Monday, July 2, 2018

Stabilizing the Shoulder Girdle - Bill Starr

One of the basic keys to continually gaining strength is to avoid injuries. Nothing, and I mean nothing, deters progress like a severe injury. Smaller problems can also be quite irritating, but in most cases you can work around them successfully until they’re healed. Most people, when they embark on a strength-training routine, worry about hurting their backs. In truth, however, the most frequently injured area is the shoulder girdle. Injuries occur in that area primarily for two reasons: 1) People overtrain it, and 2) they use faulty form on shoulder girdle exercises.

The area I call the shoulder girdle includes the muscles of the chest, shoulders, arms and upper back – and of course, the corresponding attachments, tendons and ligaments as well as the skeletal structure. Note that I include the upper back, for the traps play a major role in strengthening and stabilizing this part of the body. Unfortunately, they’re often overlooked when people set out to build greater shoulder girdle strength.

I use two methods to strengthen and stabilize the shoulder girdle. I advise trainees to limit the amount of work done on the area at each workout and to constantly vary the angle of movement. It’s a given that you should use good form on the exercises, but it has to be mentioned.

The reason that so many beginners encounter some kind of shoulder girdle injury early in their careers is that they do far too much bench-pressing. The bench is, without a doubt, the pet lift for anyone who enters a weight room. It’s the measure of success in most programs and usually the lift on which athletic teams are tested.

A great many programs concentrate on the bench press almost exclusively. I’ve had coaches tell me they’re wary of having their players do squats or any form of heavy pulling, as they consider those movements dangerous, while they think nothing of having their athletes spend an hour or more doing bench presses, with a few auxiliary exercises for the triceps and deltoids thrown in for good measure. It really should be the other way around, for the center of strength isn’t in the upper body but in the back, hips and legs. The people in charge of programs must understand that the shoulder girdle is really rather delicate. In comparison to the hips, it’s downright fragile, so it can’t take a huge workload, especially when athletes are in the formative stages of training.

For those who specialize on the flat bench, the problem usually surfaces at the very crown of the shoulder, right where the delt ties in with the traps. The pain is an early-warning sign brought about by our old friend, disproportionate strength. Too much work for the front and not enough for the rear is usually the story. I’ve watched lifters bench for 45 minutes, then do some close grips and some skull crushers and top off the workout with some pushdowns on the lat machine. When I ask if they ever bother to work their traps, they become offended and reply that they do dumbbell shrugs twice a week. “And, they indignantly add “I know they work because I always get a good burn.”

Hello! A burn has no place in strength training. I get a nice burn in my traps when I do 80 reps with a 10-pound dumbbell to warm up before my run, but in no way am I making them any stronger. Oh, perhaps they get a tad stronger, but it’s not nearly enough to balance my upper-body strength if I’m planning to handle any weight on the bench press.

That imbalance is a common problem among football players and aspiring powerlifters who do a tremendous amount of work on the flat bench but rarely push the poundages up on their shrugs. Happily, the situation can be corrected rather quickly simply by adding heavy shrugs or high pulls to the program. I’m talking heavy and dynamic – not the lift-your-shoulders-up-and-hold-the-bar kind of shrugs but the explosive that keeps you sore for days. The traps do respond quickly, but they have to be abused, not teased.

Another area in which many trainees have problems is the point where the pecs tie in with the biceps and the front delt. It becomes stressed because they give it far too much work and also because they use faulty form. Jamming the bar off your chest on the bench, rebounding and bridging excessively all create a traumatic situation for that rather sensitive area. In fact, even if it were super-strong, like the hips, it still wouldn’t hold up to the unholy pounding often given it.

Without a doubt the most prevalent injury of the bench era involves the rotator cuff. What most people don’t recall is that before the bench press became the primary upper-body exercise there were few, if any, rotator cuff injuries. That’s because the overhead press, which was at one time the main upper-body movement, actually helps to strengthen the area known as the rotator cuff, mostly by having you support heavy weights overhead. On the other hand, the consistent bombarding of flat benches neglects he area almost entirely – and that’s for starters. Things get worse when uninformed lifters add such exercises as behind the neck pulldowns, which greatly accentuate the problem.

