The Essentials of Building Powerful Shoulders

Everyone wants bigger, stronger shoulders. Those boulders that sit atop your arms looking like to engorged melons with stylistic striations.

There’s a common obstacle to building shoulders up and it’s this:

Everyone seems to have shoulder problems

The causes for these shoulder problems are as numerous as they are preventable. One of the most common problems is that the shoulder is constantly “rolled” forward into the arm pit due to constriction of the chest and a lack of back muscle engagement. Another common problem is ignorance of how the shoulder should operate: watch any newbie at the gym start a military press and you’ll see what I mean. They throw the weight over their head and as long as they continue to press upwards they feel golden. Despite their “successful” lifts they still develop shoulder pain.

Let’s look at each of these issues and their respective solutions in turn.

The Movements of the Shoulder

The first thing we need to realize is that the shoulder doesn’t push or pull, it rotates. Subtle rotations in the shoulder manifest in much larger movements of the arms. Common movements are flexion, extension, and abduction.

Shown here are archetypal dramatic displays of the basic movements of the shoulder. Next we need to understand how rotation comes into play.

As the shoulder moves into flexion the associated rotation action of the shoulder is external rotation. You can picture this by holding your right thumb straight up in front of you, as you flex the shoulder your thumb should rotate clockwise. The contraction of the anterior deltoid is the primary mechanism of this rotation and of the flexion movement.

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Similarly, abduction relies on the middle deltoid head.  While there is some debate on whether your shoulder should be internally or externally rotated as you engage in this movement, I suggest experimenting with both and going with what feels best to you.  Personally, abduction works best for me when I focus on having a small amount of internal rotation at the shoulder.

Lastly let’s talk about extension which relies on the contraction of that posterior deltoid head. Acting antagonistically to the anterior head the posterior head is responsible for the external rotation capabilities of the shoulder when in a neutral position. You can picture this by holding your right hand by your side with your thumb pointing forward. Try to rotate your shoulder so that your thumb moves clockwise. This is external rotation and hopefully you can now see how if you have overly tight chest muscles your ability to externally rotate your shoulders is limited.

Internal and external rotation and their relations to the deltoids are not a perfectly opposing relationship.   Although the posterior deltoid plays a role in external rotation it’s capabilities can be limited by your ability to internally rotate the shoulder.  Go ahead and replicate my image above of shoulder extension.  Notice that as we engage in extension the posterior deltoid contracts and the shoulder becomes internally rotated. This exemplifies the complex relationship of the rotational movement nature of the deltoids and emphasizes the importance of building shoulder strength on top of already supple movement: if you have a tight chest the answer is not to strengthen your rear delts to “balance” out the tension forces acting on the shoulder. Essentially this is trying to fix a broken system by building on it. This only results in muscle built on a shaky foundation.

To effectively build muscle and strength on a solid foundation we need to fix the problem of the tight chest and correct our training movements in such a way that we don’t favor the chest and anterior deltoids.

Limited Mobility

It’s not uncommon to meet a very strong weightlifter that looks like they’re constantly being pulled forward by their shoulders. As a community we tend to focus on building big powerful chests and despise mobility work. The result is that the muscles of the chest get tighter and tighter which pulls that head of the humerus forward in a “rolling” fashion.

However we are not just seeing this trend with weightlifters. Thanks to long hours at a desk followed by more time craned over mobile devices regular people are developing this same movement pattern and experiencing extremely limited shoulder mobility. This isn’t a new phenomenon but has recently been brought into the limelight by books such as Kelly Starrett’s Deskbound.

This consistently constricted chest pulling at the head of the humerus makes it nearly impossible for the shoulder to move correctly. This manifests in a general loathing of raising your arms overhead. We can make this movement much less painful by restoring the ability for the shoulder to move through it’s entire range of rotation. We do this by employing self-myofascial release.

My favorite tool for working on the shoulder and surrounding areas is a common lacrosse ball, if you don’t have one in your gym bag get one. They’re cheap, portable, and highly effective.

To loosen up tension acting on the shoulder from the chest we are going to focus on the pectoralis major (specifically near the clavicle), the pectoralis minor, and lastly the anterior deltoid.  Below is a set of videos I believe to be extremely effective for mobilizing the shoulder.




Building Powerful Shoulders | The Overhead Press

Provided you have a healthy starting point and are only dealing with mobility issues your next step should be to master the overhead press. The overhead press is my favorite shoulder exercise because it works all three heads of the deltoid.  If you think that the overhead press only works the two forward heads of the deltoids and excludes the posterior head you may want to reconsider your form.

I’m not saying you can’t do any accessory work to build your shoulders but unless you have a serious shoulder problem the overhead press should be the central exercise to strengthening your shoulders.

Below is a video by Bret Contreras explaining some of the mechanics of the overhead press as well as proper set up.  It’s not the most exciting video but it is as high quality of instruction as you can get online.


Habits and Supplements to Master Your Sleep

Sleep, the often sacrificed aspect of our training regimen. Sleep is hugely important to athletes: it’s a time when we recover and recharge. Additionally shorter periods of sleep are typically associated with increased levels of obesity in and adults. Honestly, it doesn’t take a thesis level article to explain to you why you should be getting quality sleep, you already know a lot of the benefits.

