Inside-Out Shoulder Strength and Mobility

CrossFitters have shoulders of steel and excellent mobility, even if they look silly doing pull-ups. Here’s their secret.

I coach CrossFit. I know, I know, I’m sorry. It was an accident. But I kinda have a problem: I like motivated people that enjoy lifting and high-skill bodyweight movements.

And there’s something to be learned from this crazy “functional” stuff. Like, how can they do 20 muscle-ups followed by 30 clean & jerks followed by 40 snatches and 50 handstand push-ups and have any rotator cuffs left to take home? Then, to top it all off, they come back in the next day and do it all again!

Okay, I exaggerate slightly. You’d only do a workout that intense if you were a high level CrossFitter. But the shoulder prep and foundational strength that’s done to cope with that kind of workload? Well, that’s for everyone!

Imagine being able to reduce the amount of muscle fatigue you feel during big sets and speed up your ability to recover? Now that’s something even non-CrossFitters can appreciate.

These drills will allow you to easily build up shoulder and grip strength, while also building up all your little rotator cuff muscles.

Hanging Drills for Shoulder Health and Mobility

Let’s break each part down:

Passive-Active Hang

Think about pulling your shoulder blades down as much as you can to engage all your back muscles. You can either hold for 5 sets of 10 seconds or perform 5 to 10 reps with no pause. Try both and see if you fatigue easily. This is a basic shoulder movement and ideally you should feel like you could do it all day.

Hanging Shoulder Rotation

All the movement has to come from the shoulder and not the elbow… or weird bobbing movements from your neck. We’re looking for good shoulder mobility here, not head gestures that would accompany a naughty innuendo.

Many people struggle with rotations and it can feel unnatural at first, but it really shouldn’t. If it helps, try lifting your arms overhead and rotating your shoulders without holding on to a bar. This way you’re not having to lift your bodyweight so you can get a better feeling for the movement. Then, try it on the bar with your toes on the floor for assistance and build up to fully hanging rotations.

Think like a monkey in a tree. You have to be able to have that control to navigate from branch to branch; otherwise you’re just swinging and yanking your shoulder out of its socket every time.

Yes, CrossFitters may look like a floppy fish when doing butterfly pull-ups, but there’s actually a lot of coordination, control, and strength that goes into them. Butterfly pull-ups without the prerequisite control are a quick way to a dislocated shoulder or torn rotator cuff.

Even if you never have any intention of flopping about on a pull-up bar, this control and strength is important to your general shoulder health.

Single-Arm Hang

It’s incredibly important to be able to hold yourself from one arm and still be able to engage the lat, provided you’re not a heavyweight powerlifter.

A great strength test is to see how each arm matches up to the other. If one arm has tremendous endurance and the other slips after a few seconds, which arm you will favor in pull-ups and presses? Working on this will even help bring balance to your shoulders.

Single-Arm Rotation

Last in the video, we show you a demonstration of a full rotation from a supinated grip to a pronated grip. When I demo this at workshops, it’s amusing how many people freak out. But this is nothing compared to what you’d see in a gymnastics training camp! Despite the common reaction, this is simply a normal range of motion for the shoulder.

We demo it in the video because I want you think about how much range of motion you’re missing out on by not having a rotational element to your shoulder work. It’s kind of like only ever training squats without doing deadlifts – there’s a whole range of strength there that needs to be worked on.

However, please don’t try a full rotation unless you’re confident in one-arm hanging and you’ve tried it with your feet on the ground first. If you’re new to it, an easier way to build rotation strength is dumbbell shoulder rotations.

If you work to make all these movements easy, your shoulders will not only be smarter, but a hell of a lot more durable and able to cope with punishment from any training program. More stability, more strength, and fewer injuries – that’s hard to beat!