I’ve been an athlete my entire life.

And while I dabbled in many sports, ranging from football, soccer, wrestling, and baseball, the one that I love most is lacrosse.

Before I found lacrosse, I spent my most of my youth with a baseball in my hand. I would consider myself pretty good at baseball, although I was not overly tall, had a weak arm, and a pitch so inaccurate I wasn’t allowed on the mound.

That all changed when I reached my freshman year of high school and picked up a lacrosse stick for the first time. I would end up playing lacrosse through high school as well as college, and I’ve never looked back.

Me and my teammates, during my senior season at The University of Tennessee:

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Lacrosse is violent.

It’s a sport wrought with scrapes, bruises, broken bones, and concussions. Collegiate and professional players tend to avoid injury a bit more than youth because of their skill and speed, but the sport can ring bells at all levels. Case in point, here’s my buddy, Luis, getting rocked by a Georgia player, while I search for the ball.

Sorry bro:

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Me, freshman year:

 

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It should come as no surprise that I’ve had my own injuries playing the sport:

  • at age 15 I ran into a guy much larger than me and broke my left collarbone in half
  • at 19, a partial tear in my calf from a wild shot
  • at 22 a sprained MCL, benching me for three games
  • at age 24, during the annual University of Tennessee alumni game, I badly separated my right AC joint (where your collarbone meets your should blade)
  • countless cuts and bruises
  • no concussions, thankfully

That collarbone would go on to heal an inch shorter than my right side. This was probably due to the emergency room equipping me with only a sling to help it heal. No brace. No surgery. You wanna know what hurts? Shifting in your sleep and feeling two bones slide past each other.

It kills.

The joint sprain would take eight weeks to recover and many more months before I would regain my upper body strength. I missed lots of workouts during that time. When I finally fully recovered, I learned that there were some exercises I could never do again without lots of pain.

Would I trade in all those years of lacrosse to have a less banged-up body?

Hell no. I loved every second of it.

Nowadays I just have to be extra careful and pay special attention to my shoulders, upper back, and my exercise technique to ensure I don’t have problems in the future.

Thanks to lacrosse, I have shitty shoulders

I won’t put 100% blame on lacrosse, though. When I first started weight training, I bench pressed way too often and didn’t do enough upper back rowing to offset it. My chest got bigger, but my shoulders rounded forward, and my back got weak.

Lacrosse injuries + bench pressing + no upper back strength work = terrible shoulder health

Good new for you, though, is that through my pain and suffering; through my blunders as a novice trainee; I’ve come to learn a lot over the years about shoulders, how they function, and more importantly, how to keep them healthy and happy.

Healthy + Happy shoulders = lifting big weights pain-free for life

Enter the Definitive Guide to a Stellar Upper Body Warm-up

These exercises will keep your shoulders moving and grooving like they’re supposed to, allowing you to press big weights for years to come

A) Band Pull-aparts

This is a simple exercise: grab a band with either an over- or underhand grip, and pull the bar apart. Keep arms straight throughout the movement. Note: no one cares what your pull-apart strength is. Check your ego and go with a light band. This is supposed to warm up your shoulders, not fry them before you even touch some weights.

Try 2-3 sets of 15-25; can also be used between sets of bench press variations as a “filler exercise”

B) No Money

Similar to the pull-apart, this helps with shoulder external rotation while firing up some muscles in your upper back called the lower trap. Strengthening the external rotators of your shoulder help to keep the humeral head in place, providing more stability. The lower trap helps to upwardly rotate your shoulder blades, providing stability and making it easier to press big weights overhead.

Try 2-3 sets of 15-25; can also be used between sets of bench press variations as a “filler exercise”

C) Scap Wall Slides

This is a one-two punch for your serratus anterior, which helps keep the shoulder slide around your ribcage, and your lower traps. Both muscle groups help guide your shoulder blades through protraction and upward rotation, the motion that occurs when pressing weights overhead or pushing things away from you.

Make a “Y” with your arms on the wall. Keep your rib cage down by bracing your abs or exhaling during the motion, slowly slide your arms up and overhead, with a slight “lift-off” at the top. Pull them back to start and go again.

Try 2-3 sets of 8-10

D) Kettlebell Arm Bar Rotations

Like “no money” above, the KB armbar helps fire up and strengthen the muscles of your rotator cuff, which help stabilize your shoulder joint. A stronger and more stable rotator cuff will allow you to press heavier and heavier weights without risk of injury.

