You can’t make gains if you’re making mistakes. Here’s a handful of common form breakdowns that happen on shoulder day—and tips on how to avoid them.
Google “shoulder training blunders,” and the search engine will spit out articles featuring gems like “Don’t use bad form,” “Always move through a full range of motion,” and “Never go too heavy.”
Well…duh! Those warnings apply to any exercise you do, regardless of body part. Still, I could remind you hundreds of times to follow textbook technique, but if you don’t know exactly what that is, you’ll simply repeat your errors. That is, until somebody points them out.
And that’s where we come in. Because instead of telling you to “use good form,” we’re going to show you evidence of the most-common delt-and-upper-traps mistakes. Do any of the eight listed here look familiar? Then we’ll show you how to correct them. That way, you’ll better recognize your own boo-boos so you can right the ship.
Blunder 1: Not leading with your elbow on lateral-raise movements
With lateral raises, a single-joint exercise for the middle delts, you start with your hand beside you and bring it out to your side just below shoulder height. There’s two ways to get there, but only one is effective for building the middle delts.
Let’s start by considering the role of the middle delt. By contracting it, your upper arm goes directly out to your side and up, an action called shoulder-joint abduction. The best exercises for the middle delts achieve exactly this motion—lateral raises, upright rows, even most overhead presses. Just watch the direction of your upper arm.
The blunder we’re focusing on here is one in which trainers keep their elbow low and raise their hand by hinging at the elbow. If you do this, your upper arm doesn’t move through much of the range of motion, even though your hand finishes where it’s supposed to.
Your hand and elbow should move as a unit on this exercise. Keep your elbow up; your entire forearm should be parallel to the ground at the top. The movement should resemble a wide, sweeping arc, which requires you to keep your elbow up. When you do that, your upper arm goes through the full range of motion, meaning the middle delt is fully engaged.
Blunder 2: Using the wrong grip for your goals on upright rows
Presses may be your top multijoint movement on shoulder day, but upright rows are another great exercise. Most individuals don’t give much thought to their grip, which is a mistake, because it can have an effect on muscle activation.
If you paid attention to the point made above, you’ll know that when your upper arms go straight out to your sides, your middle delts maximally contract. That happens when you take a moderately wide grip on a bar. But if you take a close grip on the bar, watch where your elbows go instead. They move forward noticeably. That puts more emphasis on the front delts and reduces it on the middle delts.
That may or may not be your goal. Ominously, however, it internally rotates the shoulders, which over time can contribute to poor posture, shoulder impingement, and rotator-cuff injuries.
Blunder 3: Extending your elbows on rear-delt cable flyes
We’d like to say only beginners make this mistake, but more advanced trainees often screw this up, too. To make single-joint shoulder movements effective, keep your arms locked in a slightly bent elbow position for the duration of the set, whether it’s reverse cable flyes, lateral raises, or bent-over lateral raises.
Once you start closing and opening up at the elbows, the triceps become part of the equation. This makes it a less-isolated move—and less effective. On movements like standing reverse cable flyes, many lifters mistakenly completely extend their elbows to 180 degrees at the end of the movement, then close them to about 90 degrees as they lower the weights. If you’re extending your elbows on shoulder exercises, congratulations; you now have a terrific triceps move. Too bad it’s shoulder day!
You’ve got to be aware if this is happening, so check your form in a mirror or have your training partner keep a close eye. Practice the motion with a light weight by locking a very slight bend in your elbows and holding it throughout the range of motion. If you’re still having trouble getting it down, do the movement on a pec-deck machine, which better forces you to maintain the proper elbow position throughout.
Blunder 4: Shortening the lever arm on cable front raises
When does a 35-pound weight not feel like 35 pounds? When you lengthen (or shorten) what’s called the lever arm. While this discussion of a concept from physics is addressed in biomechanics class, suffice it to say when you’re doing your single-joint movements for shoulders, like front or lateral raises, shortening the distance the weight is from your body makes the movement easier. Conversely, if you further extend your arm, it becomes more difficult.
Mind you, single-joint movements are done with your elbows locked in position, so your arm doesn’t open and close during the motion. The question here is whether the elbow is locked with a slight bend or is highly bent. With a highly bent elbow, the movement is easier than when your arm is fully extended.
