Bulletproof Your Shoulders, Pt. 1

Shoulders. They’re sort of important. If you are an overhead athlete (I include climbing in this category), you need your shoulders to be mobile and strong at the same time. If you are mobile and not strong, it doesn’t matter how flexible your shoulder is because you will not be able to produce force in those end-range positions. You won’t be able to control a snatch/press/overhead squat. You won’t be able to get into an awkward gaston or layback and generate to the next hold. You won’t be able to hang low off of a sloper effectively. (If you’re not a climber and the last two sentences made no sense, don’t stress about it too much. But you should probably try rock climbing…it’s awesome.) If you can’t control movement, it’s not a safe movement. If you’re strong but not mobile, you won’t be able to express that strength in overhead positions because you cannot get there, or at least you cannot get there safely.

Both moving well and expressing strength are skills. Skill improvement requires practice. I’ve been playing with a variety of drills in my quest for better shoulder health. Some haven’t worked for me, while some have improved my shoulder movement quality immensely. This is one drill that’s a winner in my book.

The Kettlebell Armbar

Of course one of these drills involves a kettlebell. Have you met me?

Why it works: The Arm Bar encourages safe Thoracic Spine rotation and extension. It also challenges the stability of the glenohumeral joint, which is the ball and socket joint that most folks consider when they think of the shoulder joint. The mobility of the shoulder joint is reliant on the health of some joints closer to the center of the body. One of the key factors to shoulder mobility is actually thoracic spine mobility. If our thoracic spine is immobile, our shoulder blades have to pick up some of the slack and become more mobile. This could be problematic seeing how the shoulder blades are the stable base for glenohumeral movement. If we lack scapular stability, the shoulder joint or the muscles/soft tissue surrounding it may compensate by becoming stiffer and restrict our range of motion.

How to do it:

First off, if you have a diagnosed shoulder injury or orthopedic condition, make sure you clear exercise with a medical clinician and reach out to a StrongFirst, RKC, or Strength Matters Kettlebell instructor to learn the Arm Bar and other kettlebell movements. (I am certified through StrongFirst, but the other two organizations are also great systems.)  If you are unsure about whether this exercise is right for you, or are unsure of the technique, find the appropriate instructor.

-Lay on your back and press a LIGHT kettlebell up with your left hand, like you would in the beginning of a Turkish Get Up. Reach your right arm up behind your head.

-Keeping your right arm and leg straight, bring your left knee towards your chest and roll to your right.

-Find a “tripod” position with your left knee and breathe. As you get more comfortable, allow that left leg to extend and contract your left glute to move your hip towards the ground. These contractions should be gentle and rhythmic. If you don’t feel comfortable moving out of the tripod, that’s fine. Just hang out there.

-Gently “walk” your right arm back on the ground. Go easy and do not force it. Take your time. Both shoulders should be pressed away from the ears at all times. Think about making your collarbones “long”.

-The kettlebell arm should be controlling the kettlebell and keeping it as stable as possible. A little wobble is fine (that’s where learning happens), but control should always be present.

-Breathing should be deep, gentle, and into your belly.

-I like to count my breaths, and usually hover around the 8-10 breaths each side, for a couple rounds.

Here’s a quick video example:

A good time to do this would be before your training session as part of a warmup before an overhead session, or worked in with your overhead practice. These types of mobility drills open a brief window to access a greater range of motion. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Think of the strength or performance work you put in after the mobility work as the “glue” that helps keep the positive changes that have been made.

Give it a shot!



Interested in learning and refining kettlebell skills? If you’re in the Chattanooga area, come try a kettlebell class at Crux Conditioning. Feel free to contact me if you’re interested. If you’re not local, StrongFirst has a page on their website that allows you to locate a nearby instructor.