Stabilizing The Shoulder Girdle by 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

Jamming the bar off your chest on the bench. everyone would be pressing. but once you’ve sufficiently irritated your rotator cuff. stable shoulder girdle. inclining and flat-benching huge weights. which greatly accentuate the problem. The routine is also based on the make-haste-slowly concept. not teased. it still wouldn’t hold up to the unholy pounding often given it. That’s because the overhead press. Here’s a program that will help you develop a strong. It becomes stressed because they give it far too much work and also because they use faulty form. mostly by having you support heavy weights overhead. it’s too late. Happily. the situation can be corrected rather quickly simply by adding heavy shrugs or high pulls to the program. rotator cuff injuries. at best. Your poundages on the various lifts will not leap forward. On the other hand. you can ignore the advice for years. if any. 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. That’s a good thing because it ensures that all the various areas of your upper body are being strengthened at the same rateor close to the same rate. but it’s not nearly enough to balance my upper-body strength if I’m planning to handle any weight on the bench press. and it’s totally unnecessary. The shoulder joint isn’t designed to be placed in that position. Another area in which many trainees have problems is the point where the pecs tie in with the biceps and the front delt. or vice versa. rebounding and bridging excessively all create a traumatic situation for that rather sensitive area. but they will move up steadily. although if you follow it for some time you’ll add many pounds to that movement. actually helps to strengthen the area known as the rotator cuff. The worst part is. I know that’s true because I have a couple of hundred subjects who have used the program most successfully. Just do the exercise to the front. You’re in for a long haul of rehab. The important point is to improve on all the movements and to make certain that none fall too far behind. even if it were super-strong. Without a doubt the most prevalent injury of the bench era involves the rotator cuff. Things get worse when uninformed lifters add such exercises as behind the neck pulldowns. It’s based on the concept of proportionate strength achieved by altering the angles of the various exercises. In fact. for one exercise will always improve faster that the others due to individual differences in leverage. What most people don’t recall is that before the bench press became the primary upper-body exercise there were few. So you may find that your inclines improve much more rapidly than your flat bench. like the hips. especially when there’s added resistance. Do no exercise which places the barbell behind your neck. but they have to be abused. perhaps they get a tad stronger. the consistent bombarding of flat benches neglects he area almost entirely – and that’s for starters. It isn’t designed to improve your flat bench per se. Oh. Otherwise. The traps do respond quickly. It’s natural to want to work your strong points and neglect your weaker ones. which was at one time the main upper-body movement. The position is potentially harmful to the rotator cuff. I’m talking heavy and dynamic – not the lift-your-shoulders-upand-hold-the-bar kind of shrugs but the explosive that keeps you sore for days. or surgery.any stronger. That’s natural. but . Or you may find that you’re very proficient in overhead pressing but have a terrible time getting your inclines to move.