Lie on the ground with a KB in the air. Throw one leg over the top, while laying your head on the arm underneath you. Keep an eye on the KB, making slow clock- and counter-clockwise motions. Squeeze the KB handle as hard as possible which irradiates or “lights up” the muscles of your rotator cuff even more.

Do 2-3 sets of 10 CW/CCW motions per arm

E) Inverted Rows

These are important for two reasons: it helps to warm up and strengthen the muscles of your upper back, which provide stability during pressing exercises like the bench press. It also gives you some much needed upper back volume (as defined by more sets and more reps).

Remember when I said I have shitty shoulders due to my ignoring the muscles of my upper back? Well, this is a great way to add some upper back work without compromising the rest of your workout.

More upper back strength = stronger bench press, deadlifts, and rows

Do 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps

F) Farmer’s Walk

Because of irradiation when you squeeze really heavy DBs and carry them for a distance, your rotator cuff muscles have to work overtime to keep everything steady. Grab a pair of heavy DBs and go for a 20-30 yard or 20-40 step walk, turn around, and re-rack your weights

Do 2-3 sets of 20-40 yards

G) Spiderman Instep/T-spine Windmill

Both exercises target your thoracic spine, which is the part of your spine that’s responsible for the rotation of your torso. We want mobility throughout our T-spine because allows us to move better while reducing injury risk, specifically to our shoulders.

A flexible and mobile T-spine allows you to reach out, back, and overhead without a compensatory motion through your low back. Keep your upper back healthy and moving, and your presses will get stronger, faster.

Do 2-3 sets of 5-8/side

H) Stick “Preacher” Stretch

This is probably one of my favorite catch-all drills. I’ll give credit where it’s due: I learned this one from the amazing coaches over at Cressey Sports Performance. They specialize in baseball players, so they know their way around a shoulder. If you have issues, seek help, but also check out their work. They’ve saved me a number of times.

The preacher stretch* not only mobilizes the muscles around your shoulders (lats, teres major/minor, triceps) but also opens up your thoracic spine, allowing greater rotation and mobility through your upper back.

The key here is the breathing: as you slide back into your hips, fully exhale all the air out of your lungs (the breathing *makes* the drill). After all your air is out, sit back up and take a big breath in.

Repeat the movement and breathing for 1-3 sets of 5-8 big breaths.

*I dunno why I call it that. Just roll with it

I) Bear Crawling

Starting on all fours on the floor, raise your knees just above the ground, maybe 1-2″. Move opposite limbs – left with right; right with left – and crawl across the floor. “Make a box” with your shoulders and hips, and stay steady throughout the movement. Crawl for 10-15 yards slowly, taking each step one at a time.

Your rotator cuff, along with your traps and serratus anterior, has to stabilize your arm and shoulder blade. Bear crawling helps fire up those muscles for increased stability and strength.

Do 1-3 sets of 10 yards

J) Yoga Push-ups

The Yoga push-up is a great way to take your shoulders for a ride, warming up the muscles of your shoulders, chest, and firing up the rotator cuff.

It also allows you to challenge your shoulder mobility.

Your shoulder blades can slide forward, backward, up, and down. But most of us stay in just one or two of those positions all day long. Which is a shame, because we’re never truly testing our abilities.

The yoga push-up takes your shoulder blades forward, backward, and up overhead, training the muscles that not only stabilize your shoulders but move your shoulders around.

Do a normal push-up, but as you lock back out, shoot your hips towards the ceiling. You should try and invert enough for your arms to go overhead. Slowly come back down and do it again.

I suggest 2-3 sets of 5-10 reps as part of your warm-up

Putting it all together

“But Andy, do I have to do all these exercises, every time I work out?”

Absolutely not.

In fact, I’d suggest spending no more than 5-10 minutes on 3-5 of these exercises as part of your warm-up before you start getting into the weights.

Don’t overlook this stuff

Part of the reason I see so many individuals with crappy shoulders is that they think they’re better than this stuff. That “it won’t happen to them.” And guess what: they’re wrong and they pay the price

If you’re injured, you can’t train. If you can’t train, you can’t make the gains you’d like.

Think of it like investing: even a small bit, over time, leads to massive gains

So pick a couple of them, changing it up each time if you’d like, and invest in your shoulder health. Even 5 minutes will go a long way to keeping you healthy, happy, and pain-free.

Got questions? Contact me and I’m happy to help!

Andy Van Grinsven

About Andy Van Grinsven

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