Bulletproof Your Shoulders with 3 Exercises

Tony Bonvechio
by Tony Bonvechio
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Bulletproof Your Shoulders with 3 Exercises

Do your shoulders hurt when you reach for the top cupboard in your kitchen? Or when you’re trying to scratch that itch behind your back? Shoulder pain can affect your performance in the gym as well as daily activities.

It takes more than a few rotator cuff exercises to build bulletproof shoulders. Follow this three-step guide to improve your mobility and strengthen the right muscle groups for optimal shoulder health.


The shoulder is a delicate joint. It has more range of motion than any other joint in the body, which means it’s often unstable. Before you go stretching your shoulders aimlessly, try mobility drills first. These are active stretches that teach you to control your range of motion instead of simply stretching to try to achieve more flexibility.

These exercises focus on the three areas responsible for moving your shoulders: the spine, scapulae (shoulder blades) and humerus (upper arm bones).


This move mobilizes the spine into both flexion and extension. If your spine can’t move, your shoulders won’t move well, either.

Coaching Cues:

  • Squeeze your glutes and flex your abs to make sure the majority of your motion is coming from your upper back instead of your lower back.
  • Inhale before you begin the motion, then exhale fully as you move your spine in each direction.


This exercise rotates your spine to assist with shoulder blade motion.  

Coaching Cues

  • Sit your butt to your heels to make sure only your upper back is rotating. Your lower back doesn’t like to twist.
  • Follow your elbow with your eyes to help get more range of motion.


These movements encourage the scapula to rotate upward to improve overhead motion.

Coaching Cues:

  • Imagine reaching your armpits for the ceiling instead of shrugging your shoulders.
  • Lean your torso toward the wall slightly as you reach.


Several muscles work together to stabilize the shoulder, particularly the four muscles of the rotator cuff. Use these drills to wake up these muscles before performing upper-body exercises like pushups, pullups and bench presses.


This exercise activates the muscles that retract the shoulder blades, which is the position you want when you bench press with dumbbells or a barbell.

Coaching Cues:

  • Imagine pinching a pencil between your shoulder blades at the end of each rep.
  • Don’t arch your back or poke your head forward; let the band come to you instead of bringing yourself to the band.


This carry fires up the rotator cuff muscles to stabilize the humerus.

Coaching Cues:

  • Keep your arm bent at 90 degrees to prevent unwanted muscles (like the biceps or lats) from taking over the movement.
  • Squeeze the kettlebell firmly to activate the rotator cuff muscles.


Bear crawls sync the shoulders with the hips to build shoulder stabilization and core strength.

Coaching Cues:

  • Take long steps with your hands and short steps with your feet. This will keep you from getting your arms and legs tangled.
  • Go slow and take firm, deliberate steps, and exhale fully on each rep.


Most common shoulder exercises like overhead press and dumbbell raises don’t do much to improve shoulder range of motion. The following exercises will get your shoulders strong and mobile for the best of both worlds.


This exercise strengthens the shoulders while taking the scapulae through their full range of motion.

Coaching Cues:

  • Pull your shoulder blades together as you lower yourself down, and push them all the way apart at the top of each rep.
  • Instead of pushing your head through your arms, imagine pushing your hands through the floor.


This particular row strengthens the muscles that retract your scapula for better posture and shoulder stability.

Coaching Cues:

  • Imagine moving more through your scapula instead of your elbow. You should feel this exercise in the back of your shoulder and armpit, not the front of your shoulder.
  • Don’t let your elbow pass the backside of your body at the top of each rep. Stop your elbow once it’s even with your hip socket.


The band helps to strengthen the rotator cuff for overall shoulder strength and mobility.

Coaching Cues:

  • Use a light band to start. If it’s too heavy, you won’t be able to work the muscles through their full range of motion.
  • Only your hand should move, not your elbow or shoulder.

About the Author

Tony Bonvechio
Tony Bonvechio

Tony Bonvechio (@bonvecstrength) is a strength and conditioning coach at Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, MA, and a personal trainer in Providence, RI. A former college baseball player turned powerlifter, he earned his Master’s degree in Exercise Science from Adelphi University. You can read more from Tony at bonvecstrength.com.


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