They say that you need a niche in this industry in order to succeed.  I disagree and believe that you need to be good at most things and know about almost everything. Niches, in my opinion, develop over time and become what you are known for not what you do.

Maybe that’s the whole point of a niche.

Anyway, recently I started working with an athlete who had a nagging shoulder issue. I referred over to a physical therapist to rule any major issues out and got clearance on what we could do and what to avoid. It’s hard to step back sometimes, but it can be necessary to move forward.

I’m happy to report he has no pain and is back to training his sport better than he’s been in a long time.

That got me thinking, I’ve worked on a lot of people with shoulder issues.  Some I’ve been able to help and strengthen, others we’ve had to work around and modify exercise in order for them to keep training. Some, I’ve had to refer out and totally okay with that.

I’m a big believer that most people don’t care what exercise they do, what they want results and the peace of mind knowing someone is watching out for them.

A good example of this is one of my folks with a finicky neck. Anytime he presses overhead, it irritates his neck and shoulders. Initially, he wanted to avoid any pressing movements as that tended to cause pain, totally justified. But that leaves is very limited in our exercise selection, and it’s not a long-term solution for healthy joints and lifelong strength.

So we avoid overhead pressing, do low volume incline pressing, maximize horizontal rows and do some horizontal pressing.  The idea here is to strengthen the maximum range of motion that he can handle without pain so we have a healthy and active upper body.

That being said, it’s totally understandable to run into people who avoid a particular movement or exercise due to pain. As a strength coach, it’s our job to help work around pain and build healthy movement patterns with whatever that particular person has.

Over the years, I’ve worked with several folks with shoulder issues. Specifically, overhead pressing tends to be a big pain for folks. Sometimes horizontal pressing but that’s usually a mobility issue. You could say I developed a shoulder niche, I’d argue that it’s more of a movement awareness niche but you say tomato and I say tohmahto kind of deal.

Here are 5 of my favorite exercises to use instead of overhead pressing to build strong and healthy shoulder. Try them out and let me know how they go.

Single arm row

I love this move. You can really load it up because you are supported by the bench. Sit back into your hips for added support for your low back and keep your torso rigid.  Check out the video for more cues.

Bottom up carry

It looks very simple but there is so much going on here. First, you have proprioception of the arm having to balance the kettlebell over your hand, that helps kick on your stabilizers. Next, your grip has to be white-knuckle tight in order to keep the handle from slipping, this sends an activation signal to the shoulder and helps strengthen the muscles there. Finally, it looks cool on Instagram, you’re welcome.

Band pull-a-parts

Noah at APM reminded me of these a few years ago. They use to be a staple in my programming but somehow made it out, they’re back!  These are great for activating the mid back and strengthening. This is key for supporting the shoulder girdle which is your foundation for healthy shoulder movement.

Landmine ½ kneel press

I like this option as a modified overhead press. Technically, you are pressing at an angle and not overhead.  That helps take the stress off the neck and upper shoulder capsule which can be problematic for some. I make this harder by putting folks in a half-kneel and cueing a braced core, this avoids any low back extension during the press.

Speed skater variations

I saw my daughter strengthen her arms in order to crawl by using this move. It was fascinating to watch.  In about a week and a half, she went from rocking on her hands and knees to crawling forward. This is a great option to help build shoulder stability in a supportive way.

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