Balance Your Shoulder Strength and Build Power

We could all benefit from stronger, healthier shoulders. Typically a guy will try to make his shoulders stronger with overhead press variations, side raises, and the like. While those exercises certainly have their place in any strength program, they often provide little stimulation to the external rotators.

So a guy will train hard and neglect the external rotation movement. Then one day he tears his rotator cuff or experiences a shoulder injury. One of the reasons this can happen is because there was a significant strength imbalance between the internal and external rotators. Few guys need more internal rotation work because they’re already getting so much of it from a plethora of horizontal pressing exercises.

One thing a guy can do to make his shoulders stronger and healthier is train his external rotators. When you think of training the external rotation movement you probably have visions of isolated exercises with red rubber tubing or 5-pound dumbbells.

However, one exercise that has always been part of my athlete’s strength programs is the upright row with external rotation. The benefit of this movement for power athletes is that it also engages the posterior chain since it starts from a high hang position that engages the hips. Plus, it’s about as explosive as an external rotation exercise can be. Those two factors allow you to train with heavier weights: something every power athlete loves.

I’m not a fan of most upright row variations anymore, thanks in large part to the writings of shoulder experts like Eric Cressey. Nevertheless, in terms of shoulder health I like this exercise for two reasons.

First, the movement consists of only a partial upright row so that reduces the risk of impingement. Pulling any higher can place undue stress on the shoulder joint, even if they’re healthy. Second, the exercise smoothly transitions into external rotation and most of us need more strength in those muscles to balance out the shoulder joint.

Also, the upright row with external rotation is an excellent intermediate step before merging into more complex Olympic lift variations such as the hang snatch. And it’s also a great stand-alone muscle builder.

Before we get to the video, I must clarify which type of athletes should perform the upright row with external rotation because it’s not for everyone. Even though it’s great for strengthening the external rotators, it’s not for someone who recently injured his shoulder or had shoulder surgery. In the early stages of physical therapy slower, lighter exercises should be emphasized.

But if you’re a guy who wants to build some muscle and balance out your internal/external rotation strength while engaging the posterior chain, give this exercise a try. Start with 4-5 sets of 6-8 reps twice per week.

Stay Focused,

8 thoughts on “Balance Your Shoulder Strength and Build Power

  1. This is featured quite prominently in BOF, if I’m not mistaken. After seeing the video, I think I was doing it more like a cuban press that whole time. So thanks for the video, it’s much clearer now.

    I’ve been looking for more external rotation/pulling exercises since reading from Cressey and others that for healthy shoulders, a 2:1 or even 3:1 ratio of pulling to pushing is best. I think I’ll put this exercise back in my training.

    Good stuff, Chad! Glad to see you blogging again.

  2. Because of impingement, I had a cortisone shot in my right shoulder in December which has helped a lot. Would you recommend this exercise for me? If not what do you recommend and how long should I wait before trying these?
    BTW, I am in wk 2 of Getting Ready from HIAH.

    CW: Start light and slow. If it doesn’t cause pain, stick with it.

  3. I have an older guy’s shoulder with very littel cartilage. I do cross body snatches with a dumbell keeping the elbow at about 90 degrees. The target is the medial trap and scapular retraction. I also will do the classic Pharoah external roatation without the upright row as part of a continuous rotator regimen. Is this form of row and external rotation a preferred progression?

    CW: Yes, if this exercise doesn’t cause pain, use it.

  4. Chad,
    For those of us with chronic or recurring shoulder issues, what do you recommend for rehab/prehab work to improve shoulder health.

    CW: That’s a loaded question that I’ll get to in a future post.

  5. great stuff as always Chad. I have a stupid question, does the 1arm pushup help the external rotators at all? specifically i’m asking about the method nick t. teaches them?

    CW: It doesn’t help much.

  6. Is there an exercise that can be performed with a barbell that works the same muscles? (I work out at home and don’t have any dumbells at this time.)

    CW: You can do the same movement with a barbell.

  7. This is exactly what I have been looking for. I separated my AC joint last July doing bench press and it is finally starting to feel back to normal. Thank you

  8. Hey, I know this isn’t directly related to the subject, but I hope you will answer anyway. In your HIAH program, what do you think of substituting chin ups/pull ups and dips from a stationary bar, with the same exercises but from rings? Would It perhaps be better? Thanks a lot, it is a great book

    CW: You bet it’s better. Thanks for the support.

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