Do no exercise which places the barbell behind your neck. The position is potentially harmful to the rotator cuff, and it’s totally unnecessary. Just do the exercise to the front.

The shoulder joint isn’t designed to be placed in that position, especially when there’s added resistance. The worst part is, you can ignore the advice for years, but once you’ve sufficiently irritated your rotator cuff, it’s too late. You’re in for a long haul of rehab, at best, or surgery.

Here’s a program that will help you develop a strong, stable shoulder girdle. It’s based on the concept of proportionate strength achieved by altering the angles of the various exercises. It isn’t designed to improve your flat bench per se, although if you follow it for some time you’ll add many pounds to that movement. I know that’s true because I have a couple of hundred subjects who have used the program most successfully.

The routine is also based on the make-haste-slowly concept. Your poundages on the various lifts will not leap forward, but they will move up steadily. That’s a good thing because it ensures that all the various areas of your upper body are being strengthened at the same rate- or close to the same rate, for one exercise will always improve faster that the others due to individual differences in leverage. So you may find that your inclines improve much more rapidly than your flat bench, or vice versa. Or you may find that you’re very proficient in overhead pressing but have a terrible time getting your inclines to move. That’s natural. Otherwise, everyone would be pressing, inclining and flat-benching huge weights.

The important point is to improve on all the movements and to make certain that none fall too far behind. It’s natural to want to work your strong points and neglect your weaker ones, but that will only open the weakest-link box. So if any of the basic exercises falls too far behind, you must alter your program to give it more priority and move it up.

Proper technique is at the heart of this program. Unfortunately, most people have been taught incorrectly, or, if they’ve been taught good form, they’ve shucked it in the quest for bigger numbers. I’m referring to the bench press. Many start out doing the lift correctly but once they start training with their peers, they’re encouraged to forgo strict technique in order to move larger numbers. So they try bridging and rebounding and sure enough, they can bench more weight. They’re also on the sure road to problems.

Long ago, scientists taught us that it takes three to four months to break a habit in a teenager and at least five months to alter the behavior of an adult. That’s the reason it’s so much easier for me to teach women to bench-press correctly. They often have no prior instruction, and they aren’t so caught up in the numbers as men. As a result, they make faster progress initially and also have fewer problems.

In response to a number of letters from readers, I’ll be more specific concerning the technique for the various exercises I discuss. It seems I assume a bit too much, so I’ll try to present more details on the proper performance of the core exercises.

For the bench press let’s start with the grip. The rule of thumb for any pressing movement is the same: Always keep your elbows directly under your wrists. That applies to flat benches, inclines and overhead presses. The reason is simple but often overlooked. If your wrists are either outside or inside your elbows, you’re giving away power laterally.

The problem usually occurs with a grip that’s too wide. When I comment on this, lifters usually argue that they want to develop the outer part of their pecs. That’s fine for advanced trainees but not for beginners. There are other ways to develop the outer pecs, and to be frank, I think it’s a bad idea to try to do it anyway. It only aggravates the shoulder joints. Stay with the high and middle portions of the chest and you’ll have fewer problems later on.

Keep your arms perfectly straight throughout any pressing movement. In other words, don’t cock your wrists or allow them to twist during the exercise, which is a common practice. This has two negatives. It puts an undue stress on the very small, susceptible wrist joint, and it reduces the power generated by the chest, shoulders and arms. For those who have difficulty breaking the habit, start taping your wrists. That will help to keep them straight and remind you not to cock them during the lift.

Learn to grip the bar firmly with your thumbs around it. I know that many big benchers recommend the false grip, but it’s foolish for anyone else to use that method, for it’s potentially very dangerous. The bench press is the most risky exercise of all, with the incline close behind. The reason is simple: The bar is over your face. One slip spells disaster with a capital D. And it’s totally unnecessary. A solid grip will allow you to control the weight and guide it in the proper groove much better than a false grip.

One final note on wide-grip bench presses. It’s been my observation that those who use a very wide grip are more prone to bridging and rebounding than those who use a closer grip.

If you’re in doubt about just where to grip the bar, use the following method. Extend your thumbs on the Olympic bar so that they just touch the smooth center. That’s ideal for almost everyone.

