Saturday 13 November 2021

How to Build Rock-Solid Shoulder Stability

What do building muscle, athletic domination, or enjoying vibrant fitness for a lifetime have in common? They all require strong, stable shoulders. However, the shoulder is a tricky joint that causes many problems for athletes and lifters. In addition, there is a lot of confusion and misconceptions surrounding shoulder stability training. Here is your guide to building strong, stable shoulders.

First, Get Medical Clearance
If you currently have issues with your shoulders, your first stop is to find out what is going on. An athletic therapist or physiotherapist who specializes in orthopedics can be a good first step. You could also speak with your doctor about a referral to a sports medicine doctor. You need to know if you have a health issue with your shoulders, or if they are just weak and unstable. If you have a health issue, get it treated. If your health care professional says you just have weak/unstable shoulders, keep reading!

Understand Your Shoulder Joint 
The shoulder is technically a ball and socket joint like your hip joint. However, unlike your hip joint, your shoulder has a very shallow socket. This design allows for a huge range of motion but comes at the cost of less stability. This is why you often hear of someone dislocating a shoulder, but rarely hear of hip dislocation. 

Now that is a shallow socket! 

Rotator Cuff & Shoulder Stability
Your rotator cuff muscles start on your scapula (shoulder blade) and connect to the head of your humerus (upper arm bone). They position the head of your humerus and pull it into the shallow shoulder socket. When they are strong and working properly, you get strong, stable shoulders.

Traditional Rotator Cuff Strength Training ≠ Shoulder Stability
Traditionally, people with shoulder instability, got isolation exercises to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles. Here is an example: 

These rotator cuff exercises can be helpful to increase blood flow to the rotator cuff, increase strength, and help with muscular balance at the shoulder joint. In other words, they are not bad or useless. If your health care professional gives them to you – do them! However, they fail to get the rotator cuff doing what you actually need it to do – stabilize your shoulder! As Physical Therapist Gray Cook has explained, stability requires a fast, reflexive reaction that keeps a joint in alignment and controls unwanted movement. 

Get a Grip!
One of the easiest ways to increase shoulder stability is through your grip (a tip I learned years ago from Strength Coach Brett Jones). Stop reading for a second and squeeze your hands together. What did you notice? If you squeezed hard, you likely noticed a wave of muscle tension that went up to your arm and into your shoulders. For many exercises (especially pressing), you can increase your shoulder stability by squeezing your hands. 

The Big-3 of Shoulder Stability 
Here are some of my go-to shoulder stability exercises for clients and athletes. As with any exercise, do not do it if it hurts you. Learn to do it properly before you worry about trying to load up the weight. 

1. Bottom’s Up Kettlebell Carries 
This is a great one to start with. Find a shoulder position that feels comfortable. Crush the handle and go for a controlled walk. Use a spotter or keep your other hand ready to help prevent a concussion. Try 2-4 sets per side with each hand. Walk approximately 20-30 meters per set.

2. Bottom’s Up Kettlebell Press
With this one, you crush the kettlebell handle and slowly press it up. Move your elbow in or out to find a comfortable range. Use one arm at a time. Start with a partial range of motion and gradually increase, as your shoulders get stronger and more stable. Again, use a spotter or keep your other hand ready to help prevent a concussion. Try 2-4 sets per side with about 5-10 reps. Go slow and controlled. 

Shoulder Stability Exercise 3: Get-Up Variations
The get-up is great for building stability in your shoulder as many other parts of your body. It also forces you to get strong and stable in multiple planes of motion. 

Level 1: Modified Arm Bar
The traditional armbar is more of a shoulder mobilizer. However, if you avoid trying to twist your chest towards the ground, it can be a good shoulder stabilizer. Try holding this position for 10-20 seconds. Switch sides after each hold. Try about 4-8 holds per side.

Level 2: Half Get-Up
The half-get-up will still build a lot of stability. It is also a little easier to learn and do than the full get-up. Be sure to stop, pause, and “own” each position on the way up and back down. Try 3-6 reps per side. Switch sides each rep and rest as needed between reps.

Level 3: The Full Get-Up
The full get-up takes you all the way to standing and back to the ground. Again, make sure you “own” each position. Try 3-6 reps per side. Switch sides each rep and rest as needed between reps.

Other Considerations
In addition to this direct shoulder stability work, you can adjust your training program to use exercises that require shoulder stability in various positions

Zercher Squats require shoulders stability with your arms at your sides.

Suspension Strap Push-Ups let your build upper body pushing strength and stable shoulders.

Rows are great to build upper back strength to help you. Learn to do them properly by fully squeezing your shoulder blades together. Then get really strong at them. 

Loaded Carries
In addition to the bottom’s up carries we covered previously, there are several loaded carry variations that can help with shoulder stability and functional strength. Here are a few more examples:
Shoulder stability with your arms at your sides: Farmer’s Walks

Shoulder stability with arms at your chest: Goblet Carry or Double-Kettlebell Racked Carry  

Shoulder stability with an arm overhead: Waiter’s Walks

I wish you all the best on your journey to stable shoulders and the rest of your training goals! 


  1. Solid choices coach. Love bottoms up KB work.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Shane. I hope all is well with you!