I’m referring to the bench press. I’ll be more specific concerning the technique for the various exercises I discuss. For those who have difficulty breaking the habit. The rule of thumb for any pressing movement is the same: Always keep your elbows directly under your wrists. 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. Keep your arms perfectly straight throughout any pressing movement. A solid grip will allow you to control the weight and guide it in the proper groove much better than a false grip. That applies to flat benches. with the incline close behind. shoulders and arms. I know that many big benchers recommend the false grip. That will help to keep them straight and remind you not to cock them during the lift. or. start taping your wrists. It only aggravates the shoulder joints. . It seems I assume a bit too much. Stay with the high and middle portions of the chest and you’ll have fewer problems later on. susceptible wrist joint. Unfortunately. One final note on wide-grip bench presses. most people have been taught incorrectly. In response to a number of letters from readers. The reason is simple: The bar is over your face. and they aren’t so caught up in the numbers as men. they’ve shucked it in the quest for bigger numbers. One slip spells disaster with a capital D. As a result. don’t cock your wrists or allow them to twist during the exercise. Learn to grip the bar firmly with your thumbs around it. It puts an undue stress on the very small. and it reduces the power generated by the chest. This has two negatives. There are other ways to develop the outer pecs. I think it’s a bad idea to try to do it anyway. The reason is simple but often overlooked. so I’ll try to present more details on the proper performance of the core exercises. inclines and overhead presses. but it’s foolish for anyone else to use that method. you must alter your program to give it more priority and move it up. Many start out doing the lift correctly but once they start training with their peers. In other words. and to be frank. which is a common practice. They often have no prior instruction. So they try bridging and rebounding and sure enough. For the bench press let’s start with the grip. The problem usually occurs with a grip that’s too wide. they make faster progress initially and also have fewer problems. If your wrists are either outside or inside your elbows. Long ago. they can bench more weight. they’re encouraged to forgo strict technique in order to move larger numbers. you’re giving away power laterally. The bench press is the most risky exercise of all. They’re also on the sure road to problems.that will only open the weakest-link box. if they’ve been taught good form. That’s the reason it’s so much easier for me to teach women to bench-press correctly. 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. And it’s totally unnecessary. That’s fine for advanced trainees but not for beginners. lifters usually argue that they want to develop the outer part of their pecs. Proper technique is at the heart of this program. for it’s potentially very dangerous. So if any of the basic exercises falls too far behind. When I comment on this.

That’s fine as long as you take yet another breath while the bar travels upward. for it makes it very difficult to keep your elbows under your wrists. just below the Adam’s apple. 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. the incline must travel upward in a perfectly straight line.If you’re in doubt about just where to grip the bar. your rib cage is forced to relax. before it passes the critical sticking point. If you’re doing benches. again. The line on the incline is quite different from that of the flat bench. It doesn’t have to remain there for long. When using heavy weights – and that’s a relative term – you must hold your breath through the exertion. but if you get the habit of doing it from the very beginning. it’s detrimental. I’m frequently asked about breathing. you’re going to use less weight than if you hold your breath throughout the full range of movement. right at the point where your breastbone ends. The reason. When you breath in or out. That requires you to keep your elbows down and close to your body. They’re trying to do the movement the way they do flat benches. it will enable you to make long-range progress and deep you from the bad habit of rebounding the bar. Unlike the line of the flat bench. but if you take a deep breath and hold it while lowering the bar and pressing it to arm’s length. always with your elbows under your wrists. at the point where the breastbone meets the clavicles. you can secure a solid muscular foundation. the rule holds. but it’s a god guideline for most people. Where should the bar touch your chest? For the flat bench. that’s perfectly okay. The exception to the rule is the standing press. which is fine. inclines or overheads merely for the so-called toning of your muscles. . Most have been taught to breathe in and out during the lift itself. It’s not like scuba diving without any gear. so they can stay right under your wrists throughout the lift. It will take a bit of practice for you to master the technique of guiding the bar upward. which is very wrong. since the entire lift only takes a matter of seconds. That varies from individual to individual. For seated presses. That’s ideal for almost everyone. which adversely affects the amount of weight they can use. and that keeps you from maintaining a solid foundation. Extend your thumbs on the Olympic bar so that they just touch the smooth center. but I discourage touching lower. Take your breath when the bar is handed to you overhead and hold your breath throughout the full range of motion. 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. 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. as if you were performing it on a Smith machine. The bar has to be set high on the chest. Setting the bar that high means it will travel extremely close to your face. If you breath while lowering the bar to your chest or before it passes the sticking point on the way up. 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. This is no big deal. is very fundamental. since arm length plays a part in the exercise. They all set the bar for too low on their chests. use the following method. 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. but it you’re doing them to gain strength. When I visit an unfamiliar gym I’m always totally amazed that everyone does the incline incorrectly. Some prefer touching a bit higher on the chest.