I’m frequently asked about breathing. I’d guess that 90 percent of the people I train have been taught to breathe incorrectly – and it’s a tough habit to break. Most have been taught to breathe in and out during the lift itself. If you’re doing benches, inclines or overheads merely for the so-called toning of your muscles, that’s perfectly okay, but it you’re doing them to gain strength, it’s detrimental. When using heavy weights – and that’s a relative term – you must hold your breath through the exertion. This is no big deal, since the entire lift only takes a matter of seconds. It’s not like scuba diving without any gear.

The reason, again, is very fundamental. If you breath while lowering the bar to your chest or before it passes the sticking point on the way up, you’re going to use less weight than if you hold your breath throughout the full range of movement. When you breath in or out, your rib cage is forced to relax, and that keeps you from maintaining a solid foundation; but if you take a deep breath and hold it while lowering the bar and pressing it to arm’s length, you can secure a solid muscular foundation.

The exception to the rule is the standing press. Most people find that they do better by taking a breath just before they press the bar and then another once it’s locked overhead. That’s fine as long as you take yet another breath while the bar travels upward, before it passes the critical sticking point. For seated presses, the rule holds. Take your breath when the bar is handed to you overhead and hold your breath throughout the full range of motion.

Another basic rule for all beginners and anyone else who really wants to improve his or her shoulder power is to learn to pause with the bar on your chest. It doesn’t have to remain there for long, but if you get the habit of doing it from the very beginning, it will enable you to make long-range progress and deep you from the bad habit of rebounding the bar. Where should the bar touch your chest? For the flat bench, right at the point where your breastbone ends. That varies from individual to individual, since arm length plays a part in the exercise, but it’s a god guideline for most people. Some prefer touching a bit higher on the chest, which is fine, but I discourage touching lower, for it makes it very difficult to keep your elbows under your wrists.

So the flat bench will find you lowering the bar to the place on your chest where the breastbone ends and then guiding it slightly backward to arm’s length. It will take a bit of practice for you to master the technique of guiding the bar upward, always with your elbows under your wrists, but you’ll quickly discover that it gives you a great deal of control – much more than if you merely vaulted the bar upward and prayed.

The line on the incline is quite different from that of the flat bench. When I visit an unfamiliar gym I’m always totally amazed that everyone does the incline incorrectly. They all set the bar for too low on their chests, which adversely affects the amount of weight they can use. They’re trying to do the movement the way they do flat benches, which is very wrong. The bar has to be set high on the chest, at the point where the breastbone meets the clavicles, just below the Adam’s apple. Unlike the line of the flat bench, the incline must travel upward in a perfectly straight line, as if you were performing it on a Smith machine. That requires you to keep your elbows down and close to your body, so they can stay right under your wrists throughout the lift. Setting the bar that high means it will travel extremely close to your face. In fact, it should nearly touch your chin at the start. By learning proper form on the incline most people are able to add a quick 20 pounds to the lift.

There was a time when the overhead press was the number one core lift for shoulder development, so most folks knew how to do it correctly. That’s no longer the case. Sometimes I’m not even sure what exercise people trying to do. Their idea of pressing looks to me like a gymnastic event.

The biggest mistake in form that people make is that for some reason they place one foot behind the other when they press. That’s wrong for a couple of reasons. It takes away the power base, and it also places the back in a stressful position. Your feet should be on a line, about shoulder width apart and planted very firmly. If your feet aren’t locked into the floor, it’s impossible to tighten the rest of your body – legs, hips, back and shoulders – and they must all be tight in order to handle any amount of weight in an overhead press.

On this movement as well you should position the bar high on your chest at the start, and it should nearly touch your chin when you drive it upward. Once the bar passes your head, guide it back a bit so that it sits over the back of your skull when it’s locked out. As with the other pressing movements you should keep your wrists locked and your elbows under them. Don’t look up. Look directly forward.

Another typical question I get involves speed of movement. You should lower the bar in a controlled manner, then drive it forcefully to arm’s length. In other words, don’t let the bar slam down on your chest, out of control. You want to guide it to the exact starting position you want, pause briefly, then lean into the bar. It may take some time to learn to really explode the bar upward but with practice you will.

Those are the three core exercises that strengthen and stabilize the shoulder girdle. The dip is a borderline exercise because it’s an auxiliary movement in the early stages of training but becomes a primary one later on.

