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Let's start with what this article is not. It is not a top 5 exercises to develop great looking delts with lateral, front, and rear delt raises to develop each of the heads. Don’t worry, you will develop some amazing looking delts in the process as that also happens to be the output of strong healthy shoulders.

The Author’s Shoulders

It is a piece to help you develop strong, healthy, and powerful shoulders that can deliver tremendous power while reducing risk of injury in such a complex joint. This top 5 is for developing functional strength movements for the shoulders. Yes, I said the dreaded word ‘functional’. But I’m not talking namby-pamby soda can exercises, I’m talking real movements that develop strength while helping improve the operating mechanics of the shoulders. If you’re not familiar with my background or approach I am certainly a coach and athlete interested in real-world results and believe that stronger is better, so you won’t find remedial PT exercises promoted by me. While I am best known as coach and movement specialist these days, I’ve been (or am, depending on your outlook) one of the best pure strength athletes in the world. This top 5 list contains exercises that I employ in the fields I consult in and will help you achieve what they do:


• Step in the ring and deliver a searing punch to send your opponent back seeing stars
• Clock back and throw a fastball or football without dislocating your shoulder
• Draw an arrow on that massive compound bow for that long range kill
• Bench 600+lbs without tearing a pec or rotator cuff
• Take your whole body and transfer that power into hammer or shot put without straining your shoulder

First lets discuss the components of healthy shoulders. You are looking to have strong, massive shoulders that also have:

 Scapular mobility – The ability for the shoulder blade to glide up across the rib cage as well as depress and retract the scapula. When this gets locked up the entire shoulder girdle ends up moving to compensate causing poor joint centration. As a result the joint and muscles around the joint are compromised. (i.e. pec tear on the bench press is a potential outcome)

 Scapular stability – The ability to stabilize and hold the scapula in any of these positions. When you lack stability you cannot control the joint position. An example is compromising the shoulder into internal rotation (elbow flaring out or ‘winging’ as the shoulder moves up towards head) in the bench press. Lack of stability may result in rotator cuff tears, impingement, or AC joint issues.

 Thoracic mobility – The thoracic spine is the region between the neck and the lower back, essentially the spine where the rib cage is connected. If you lose either extension or rotation in this area of the spine your body will have to compensate to find the mobility elsewhere. Besides issues similar to scapular mobility, the most common outcome of this is excessive strain placed on the lumbar spine resulting in herniated and bulging discs.

 Internal rotation – IR can be best visualized by simply imagining reaching behind your back to put a backpack on. When IR is lacking the joint position is compromised in certain movements increasing injury risk. This can often be seen in the Bench Press at the bottom of the lift when the entire shoulder girdle has to roll forward for the bar to touch.

 External rotation – ER can be visualized by putting the elbow out to the side and raising the hand up like you’re going to high five someone. Again without proper ER the joint position will be compromised and much like lacking thoracic extension the stressors will be moved to the lumbar spine when trying to get into an overhead position. When doing overhead presses the lifter with no ER will be seen arching hard in the low back.


5. The Kettlebell Arm Bar

The kettlebell arm bar is a great movement as it hits a number of fronts and is fairly simple. It is great for working on thoracic mobility, scapular stability, and can be used to really cue the forcing and opening up of external rotation. It can have some impact on scapular mobility as well. There is a bent arm version of this that people love to use but I’ve found that the basic version as shown in the video below from Kabuki.MS is more than adequate. Just make sure that you are always trying to achieve ‘more’ external rotation with each repetition. This can be done as a strength training exercise but usually we employee this is the warm-up phase or an off day recovery move.


4. The Turkish Getup

The Turkish Getup is one of the big daddy’s of shoulder strength and health. We begin working on basically all aspects of shoulder health listed above. The posting arm on the floor must achieve and hold stabilization. In addition we begin integrating stability into the core. For maximal shoulder stability the shoulder must be finding stability from a properly pressurized and stabilized core that is also finding its base from a stable surface. For more detail and information on core stability and rooting please see Kabuki.MS

The Kabuki.MS Movement Portal

Unfortunately, the getup does take quite a bit of cueing to be done properly. Here is a video of the first 4 steps in the 7 step Getup. If you are going to spend some time doing these I highly encourage you to find a certified instructor (not just someone who says they know). Strong First has one of the best certifications out there. If you find an instructor who is highly dogmatic go ahead and learn from them, just don’t drink the Kool-Aid that kettlebells are ‘the only way’. Some people in this field have been taught this and while they are a highly effective tool, it is just one of many tools.


3. Band Snatch

The band snatch is the only movement in this group that isn’t really a strength-training move. It is really only a warm-up tool, but it’s included in the list as it is highly effective, easy to do, and takes very little time. In this movement you are working the shoulders and scapula through a broad range of movement plus hitting the rotators.


2. The DUR

This is also known as a kettlebell Face Pull but since it isn’t really a face pull I use the name DUR (short for Duffin Upright Row). What this movement does is takes the standard upright row and eliminates the impingement issues, while adding in shoulder rotation, and scapular retraction. It is incredibly powerful movement and typically done 1-2 times a week in our programming. It can be done as a warm-up but needs to be done extremely light if this is the case, but typically employed as a development exercise at the end of a training session. I like to do 4 sets of 20 and encourage you to always stay in the 16-20 rep range with these. Keep the weight light as you will find that it gets very challenging to keep form at 12-14 rep range.


1. The ShouldeRok Swing

Yes, this is the big daddy of all big daddy’s in regards to develop shoulder health and strength. With the ShouldeRok we have taken one of the oldest forms of strength training tools known and improved the tool and the method. This type of training originated from the shoulder strength and development for Indian wrestlers using a device called a Gada. Today we have a micro loadable device using standard Olympic plates called the ShouldeRok. The swing has also been refined to integrate the core stabilization methods based on Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization that we rely heavily on with Kabuki.MS principles.

What is the ShouldeRök™?

This is a tool primarily designed for athletes (amateur to professional), coaches and practitioners. As a precision loadable tool, the ShouldeRök™ when used correctly will increase strength, mobility, and continuously reinforce our need for core stabilization. The ShouldeRök™ challenges us as athletes, aids in reaching new PRs and most importantly, helps to keep us injury free and lifting like Vikings for years to come. Sound interesting? Keep reading and we’ll tell you more…


  1. Retrain your nervous system to ensure a stable, braced, neutral spinal position for maximal and safe performance under a heavy load.
  2. Improve scapular and overall shoulder mobility, especially for athletes with impingement due to years of wear and poor movement.
  3. Increase rotational strength and athleticism in pulsing (speed to contraction and speed to relaxation).
  4. Reinforce correct breathing to further support spinal bracing for ALL heavy lifts and movements that require transfer of power from the ground into an implement (ball, bat, club, etc) – You cannot use the ShouldeRok correctly w/o setting up properly, in this sense it is a tool that reinforces a principle required of all athletes – power transfer through the core.

You can find out more about the ShouldeRok or purchase it here.

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