How to Build Bulletproof Shoulders

Build indestructable shoulders with landmine presses, unique overhead carry variations, and much more. Here’s how.

Here’s what you need to know…

  1. Landmine presses are an effective "middle of the road"exercise between overhead work and true horizontal pressing exercises.
  2. If you’re dead-set on returning to barbell overhead pressing as you come back from a shoulder injury, test the waters with a bottoms-up kettlebell variation first.
  3. Athletes need to earn the right to train lats. You aren’t allowed to do pull-ups or pulldowns until you pass the back-to-wall shoulder flexion test. No exceptions allowed.
  4. Don’t train the rotator cuff to failure. Fatigue is your enemy when you’re trying to establish a strong and effective rotator cuff.

A lot of athletes refer to me as the “Shoulder Guy.” This is probably because I’ve personally evaluated more than 3,000 shoulders. With that experience comes a lot of new expertise in the shoulder arena. Below, you’ll find three examples of new things we’re doing to keep shoulders healthy and performing at high levels.

1. Use specific overhead kettlebell drills.

My role of the “shoulder guy” was actually born out of necessity, as I have a right shoulder that’s structurally a mess. Still, I’ve managed to work around it to move some solid weight for a guy my size, and it doesn’t give me any problems at rest unless I do something stupid – most notably overhead pressing and even incline pressing.

Still, I miss my overhead work, so I tinker and experiment with things quite a bit to see what works. For instance, landmine presses are an effective “middle of the road” exercise between overhead work and true horizontal pressing exercises.

If you really think about the arm path, this isn’t much different than an incline press, so why does the incline press often cause people more shoulder problems than landmine work? I suspect it has to do with the fact that having the upper back pinned against a bench limits the ability of the shoulder blades to freely rotate upward; they get stuck down into scapular downward rotation.

This year, to build on the “how you can overhead press without really overhead pressing” theme, I experimented with a lot with bottoms-up kettlebell overhead carries and pressing. I like the idea of starting with a carry because it teaches people where an appropriate “finish” position is, and then you can work backwards from it.

If you’ve successfully completed overhead carries, you can go to a 1-arm bottoms-up kettlebell military press:

The bottoms-up setup is more shoulder friendly because the unstable environment shifts more of the muscular contribution to joint stability than actual force production. In this regard, it’s very similar to doing a push-up on an unstable surface. So, if you’re dead-set on returning to barbell overhead pressing as you come back from a shoulder injury, test the waters with a bottoms-up kettlebell variation first.

2. Athletes need to earn the right to train the lats.

I have a true love/hate relationship with the lats. On one hand, lats are awesome in that they make you look jacked and contribute to high performance on a number of athletic fronts, from sprinting speed to throwing velocity. On the other hand, athletes love to use them to excess for other actions like breathing and core stability, and they shouldn’t be doing that much work. The end result? A lot of aberrant postures that look like this:

This guy uses his lats to do absolutely everything. Notice the crazy arching of his lower back, and the fact that his elbows sit about four feet behind his shoulders at rest. Additionally, most guys who overuse the lats will have heavily downsloped shoulder girdles (scapular depression), as well as limited shoulder flexion, as becomes apparent if you test them on their backs. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, the upper arms in the picture below should actually make contact with the table:


Nowadays, we spend a lot of time trying to teach athletes how to shut lats off when they shouldn’t be on. However, I know we aren’t going to talk you out of trying to develop that V-shaped torso with lat work, so what are some guidelines?

First, you aren’t allowed to do pull-ups or pulldowns until you pass the back-to-wall shoulder flexion test. No exceptions allowed.

If you can’t pass the test, make sure you’re foam rolling and stretching your lats out regularly, and practice this drill:

Second, if you find that your posture is like the one above, work hard to get out of extension on a daily basis. In other words, you likely need to posteriorly tilt the pelvis and flatten the lower back a bit – and then try to maintain this during your exercises. Yes, it sounds silly, but you might actually need to flex more and stop arching your back to improve your deadlift and squat technique.

Third, make sure you’re doubling up on the volume of overhead reaching in your program in order to iron out the top-to-bottom imbalance at your shoulder girdle. Good additions to your program would be wall slide variations, overhead carries and presses, and overhead reaching during warm-up drills.

Let’s say you’re doing four sets of six weighted chin-ups for a total of 24 reps. How would you get 48 reps of overhead reaching in during your training session?


Exercise Sets Reps
A. Dead Bugs 1 8/side
B. Wall Slides with Upward Rotation 1 8
C. Overhead Lunge Walk 1 4/leg
D. Alternating Lateral Lunge Walk with Overhead Reach 1 4/leg

Training Session

Exercise Sets Reps
A. Overhead Variation 3 6

It’s pretty simple, and it makes you realize that simply getting the arms overhead more – and with a neutral core posture – can easily shift your program back into balance. Remember, though, you have to earn the right to even train lats in the first place!

3. Get rid of the YTWL series.

You’re probably familiar with the YTWL series that has gained a lot of popularity over the past decade or so. It’s particularly common among strength and conditioning coaches who want to train a bunch of shoulder functions in a short amount of time so that they can get to the “big bang” stuff. Effectively, you take four exercises and do them in order with no rest – each for 8-12 reps.

The theories are admirable: healthy shoulders and training economy. Unfortunately, the outcomes are not. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen an athlete perfectly execute all of these movements on his first day – much less under the conditions of fatigue you’d get with a longer series like this.

That said, I love the Y; it’s awesome for developing lower trapezius control, which allows us to get appropriate upward rotation with plenty of scapular posterior tilt.

I also love the T; it helps us to recruit both middle trapezius and the posterior rotator cuff and deltoid – while making sure that the humeral head (ball) doesn’t glide forward on the glenoid socket.

The W is a great exercise, too, as it trains the ability to differentiate between movement of the glenohumeral joint (ball-and-socket) and that of the scapulothoracic joint (shoulder blade on the rib cage). You want the former, not the latter, and making sure that takes place means you’re getting great rotator cuff recruitment without “tugging” with the lats.

To be honest, I don’t particularly care for the L, as it’s too lat dominant. Still, even if I did like it, it wouldn’t matter because most athletes have butchered all three other drills by the time they even get to it!

Beyond the lack of technical coaching most athletes receive on these exercises, the problems are magnified by the presence of fatigue. The research is pretty clear that the best way to train the rotator cuff for high performance is perfect technique, but not even coming close to failure. Fatigue might be your friend when you’re doing a drop set for your quads or biceps, but it’s your enemy when you’re trying to establish a strong and effective rotator cuff. The ball just rattles around the socket instead of staying nice and centered.

The solution is very simple: replace the series with the individual parts spread out through the week. We might do a Y (prone 1-arm trap raise) on Mondays and Thursdays during lower-body days, and the T (prone horizontal abduction) and W (external rotation) on Tuesdays and Fridays on our upper body days.

Prone 1-Arm Trap Raise (Y)

Prone Horizontal Abduction (T)

Cable External Rotation At 90 Degrees, Scapular Plane (W)

You can sum this entire point up as,

“Do things correctly before you do them a lot or under fatigue.”