There’s one additional point: When you position yourself for any pressing exercise, keep in mind that weightlifting starts in your feet. Most people understand the importance of securing a solid foundation for the overhead press but often miss the necessity of doing the same thing for flat benches, inclines and even seated overhead presses. If you plant your feet solidly and the bar hesitates at a sticking point, you can bring your power up from your feet, through your body and into your shoulder girdle and complete – but you can only do it if you established that solid base to begin with. You can’t do it once the bar’s in motion.

Build a more solid foundation by becoming part of the equipment. Don’t merely lie on a flat bench or incline. Lock yourself into it. The same idea applies to seated presses but not to such a great extent, primarily because you handle less weight on that exercise. If you do two things – plant your feet solidly and grind yourself into the bench before taking a weight- I guarantee that you’ll instantly handle more weight than you ever did before, without making any changes in your technique.

Now comes the question – Which is better, standing or seated presses? They’re both useful, and each works the body a bit differently. The standing press requires more balance and control of the barbell, thus making it a better overall strength movement. Holding the weight overhead also builds strength in your upper back and hips in a way no other exercise can. Overhead presses are particularly useful in developing the rotator cuff.

On the other hand, the standing press is much more difficult to master than the seated version. When it was one of the Olympic lifts, weightlifters often did presses four times a week – not only to get stronger on the lift but to perfect their technique. What’s more, overhead pressing can irritate the lower back. That may occur because lifters have a habit of lying back too much to complete the lift of because they have a chronically bad back that won’t tolerate any stress.

In those cases the seated press is better than the standing variety. If you do have a bad lower back, you’re still placing it under stress even though you’re seated. When you press while standing, much of the downward pressure is dispersed through your hips and legs, but when you’re sitting on a bench that pressure is driven into your lower back, which may not be a good thing. If either form of overhead pressing tends to cause problems in your lower back, switch to seated dumbbell presses. They shouldn’t be as irritating, since you’ll be using considerably less weight than if you handled a barbell.

Most people find that they can use more weight on the seated press than the standing press. That’s good, but unless the overhead press really bothers you I suggest you do both, alternating them regularly. The one that gets you the sorest is the one you should do more often.

One advantage of the overhead press is that it really doesn’t require any equipment other than a barbell and some plates. So even if a rack isn’t available, which is the case in a great many modern training facilities, you can still clean the bar and press it – which, by the way, remains one of the best combination exercises in the book.

I mentioned earlier that dips are an auxiliary exercise initially but will eventually become one of the core shoulder girdle exercises. When should the change take place? I use this guideline: You should perform the dip as an auxiliary exercise until you can do more than one set of 20 reps without added resistance. At that point it’s time to start doing weighted dips. If you’re still on a three-days-a-week routine, you can alternate them with overhead presses, doing them every other week. Once you go to four days a week, if you ever do, you can do them every week as a core exercise and possibly a second time as an auxiliary movement, as indicated in the program shown below.

Your weekly program should have at least two exercises that hit the traps directly, and more is even better. Shrugs, snatch and clean-grip high pulls, power cleans and power snatches all fill the bill. Whatever you choose, it’s vital for the stability of the entire shoulder girdle that you work your traps hard twice a week. Mondays and Fridays are best as that leaves Wednesdays for some lower back work.

I also believe it’s useful to do some auxiliary movements for the various smaller muscles – the triceps, biceps and deltoids and in some cases the pecs, but I’m not a big fan of doing lots of specialized work for the chest, for I think it’s a huge mistake to overtrain your pecs, especially in the earlier stages. Build mass in your chest and you have to maintain it. As in forever. It doesn’t just go away if you stop training, as most other muscles, such as those in your back and legs, do. It hangs around, and I mean that quite literally. So any extra work I do for my chest hits the upper portion rather than the lower or the middle portions. You can maintain the upper chest more easily, and it will continue to enhance your overall physique.