I have always enjoyed my sleep a little too much. I was your typical teenager that’d sleep as long as possible, the only grade schooler I knew that could sleep 12 straight hours, and even as an adult I tried to maintain 8-9 hours of sleep a night. The point is I liked to sleep A LOT and if I didn’t get a lot of it I didn’t feel very rested.

As you can imagine needing a lot of sleep requires being able to go to bed at a regular time, being able to fall asleep efficiently, and waking up well rested. In this article I’m going to share the habits and supplements I’ve been using to ensure quality rest.


In my article in Habits I listed out the four major antecedents to forming any new habit:

  1. Reward
  2. Consistency
  3. Behavioral Cues
  4. Simplicity

To effectively battle insomnia and ensure quality sleep we need to make going to sleep a habit that adheres to these four aspects. We can do this through the process of ritualization.

Firstly, pick something you can regularly do before bed that you find enjoyable and rewarding. It is extremely important that what you pick is extremely simple as this will ensure regular consistency.

For example; at 9:00 pm every night I put a kettle on the stove and make a cup of herbal tea for my wife and I. Since we regularly try to go to sleep by 10:30 pm this acts as a simple cue that we need to begin winding down: turning off TV, brushing teeth, read a book, etc.

Personally, I really enjoy herbal tea and have a few that I keep around that are quite relaxing. The tea in and of itself is a reward and a behavioral cue. It’s simplicity lends itself to being repeated nightly.

Rituals like this don’t work right from the onset. Typically it’s going to take some time to establish it before you can yield its benefits. But once it is in place it becomes a strong physical tool to alter your mental state towards preparing for sleep, which ultimately will lead to better and more consistent sleep.


Zinc, Magnesium, and Melatonin

I’ve had my fair share of bouts with insomnia. During college I was a little too familiar with pulling all nighters and eventually my body developed this nasty resistance towards wanting to fall asleep.

A few years out of college and into weightlifting the majority of nights spent tossing and turning seemed to have subsided. This was a huge upgrade, showing that a change in lifestyle was what was needed most, but I was still have trouble falling asleep quickly and staying asleep.

On nights that I could feel that sleep would not come easily I would take 3-5 mg of melatonin and this would help me get to sleep quickly, however it did not help me feel like I was getting quality sleep. Shortly after I met my wife she introduced the idea of supplementing with zinc and magnesium prior to sleep to more restful sleep.

Research has shown that zinc, magnesium, and melatonin cocktails can successfully aid insomniacs with getting to sleep quickly and actually resting during sleep.

While I don’t have a study on hand to back this; I believe that melatonin stimulates that body’s desire to sleep, however encourages more levels of stage 4, deep, sleep which is good but not wholly restful. The inclusion of zinc and magnesium is able to shift this stimulation somewhat to promote greater levels of stage 5, REM, sleep. REM sleep is typically associated with dreaming and one of the primary subjective changes people experience with including zinc and magnesium is a sudden increase in vividness and frequency of their dreams.

Personally I try to take the melatonin sparingly so I don’t develop a tolerance/dependence on exogenous melatonin. Additionally, I will take a week or two off of zinc after a while as regular zinc supplementation has been known to drain trace mineral reserves such as copper.


Recently I’ve been experimenting with taking an amino acid supplement before bed: Glycine. Research has shown that taking 3 grams of glycine an hour before bed produces a positive subjective feeling upon waking.

In my own personal experience glycine appears to work almost as effectively as advertised (which is stellar in the supplement industry). I have noticed a clearer effect when I take closer to 5 grams but this could simply be due to my size. Also beaware that it took about 4 days before I noticed a regular effect.

The addition of glycine into my bedtime supplementation has dramatically increased my ability to wake up and get after it. It’s essentially taken that feeling of “oh, bed so comfy, just 5 more minutes” and has replaced it with a eagerness to start the day. Which is much more than I get out of the majority of supplements I have taken.

How do I take these?

The most effective method I’ve found for ingesting these supplements so far is to put all items in a shaker cup. Unfortunately I can only find zinc and magnesium in tablets that are somewhat resistant to dissolving in water so this takes a lot of forethought and planning.

Regularly I add 3-5 grams of glycine, 3 mg of melatonin (the tablets will dissolve in water), and propel for flavoring to a regular shaker cup. Drink this 30-60 minutes before sleep.

Additionally I will take 400 mg of Magnesiumand 30 mg of Zinc in tablet form when I drink the aforementioned cocktail. I have experimented with crushing the tablets and adding them to the shaker. Unfortunately these minerals take a very long time to dissolve in water and it’s much easier to leave them in tablet form.

In Summary

Sleep is important and sadly it seems to be the first thing high performing people are willing to sacrifice to get the job done. Sleep is not an inconvenient time waster, it is primary component of our daily recovery, both physical and mental, and deserves to be prioritized.

Regular oversleeping or insomnia are likely caused by people with irregular sleeping schedules (except for in cases diagnosed by a medical professional). Ritualization can help correct this and provide a structure for establishing a regular sleeping schedule.

Some supplements are worthwhile when trying to get the most out of sleep. Glycine, Zinc, and Magnesium are great supplements to take nightly before bed and sparingly including melatonin can help ensure falling asleep in a timely manner.