4 Top Exercises for Improving Shoulder Stability

4 Top Exercises for Improving Shoulder Stability

Today we are going to shine some light on a few of my personal favourite exercises to include in a strength & conditioning program to build shoulder strength and stability.  These are not my top absolute strength and power exercises, since those consist highly of the barbell lifts and their variations, which allow for maximal motor unit recruitment.  The exercises in this article are my favourites to include in order to develop well rounded function and stability to the joint.

Often times when people think about the overall action of the shoulder, they think of the involved musculature, but not necessarily the more passive structures that play a role in the overall stability, function and tissue health of the joint, without having a contractile or force producing component.  These structures include the ligaments, bursae, labrum, joint capsule, nerve roots and vascular structures.  Also included, are the bones that comprise the shoulder joint (scapula, clavicle, sternum, ribcage and humerus).  The architecture of the shoulder is unique in that its ball and socket design allows for an appreciable amount of movement.

The ball shaped head of the humerus (upper arm bone) sits on a shallow fossa (or articular cavity) of the scapula. It is this configuration that allow so much movement to occur.  The ability of the shoulder to permit such a wide range of motion, does create an equal opportunity for injuries to occur if there are imbalances or aberrant movement patterns.

With this in mind, and without getting into an incredible amount of detail on each individual muscle and their respective roles in movement and stability, just take a look at these few images I stole from the internet to get a visual of the complexity that this joint has.

Screenshot 2018-05-02 12.46.03

(Joint capsule and structural ligaments)

 Screenshot 2018-04-27 13.58.22(4 muscles that comprise the rotator cuff) 

Specifically, get a visual for the number of lines of action or directions that the shoulder can move in, the number of involved structures and the make-up and layers that compose the actual rotator cuff.

Screenshot 2018-04-27 13.41.01

(Lines of action that the shoulder is capable of)


With these visuals in mind and an accepted understanding that the shoulder has a lot of moving parts, we can take a look at some exercises that I feel have proven their use in any well rounded strength & conditioning program.

  1. ½ kneeling landmine press (and all other landmine press variations)

IMG_2891 IMG_2892

(Start and finish position for the shoulder on a ½ kneeling landmine press)

The landmine press is awesome for a few reasons.  One of the primary reasons is that the actual action of the landmine press allows us to easily teach an individual to reach and create movement of the scapula on the ribcage.  This function is often neglected in the bench press population or even just not addressed for a number of athletes.  This is especially important for anyone with current pain, a history of recurring shoulder injuries or those who perform a lot of overhead work.

In the picture on the left, notice the position of the upper arm, staying slightly off the body at 30-45 degrees as well as stopping in an active position at the bottom.  The picture on the right shows the scapula upwardly rotated and elevated.  This leads to a proper congruent movement pattern between the scapula moving on the ribs and the upper arm, leaving the ball properly situated on the shallow socket along the movement path.

In the training geek world, we call this scapulohumeral rhythm, as well as glenohumeral rhythm (the ball moving with the socket, rather than off its point of contact).

*Program prescription example:   4 x 8/side, 3 x 10, 2 x 15-20

  1. Push ups

IMG_2887 IMG_2889

Push ups are a staple and offer so many variations.  The actual push up can and has been the topic of so many posts by so many people, that I won’t spend the time covering all of it, nor could I likely touch on ALL of the aspects of push ups.  Instead, I will highlight a few things I love about them and why you NEED them in any program:

  • They promote proper scapulohumeral rhythm (scapula and humerus moving together appropriately on the ribcage)
  • The allow you to safely “reach” at the top, engaging the anterior muscles that work on the scapula and ribs. This improves overall shoulder function and creates a more stable joint.
  • They are easy to teach and easy to regress or progress
  • They can be safely used to accumulate a lot of volume
  • Easy to quickly load with plates or chains
  • They can be done anywhere, with zero equipment
  • They involve a solid amount of anterior core work with no additional exercises needed

*Program prescription examples:   5 x 5-8 (weighted), Max reps in 2 minutes, 3 x Max reps, 1 Weighted drop set x 50 total reps


  1. Non fixed inverted rows (aka. Ring rows or equivalent)

 IMG_2894 IMG_2896

The main reason I chose “non-fixed” variations of inverted rows (meaning not a barbell or rigid/fixed structure), is that they allow more individual variance in wrist, elbow and shoulder mechanics.   The ability to turn the hand even a few degrees can pay off huge for long term joint health or when battling through a minor flare up in the upper limbs.

Safety is also top priority, so these variations win out for me when it comes to my clients and getting a lot of volume of pulling exercises with virtually zero worry for any problems to arise.

The rows are needed to strengthen the posterior aspects of the rotator cuff, the scapular retractors and the big powerful lats.  All of these structures work together to move and stabilize the shoulder, so incorporating a lot of horizontal pulling with these variations just makes sense.

The upper back in general can handle a lot of volume, so these are prime exercise variations to accumulate this work, while sparing the often more vulnerable lower back.  Other rowing variations are also awesome, such as 1 Arm DB rows and bent BB rows, but in general the non-fixed variations win with regards to the purpose of this article.

The benefits are similar to push ups:

  • They promote proper scapulohumeral rhythm (scapula and humerus moving together appropriately on the ribcage)
  • The allow you to safely “reach” at the bottom, while under tension, without risking issues elsewhere in the body.
  • They improve overall shoulder function and create a more stable joint.
  • They are easy to teach and are easy to regress or progress
  • They can be safely used to accumulate a lot of volume
  • Easy to quickly load with plates or chains
  • They can be done anywhere, with minimal equipment and an overhead attachment point

*Program prescription examples:   5 x 5-8 (weighted), Max reps in 2 minutes, 3 x Max reps, 50 reps completed rest-pause style


  1. Face pulls

IMG_2884 IMG_2882

Face pulls can also be done with various pieces of equipment, such as rings, TRX straps, a cable stack or bands.  Their benefits are similar to that of inverted rows as discussed in #3, except they offer the added ability to also improve glenohumeral rhythm (moving the ball properly in the shallow socket).

The nature and line of action of a face pull also lower the overall load used and allow you to incorporate a variety of pulling lines and rotations to include more fibers of the rotator cuff.  This variety makes for a great opportunity to strengthen the shoulder joint from these other lines of action and is also easy to teach.\

Variations can include, but are not limited to:

  • ½ kneeling variations (cable or band)
  • Standing variations with rings or TRX straps
  • Face pulls with external rotations
  • Face pulls into Y-presses or T’s

These are just a few other examples to give you an idea on the variations and possibilities that this exercise category can include into a full training program over time.  Rotate the variations, put them in between other work sets, include them in warm ups or just use them on their own for rehab or improved shoulder health.

They work and can be loaded with a decent amount of volume once used to them.  I typically program them for sets of 10-20 reps and also like to do drop sets and total volume sets to accumulate some metabolic stress.  Lots of options, toss them in and enjoy the benefits.

*Program prescription examples:   2 x 15-20 (constant tension), 2-3 x Max reps, 50 reps completed rest-pause style, 3-4 x 10 (heavier if familiar with them)

Cheers to happy, healthy shoulders!

Keep your training simple and effective,