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. about shoulder width apart and planted very firmly. There’s one additional point: When you position yourself for any pressing exercise. primarily because you handle less weight on that exercise. You can’t do it once the bar’s in motion. it’s impossible to tighten the rest of your body – legs. By learning proper form on the incline most people are able to add a quick 20 pounds to the lift. Holding the weight . and it also places the back in a stressful position. it should nearly touch your chin at the start. As with the other pressing movements you should keep your wrists locked and your elbows under them. The same idea applies to seated presses but not to such a great extent. without making any changes in your technique. There was a time when the overhead press was the number one core lift for shoulder development. 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. then lean into the bar. Lock yourself into it. standing or seated presses? They’re both useful. so most folks knew how to do it correctly. keep in mind that weightlifting starts in your feet. pause briefly. Don’t merely lie on a flat bench or incline. 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. Another typical question I get involves speed of movement. inclines and even seated overhead presses. 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. hips. guide it back a bit so that it sits over the back of your skull when it’s locked out. Those are the three core exercises that strengthen and stabilize the shoulder girdle. and it should nearly touch your chin when you drive it upward. out of control.In fact. If you do two things – plant your feet solidly and grind yourself into the bench before taking a weight. and each works the body a bit differently. If your feet aren’t locked into the floor. In other words. don’t let the bar slam down on your chest. The standing press requires more balance and control of the barbell. Now comes the question – Which is better.I guarantee that you’ll instantly handle more weight than you ever did before. On this movement as well you should position the bar high on your chest at the start. You want to guide it to the exact starting position you want. It may take some time to learn to really explode the bar upward but with practice you will. back and shoulders – and they must all be tight in order to handle any amount of weight in an overhead press. Look directly forward. Your feet should be on a line. You should lower the bar in a controlled manner. Don’t look up. then drive it forcefully to arm’s length. If you plant your feet solidly and the bar hesitates at a sticking point. you can bring your power up from your feet. That’s no longer the case. It takes away the power base. thus making it a better overall strength movement. Sometimes I’m not even sure what exercise people trying to do. That’s wrong for a couple of reasons. Build a more solid foundation by becoming part of the equipment. Once the bar passes your head.

The one that gets you the sorest is the one you should do more often. If either form of overhead pressing tends to cause problems in your lower back. weightlifters often did presses four times a week – not only to get stronger on the lift but to perfect their technique. If you do have a bad lower back. snatch and clean-grip high pulls. That’s good. When you press while standing. In those cases the seated press is better than the standing variety. So any extra work I do . if you ever do. by the way. do. but when you’re sitting on a bench that pressure is driven into your lower back. I also believe it’s useful to do some auxiliary movements for the various smaller muscles – the triceps. When it was one of the Olympic lifts. I mentioned earlier that dips are an auxiliary exercise initially but will eventually become one of the core shoulder girdle exercises. since you’ll be using considerably less weight than if you handled a barbell. They shouldn’t be as irritating. but unless the overhead press really bothers you I suggest you do both. as most other muscles. overhead pressing can irritate the lower back. At that point it’s time to start doing weighted dips. and I mean that quite literally. it’s vital for the stability of the entire shoulder girdle that you work your traps hard twice a week. which may not be a good thing. Overhead presses are particularly useful in developing the rotator cuff. you can alternate them with overhead presses. much of the downward pressure is dispersed through your hips and legs. Build mass in your chest and you have to maintain it. Whatever you choose.overhead also builds strength in your upper back and hips in a way no other exercise can. 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. doing them every other week. especially in the earlier stages. If you’re still on a three-days-a-week routine. What’s more. such as those in your back and legs. So even if a rack isn’t available. Your weekly program should have at least two exercises that hit the traps directly. you can do them every week as a core exercise and possibly a second time as an auxiliary movement. Most people find that they can use more weight on the seated press than the standing press. remains one of the best combination exercises in the book. One advantage of the overhead press is that it really doesn’t require any equipment other than a barbell and some plates. which is the case in a great many modern training facilities. It doesn’t just go away if you stop training. as indicated in the program shown below. 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. biceps and deltoids and in some cases the pecs. On the other hand. Mondays and Fridays are best as that leaves Wednesdays for some lower back work. you’re still placing it under stress even though you’re seated. power cleans and power snatches all fill the bill. It hangs around. As in forever. Shrugs. the standing press is much more difficult to master than the seated version. alternating them regularly. for I think it’s a huge mistake to overtrain your pecs. and more is even better. switch to seated dumbbell presses. you can still clean the bar and press it – which. but I’m not a big fan of doing lots of specialized work for the chest. Once you go to four days a week.

