Get Bullet-Proof Shoulders with 5 Exercises

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Shoulder problems are part of the golden trio of injuries for climbers:

  • Fingers
  • Elbows
  • Shoulders

Shoulder stability is key.

In this post we look at the basic anatomy of the shoulder and give 5 exercises any climber should consider to keep their shoulders ready for the send.

Why You Need Strong Shoulders

Unsurprisingly having an issue in the shoulder can often be the root cause of elbow or finger injuries, as these take the brunt of the force that should be absorbed by the shoulders.

Increasing shoulder strength and stability is therefore one of the most important factors that a climber should concentrate on in his or her strength training.

Strong shoulders will relieve much of the stress that can be distributed lower down the upper kinetic chain.

Here, when we talk about the shoulder, we include all muscles involved in scapula stability. Given their role in shoulder and scapula strength we also include certain muscles of the upper back.

Effectively, for strong happy shoulders we need to consider:

  • The shoulder
  • Scapula
  • Upper back

Understanding the Shoulder


The shoulder has an unusual construction and this is one of the main factors leading to it regularly getting injured.

Most major joints achieve stability and alignment as the bones are literally perfectly aligned and locked together at the joints.

There is a trade-off between mobility and strength and stability. The shoulder has incredible mobility, allowing the joint to rotate through near-360 degrees, though stability is sacrificed.

It’s an intricate system of multiple smaller muscles all supporting the joint, which adapt very easily to stress and posture. This means that it’s easy for certain muscles to get too strong (such as the internal rotators) and others are left out (external rotators).

Shoulder Anatomy

The shoulder, scapula and upper back in this context are also called the extrinsic and intrinsic muscles of the shoulder. Extrinsic start from the torso and attach to the bones of the shoulder. Intrinsic start from the scapula or clavicle and attach to the humerus.

The shoulder:

  • Front, side and rear delts.
delt anatomy

The rotator cuff :

  • Infraspinatus
  • Subscapularis
  • Teres minor
  • Supraspinatus muscles
rotator cuff anatomy

The scapula:

  • Levator scapulae
  • Rhomboid minor
  • Rhomboid major
  • Serratus anterior
  • Trapezius
rhomboid and levator scapula anatomy

Exercise List for Stronger Shoulders

Dumbbell Lateral Raise

This is great for hitting the side delt. The other benefits of the dumbbell lateral raise include:

  • Easy to perform, making it great for beginners.
  • Can be performed with cables, dumbbells, resistance bands, or kettle bells.

Stand straight, feet shoulder width apart, with your arms straight down parallel to your sides, palms facing in. Raise your arms and lift the dumbbells up and out to each side, stopping when your elbows reach around shoulder-height. Pause and hold for a second at the top of the movement. Control the weight as you return to the starting position.

Perform the movement nice and slow for added benefit.

Full Can Flexion Raise

This isolates the rotatorcuff supraspinatus.

Stand facing a mirror with the hands rotated so that the thumbs face forward. While keeping the shoulder blade ‘set’ and keeping the elbows straight, raise the arms forward and upward to shoulder level with a slight outward angle (30°). Pause for one second and slowly lower and repeat.

Lying External Rotation

This targets the teres minor and infraspinatus, working the external rotation. Lying flat gives the extra benefit of really isolating the shoulder.

  1. Lie on one side and support your head with your hand. Hold a dumbbell in your opposite hand, with your elbow bent at 90 degrees at your side. Hold the dumbbell in front of your stomach.
  2. Raise the dumbbell by rotating your upper arm in a sweeping arch motion. Keep your elbow close to your torso. Pause when you are no longer able to rotate your shoulder without moving your elbow. Return the weight to the starting position.

External Rotation Shoulder Press

One of the best climber specific shoulder exercises out there, effectively combining an elevated external rotation with a shoulder press. This hits the whole rotator cuff and works scapular stability.

This can be performed either with a resistance band or cables.

Start kneeling on your left knee with your weight on your right bent leg. With your arm bent at 90 degrees, hold your elbow elevated at shoulder high and your forearm parallel to the floor. This is the starting postion.

Keep your upper arm in a straight line out to the side rotate your shoulder externally, keeping your shoulder blades engaged and pulled down. Once externally rotated perform a shoulder press movement, pushing up and then hold for 2 sedonds at the top. Slowly reverse the movement.


These are great for the back, particularly the traps, levator scapulae, rhomboid and rotator cuff.

Start holding the TRX leading backwards with arms in front. Keeping your scapula engaged and shouders set, raise your arms above your head into a I position. The body should remain straight, with an engaged core. Return to your initial hanging position, then pull into a Y and followed by a T.

To make these easier or harder either increase or decrease the angle at which you perform them.

If you don’t have a TRX at hand they can also be performed with rings or using light weights. With weights you need to lean forwards on a bench or medicine ball.


Improving stability is one of the main things we’re looking to do with shoulder exercises. This comes from lower level activation.

Ego’s should be left at the door when performing these as we’re looking for low weight with high reps.

If there’s any shaking during the reps then it generally means the weight is too strong. You’re looking for a deep, slow and steady burn.

To build endurance do high reps (12 to 15) using lighter weights or resistance bands. The latter are ideal as they maintain constant tension on your muscles throughout each rep. The more time under tension, the more strength you’ll build.


There we go. 

This set of shoulder and upper-back exercises is guaranteed to improve shoulder strength, scapula stability and improve your posture.

They should be performed 2 or 3 times a week and incorporated into your general strength and conditioning program to ensure your shoulders remain in bullet-proof condition.

Have you had any shoulder issues and what exercises helped get over them?

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