For the triceps I like straight-arm pullovers and pushdowns. The straight-arm pullover strengthens the long head of the triceps, which is a critical part of that group and a difficult one to stimulate. The exercise also involves the high chest and lats, which makes it an excellent movement. Still, the main reason I prefer straight-arm pullovers over most other triceps exercises is that they place less stress on the elbows. Most athletes shouldn’t do any triceps exercise that entails jamming their elbows through full, rapid flexion. That includes exercises such as skull crushers and French presses. Bodybuilders can often get away with doing those movements because they don’t subject their elbows to further dynamic motions while playing a sport. Other athletes are constantly subjecting their elbows to snappy, ballistic motions, and doing that after a hard weight session heightens the risk of injury to the elbows, which is totally unnecessary. Instead, do straight-arm pullovers or pushdowns on the lat machine. It’s better to be safe that sorry, and I really believe that when you push the poundages on the straight-arm pullover it will have more effect on all your pressing exercises than any other triceps movement.

Dips are also useful for developing the triceps, but I consider them more of a deltoid builder. Once you’ve reached the stage where you can add weight, they really do influence your pressing power. In the past many Olympic lifters did dips to help their overhead press, for the two exercises hit a lot of the same muscles.

There are two important form points to remember on dips. Don’t rebound or jam out of he bottom position, and don’t twist or jerk your body. Rebounding out of the bottom obviously puts a great deal of dynamic stress on your elbows and shoulders, and it isn’t at all necessary. You will eventually be able to handle more resistance if you do the dips in a controlled manner with a smooth up-and-down motion.

I’m often asked, How low should I go on the dip? As low as you can. Many people find that they can’t go very low because they lack the necessary flexibility in their elbows of shoulders. That’s typically the case for older trainees. Even if you can’t go deep, however, you’ll still receive benefits from performing dips.

Dips aren’t always easy to do, and sometimes people become discouraged when they find they can only do five or six – or fewer. It doesn’t matter where you begin, only where you build to. The secret to improving on the dip is to slowly but consistently add a rep or two. If you can only do six the first time, try to move it to seven the next week. Then go for eight and so forth. Eventually, you’ll get 20 and be able to add resistance. It’s been my observation that dips really don’t push up the other pressing exercises to any extent until you can add resistance. Even so, I also believe you need to establish the base of at least 20 reps to ensure that your shoulder girdle is adequately prepared for the stress before you use any additional weight.

Chins, in my opinion, are the very best biceps exercise for beginners. They’re an excellent combination movement, and I think you need to include as many as possible
in your program.

Chins involve the lats and delts in a positive manner, so you get more for your money. The best advice I can provide for chins is to use a full range of motion and do them smoothly. In other words, make sure you extend your arms completely on each rep, and don’t jerk about. Start with a rather wide grip and move it in slightly on each set.

As with dips, start by doing as many as you can and increase the number at each workout. It’s more difficult to increase your reps on chins than it is on dips, so you only add one to the total number you do at each workout. If you’re able to perform six, six, five and four the first time you try them, that’s a total of 21 reps. So, the next time you do chins you need to get a total of 22 reps. The increase usually comes on the first set, when you’re fresh, but in some cases it comes later because you’re more warmed up and also more determined. The formula works if you do it consistently and never cheat on the numbers. I’ve had athletes who needed to do a certain number start with six and end up doing 29.

Some people cannot do chins – for a variety of reasons – or they simply prefer curls. That’s okay too. The important thing is that you work your biceps directly at least once a week, for they play a part in securing the shoulder girdle.

There’s one critical form point, especially for athletes. Always make sure you fully extend your arm on each rep. Don’t use abbreviated motions for it will tend to shorten your range of motion over time. The adage about weightlifters becoming muscle-bound does have some basis in fact, since many did a lot of short-range movements for their biceps and eventually became so inflexible that they couldn’t straighten their arms.

One auxiliary exercise for the shoulder girdle that I’ve always liked is incline dumbbell presses. They fit in perfectly after heavy flat benches. I don’t like doing barbell inclines on the same day as flat benches. It’s too much load except for advanced lifters. If you do incline dumbbell presses you increase the workload safely because you use high reps, so the weight is self-limiting.

What do I mean by that? Because I adhere to the 40-rep rule on most auxiliary exercises except for chins and dips, I typically have my lifters do two sets of 20. That means a 300-pound bencher will have his work cut out for him handling 50-pound dumbbells. In the process, however, he’ll add two tons to his workload without unduly stressing his shoulder girdle.

