an attempt to limit the overall physiological impact that movement has on your system (which increases your chances of survival).

What in the world does this have to do with you and your shoulders, though? For starters, it’s important to recognize that things don’t stay the same. You are either getting stronger or weaker. There’s no staying the same. And this can be applied to your shoulders.

But shoulders often don't get the attention they deserve.
But shoulders often don't get the attention they deserve. Photo Credit Ozimician/iStock/Getty Images

The Effects of Inactivity

For some reason, shoulders don’t get the attention they deserve in the weight room. While this isn’t a big deal over the course of a few days or even a few weeks, it has a lasting impact over several months:

  • Muscle atrophy (weakness due to decrease in muscle size)
  • Decreased neuromuscular control and strength (weakness and lack of coordination as the brain no longer recruits and communicates as efficiently with the muscles)
  • A decline in capillaries and mitochondria (poor energy production and stamina)
  • Bone weakness (if bone isn’t stressed, it gets weaker)
  • Increased risk of injury due to all the above factors (if you have weaker muscles, poorer coordination, less stamina and weaker bones, you’re asking for an injury)
You can build your shoulders from ALL angles with 6 types of moves.
You can build your shoulders from ALL angles with 6 types of moves. Photo Credit SanyaSM/iStock/Getty Images

Building Strong Shoulders

When it comes to building strong, functional shoulders, focus on six major categories of movement that’ll allow you to really build the shoulder from all angles:

1. Crawling Variations

Perhaps the most overlooked of exercise categories, the crawl does wonders for building strong and healthy shoulders by requiring you to coordinate motion across multiple joints in space. For example, in order to properly perform a bear crawl, you need to be able to use your abs in conjunction with muscles like your serratus anterior and rotator cuff.

Here are a few options to get you started:

  1. Reverse Baby Crawl
  2. Bear Crawl
  3. Reverse Bear Crawl

2. Horizontal Pressing/Reaching

These are similar to the crawling variations, but differ in your ability to really add some strength by using more weight.

  1. One-Arm Dumbbell Floor Press
  2. One-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
  3. Push-Up

3. Horizontal Pulling

While we enjoy giving the show muscles on the front of the body plenty of attention (pecs and deltoids, specifically), it’s equally important to show our back muscles some love. This will create both a strong and balanced shoulder complex. Here are some exercises that do just that:

  1. One-Arm Dumbbell Row
  2. Chest-Supported Alternating Dumbbell Row
  3. One-Arm Standing Cable Row

4. Vertical Pressing/Reaching

Once you get comfortable with horizontal movements, begin venturing overhead so you can build the complete shoulder. Think of it this way: Your shoulder can move in nearly all directions, and you want to train it to be as proficient as possible throughout those degrees of freedom.

But because the overhead motion is such a different ballgame than horizontal motion, you should consider getting a quality assessment before venturing overhead. The last thing you want is a nasty shoulder impingement from overhead pressing. If you have beautifully functioning shoulders with no issues going overhead, incorporate these exercises into your workout:

  1. Yoga Push-Up
  2. Half-Kneeling One-Arm Kettlebell Press
  3. Dumbbell Overhead Press

5. Vertical Pulling

Like the horizontal section addressed, you want to make sure you’re giving your shoulder adequate balance. Not only that, being able to pull up your body weight is a great sign of upper-body strength that you can carry with you into other activities.

  1. Half-Kneeling One-Arm Lat Pulldown
  2. Pull-Up Rope Climb

6. Carry Variations

Carrying things is a great way to build strength and stamina because of the amount of time you will spend under tension. Not only that, it’s a great way to add variety to your training program.

  1. Farmers Carry
  2. One-Arm Front-Rack Kettlebell Carry
  3. One-Arm Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Waiters Carry
  4. Kettlebell Crosswalk

Putting a Plan Together

While shoulders may seem tricky, complicated or intimidating at first, you certainly have the power to build yourself a pair of strong and healthy shoulders with the above plan. Just pick one exercise from the crawl category, horizontal press category and horizontal pull category to cover one day, and then pick one exercise from each of the remaining categories to cover another day.

What Do YOU Think?

How often do you work your shoulders? What are some of your favorite exercises for your shoulders? Were any of them in the list above or would you add them? Have you ever injured your shoulder and needed physical therapy? How did you rebuild strength in that area? What reasons do you have for keeping your shoulders strong and functional? Share your thoughts, questions and suggestions in the comments section below!

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