Rebounding out of the bottom obviously puts a great deal of dynamic stress on your elbows and shoulders. rapid flexion. and it isn’t at all necessary. and sometimes people become discouraged when they find they can only do five or six – or fewer. do straight-arm pullovers or pushdowns on the lat machine. Even if you can’t go deep. and I think you need to include as many as possible in your program. Many people find that they can’t go very low because they lack the necessary flexibility in their elbows of shoulders. the main reason I prefer straight-arm pullovers over most other triceps exercises is that they place less stress on the elbows. You can maintain the upper chest more easily. you’ll still receive benefits from performing dips. ballistic motions. Chins involve the lats and delts in a positive manner. in my opinion. Still. In the past many Olympic lifters did dips to help their overhead press. It’s been my observation that dips really don’t push up the other pressing exercises to any extent until you can add resistance. If you can only do six the first time. and doing that after a hard weight session heightens the risk of injury to the elbows. They’re an excellent combination movement. Don’t rebound or jam out of he bottom position. Then go for eight and so forth. Most athletes shouldn’t do any triceps exercise that entails jamming their elbows through full. The best advice I can provide for chins is to use a full range of motion and do them smoothly. How low should I go on the dip? As low as you can. There are two important form points to remember on dips. only where you build to. Bodybuilders can often get away with doing those movements because they don’t subject their elbows to further dynamic motions while playing a sport. Dips aren’t always easy to do. Eventually. It doesn’t matter where you begin. 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. That’s typically the case for older trainees. 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. however. try to move it to seven the next week. I’m often asked. Even so. so you get more for your money. Dips are also useful for developing the triceps. Other athletes are constantly subjecting their elbows to snappy. The straight-arm pullover strengthens the long head of the triceps. they really do influence your pressing power. That includes exercises such as skull crushers and French presses. Chins. you’ll get 20 and be able to add resistance. In . The secret to improving on the dip is to slowly but consistently add a rep or two. It’s better to be safe that sorry. but I consider them more of a deltoid builder. For the triceps I like straight-arm pullovers and pushdowns. and don’t twist or jerk your body. are the very best biceps exercise for beginners. which makes it an excellent movement. The exercise also involves the high chest and lats. Instead. 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. which is totally unnecessary. which is a critical part of that group and a difficult one to stimulate. Once you’ve reached the stage where you can add weight. and it will continue to enhance your overall physique.for my chest hits the upper portion rather than the lower or the middle portions. for the two exercises hit a lot of the same muscles.