One other auxiliary movement I use once lifters shift to a four-days-a-week routine is the close-grip bench press. That gives them a bit more variety. You can also use it in a three-day routine be substituting it for the pushdowns every other week. Use lower reps on your close-grip benches so you can maintain perfect form.

Also, before allowing lifters to move to four days a week, I have them start adding a back-off set on the core exercises to increase the total workload. One set of eight is sufficient.

Unless you’re an advanced lifter use one core exercise and no more than two auxiliary exercises per workout, not counting those you do for the upper back. If the core exercise has been strenuous, as on a heavy bench day, then one auxiliary exercise is plenty. On the light and medium days you can add two – but not two that hit the same muscle groups.

The standard guideline for sets and reps in strength development is four to six sets of four to six reps. That obviously applies to the larger bodyparts, not the smaller ones. I’ve always used the mean, five sets of five, since those numbers are much easier to deal with when working with groups of people. I also understand that there’s value in doing lower reps on certain days and higher reps on others. I’m only speaking of the core exercises now, for I always stick with high reps on the auxiliary movements. So one week you might do the standard five sets of five, then the next you do three sets of five followed by two heavier sets of threes, twos or even singles. The lower reps hit the attachments, tendons and ligaments much more than the higher reps, but you shouldn’t have a steady diet of low reps for you’ll overly tax those attachments.

And yes, I do believe that singles have a place in a program, regardless of your level of proficiency. If your form is good there’s really no reason that you shouldn’t test your strength on the various core exercises every so often – assuming that you’ve been doing them long enough to build a firm base. Singles help to raise mental limits and point out form errors more readily than high reps.

By constantly working different angles with the suggested exercises you’ll greatly help to stabilize the shoulder girdle – and a strong shoulder girdle is a happy shoulder girdle.


Three-Days-a-Week Program

Monday (heavy day)
Bench Presses* – varies
Incline Dumbbell Presses – 2 x 20

Wednesday (light day)
Overhead Presses* – varies
Dips** – 4 x failure

Friday (medium day)
Incline Barbell Presses* – varies
Pushdowns – 2 x 20
Dips*** – 4 x failure
Seated Dumbbell Presses – 4 x 10

*Alter your sets and reps each week. One week do five sets of five; the next do a warmup of three sets of five followed by three sets of heavier triples, doubles or singles.

** Once you can do 20 dips without resistance, do weighted dips instead of overhead presses at alternate Wednesday workouts.

*** Once you start using weighted dips on Wednesday, use seated dumbbell presses on Friday.


Be sure to include two upper-back exercises in your program each week. Doing cleans of high-pulls on Monday and shrugs on Friday works well, as that leaves Wednesday for some specific lower-back work.

After a month start adding one back-off set on all the core exercises. One set of eight reps will help increase the workload. You may want to stick with a three-day routine indefinitely, but if you do want to graduate to a four-day program, here’s the way to put it together.

Four-Days-a-Week Program

Monday (heavy day)
Bench Presses* – varies
Incline Dumbbell Presses – 2 x 20

Tuesday (light day)
Weighted Dips** – varies
Overhead Presses** – varies

Wednesday (medium day)
Incline Barbell Presses* – varies
Straight-Arm Pullovers – 2 x 20
Chins – 4 x failure
curls – 2 x 20

Friday (medium day)
Bench Presses*** – 4 x 8; 2 x 2
Dips (no resistance) – 4 x failure
Close-Grip Bench Presses – 3-4 x 12
Pushdowns**** – 2 x 20

* Use the same varying set and rep scheme as described for the three-day program.

** Alter your sets and reps each week. One week do five sets of five; the next do four sets of eight or three sets of five followed by two triples, plus one back-off set of eight. Do one exercise or the other until you’ve been training for some time and feel you can handle both on the same day. If you dip heavy, use dumbbells on the overhead presses and keep your reps relatively high – 10s and 12s. If you press heavy, do your dips without resistance and run the reps as high as you can.

*** Use heavy doubles. No back-off set.

**** In choosing the close-grip benches or the pulldowns, whichever exercise gets you the sorest is the one you should do more frequently.


Continue to do trap work at least twice a week. It’s an even better idea to add one other upper-back exercise on Tuesday. It can be a light movement, such as snatches or snatch-grip high pulls.

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