What’s more, when doing front raises with highly bent arms, it’s very easy to also push your elbows out to your sides. Once your elbows start going out instead of forward, the middle delts contribute to the movement, meaning you’re no longer getting front-delt isolation. As such, the movement starts to resemble more of an upright row. Keep just a slight bend in your elbows that’s locked for the duration of the set to maximally tax your front delts.
Blunder 5: Going very heavy when pressing behind the head
The overhead press, the major multijoint exercise for shoulders, comes in a variety of types, each a bit different from the others.You can do them seated or standing, with dumbbells, a machine, or barbell, and take that barbell to the front or behind your head.
Especially when going heavy, beware of the behind-the-head barbell version. That’s because in the bottom position with the barbell behind your head, the shoulder muscles are in their weakest anatomical position, and going heavy significantly increases the risk of a tear, says Cal State San Bernardino assistant professor of kinesiology Guillermo Escalante, DSc, ATC, CSCS, who also owns SportsPros Personal Training/Physical Therapy Center in Upland, California. Instead, go in front of the head when doing very heavy presses, he recommends. When using more moderate weights, Escalante signs off on the behind-head overhead press.
Blunder 6: Rolling your shoulders when shrugging
The shrug is done by elevating your shoulders, ideally straight up against gravity. Shoulder elevation is not a rolling or rotation motion. But that’s what many bodybuilders mistakenly do.
The upper traps are best worked when you shrug in a straight up-and-down plane, because the muscle shortens optimally in only a single direction: up. Shrugging through any other plane reduces the exercise’s effectiveness while raising the risk of injury.
Blunder 7: Dropping your head on heavy shrugs
This is one you probably never paid much attention to, but trust me, you should. How would I know? Because I had neck surgery 13 years ago that was brought on by not paying attention to head position while I was shrugging.
When shrugging heavy, there’s almost a natural tendency to tilt your head down. (Just try it in front of a mirror and see for yourself.) Everyone does it. That’s exactly what I was doing, paying little attention to what I considered an inconsequential break in form. But the disruption in spinal alignment hit a breaking point, causing several herniated disks in the cervical region. For me, the resulting atrophy was in my right pec and triceps; it was as if someone put a pin in and popped a balloon. It got so bad that while I could press a 100-pound dumbbell with my left side in chest presses, I could barely manage 20 pounds with my right. Post-surgery, it took about two years for me to rebuild my strength on that side, and it topped out at about 95 percent of the left.
“The head should be facing straight ahead,” says Escalante, himself a bodybuilder. “If you look downward, you’re putting the cervical spine into flexion instead of maintaining a neutral neck position. When the cervical spine is in flexion and large loads are used—as is common when doing upper-traps work—extra torque is applied to the cervical spine disks, which could lead to herniation. This can result in serious problems such as tingling down the hand, weakness, and atrophy of the affected extremity.”
This situation is easily addressed, but you have to consciously remember it on each rep. Always look straight back at yourself, and use a mirror to remind you. Resist all tendency to turn your head downward!
Blunder 8: Waving a dumbbell on rotator-cuff movements
It seems almost like a waste of time training a muscle group that’s not visible, but rotator-cuff training is like buying insurance for your bench press—or any other movement in which the delts play a significant role. The four relatively small muscles of the cuff (teres minor, infraspinatus, supraspinatus, and subscapularis) predominantly stabilize the shoulder joint by working in conjunction with the delt muscles.
Where things start to go wrong especially is when the ratio of strength between the two becomes out of whack, perhaps because you train your delts ferociously over time but not the rotators, which increases your risk of a damaging rotator-cuff injury.
Selling you on the benefits of rotator-cuff training is one thing; getting you do them right is apparently quite another. All too often, I see folks in the gym stand upright while planting an elbow into their side, forearm parallel to the floor and dumbbell in hand. In my book, the rotation around the elbow is a swing and a miss, namely because the line of pull must come from across your body. That’s not happening when you’re standing holding a dumbbell—not by a mile! That’s why cables with the pulley set to about waist height is your only safe bet when standing. You can still do internal and external rotation movements with a dumbbell, but you’ll have to be lying on your side or on your back.
Training to avoid injury isn’t sexy, but doing internal and external rotation exercises are important for healthy rotator cuffs and long-term shoulder health. You’ll want to do them right!