Start with a rather wide grip and move it in slightly on each set. I’ve had athletes who needed to do a certain number start with six and end up doing 29. since many did a lot of short-range movements for their biceps and eventually became so inflexible that they couldn’t straighten their arms. What do I mean by that? Because I adhere to the 40-rep rule on most auxiliary exercises except for chins and dips. The standard guideline for sets and reps in strength development is four to six sets of four to six reps. They fit in perfectly after heavy flat benches. The important thing is that you work your biceps directly at least once a week. however. and don’t jerk about. especially for athletes. The increase usually comes on the first set. Unless you’re an advanced lifter use one core exercise and no more than two auxiliary exercises per workout. So. five and four the first time you try them. six. but in some cases it comes later because you’re more warmed up and also more determined. That’s okay too. not the smaller ones. One set of eight is sufficient. he’ll add two tons to his workload without unduly stressing his shoulder girdle. not counting those you do for the upper back. If you’re able to perform six. The adage about weightlifters becoming muscle-bound does have some basis in fact. That obviously applies to the larger bodyparts. so you only add one to the total number you do at each workout. I don’t like doing barbell inclines on the same day as flat benches. since those numbers are much easier to deal with when working . Also. Don’t use abbreviated motions for it will tend to shorten your range of motion over time. five sets of five. Some people cannot do chins – for a variety of reasons – or they simply prefer curls. In the process. You can also use it in a three-day routine be substituting it for the pushdowns every other week. so the weight is self-limiting.other words. That gives them a bit more variety. I typically have my lifters do two sets of 20. If the core exercise has been strenuous. It’s more difficult to increase your reps on chins than it is on dips. The formula works if you do it consistently and never cheat on the numbers. As with dips. I’ve always used the mean. Use lower reps on your closegrip benches so you can maintain perfect form. I have them start adding a back-off set on the core exercises to increase the total workload. One auxiliary exercise for the shoulder girdle that I’ve always liked is incline dumbbell presses. If you do incline dumbbell presses you increase the workload safely because you use high reps. On the light and medium days you can add two – but not two that hit the same muscle groups. for they play a part in securing the shoulder girdle. Always make sure you fully extend your arm on each rep. start by doing as many as you can and increase the number at each workout. before allowing lifters to move to four days a week. when you’re fresh. It’s too much load except for advanced lifters. as on a heavy bench day. There’s one critical form point. the next time you do chins you need to get a total of 22 reps. that’s a total of 21 reps. One other auxiliary movement I use once lifters shift to a four-days-a-week routine is the close-grip bench press. then one auxiliary exercise is plenty. That means a 300pound bencher will have his work cut out for him handling 50-pound dumbbells. make sure you extend your arms completely on each rep.

with groups of people. twos or even singles. I’m only speaking of the core exercises now. The lower reps hit the attachments. Singles help to raise mental limits and point out form errors more readily than high reps. ** Once you can do 20 dips without resistance. then the next you do three sets of five followed by two heavier sets of threes. regardless of your level of proficiency. for I always stick with high reps on the auxiliary movements. the next do a warmup of three sets of five followed by three sets of heavier triples. I do believe that singles have a place in a program. *** Once you start using weighted dips on Wednesday. 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. So one week you might do the standard five sets of five. Notes . I also understand that there’s value in doing lower reps on certain days and higher reps on others. And yes. use seated dumbbell presses on Friday. 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. One week do five sets of five. 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. Shoulder Girdle Routine Three-Days-a-Week Program Monday (heavy day) Bench Presses* – varies Incline Dumbbell Presses – 2 x 20 Wednesday (light day) Overhead Presses* – varies or Dips** – 4 x failure Friday (medium day) Incline Barbell Presses* – varies Pushdowns – 2 x 20 Dips*** – 4 x failure or Seated Dumbell Presses – 4 x 10 *Alter your sets and reps each week. do weighted dips instead of overhead presses at alternate Wednesday workouts. doubles or singles.

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 or curls – 2 x 20 Friday (medium day) Bench Presses*** – 4 x 8. do your dips without resistance and run the reps as high as you can. No back-off set. here’s the way to put it together. the next do four sets of eight or three sets of five followed by two triples. plus one back-off set of eight. After a month start adding one back-off set on all the core exercises. One week do five sets of five. If you dip heavy. Do one exercise or the other until you’ve been training for some time and feel you can handle both on the same day. *** Use heavy doubles. Notes . One set of eight reps will help increase the workload. Doing cleans of high-pulls on Monday and shrugs on Friday works well. 2 x 2 Dips (no resistance) – 4 x failure Close-Grip Bench Presses – 3-4 x 12 or pushdowns**** – 2 x 20 * Use the same varying set and rep scheme as described for the three-day program. **** In choosing the close-grip benches or the pulldowns. as that leaves Wednesday for some specific lower-back work. whichever exercise gets you the sorest is the one you should do more frequently. ** Alter your sets and reps each week. use dumbbells on the overhead presses and keep your reps relatively high – 10s and 12s. but if you do want to graduate to a four-day program. You may want to stick with a three-day routine indefinitely. If you press heavy.Be sure to include two upper-back exercises in your program each week.

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

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