It is common for a lifter to seek boulder shoulder status. While having protruding, rounded shoulders certainly looks nice, the shoulders are very vulnerable to injury. The demands of a sedentary, desk-ridden society already makes our shoulders unhappy, and if you translate this dysfunction into the gym, you're gonna have a bad time.
I have dealt with my own shoulder issues in the past, and I know just how aggravating it can be to have to modify workouts or avoid certain movements. Ultimately, I had to learn the hard way what exercises provoked my shoulder pain. Many common-place shoulder exercises can be effective for deltoid and pectoralis hypertrophy, but they also promote instability and compensation. For both myself and my clients, there are four main exercises that I avoid for the sake of sparing their shoulders:
- Pec flies. Regardless of whether you're using cables, dumbbells, or even the pec-deck machine, you're most likely better off without them. With this movement, many lifters tend to go well beyond the necessary range of motion to isolate the pectoralis muscles in transverse shoulder flexion. You also run the risk of sufficiently irritating your biceps tendons. Instead, they end up stretching the hell out of their anterior deltoids and forcing their shoulders into a yucky internally rotated position that makes me cringe. For chest development, I prefer to have clients do reverse grip bench press, neutral grip dumbbell bench press (with a slow eccentric focus), and Spoon presses. If you're hell-bent on keeping pec flies in your workout routine, try to minimize the range of motion so that your arms only go slightly above parallel, and make sure you maintain a slight bend in your elbows.
- Behind-the-neck lat pull-downs. I've addressed my feelings about behind-the-neck exercises previously, so to save you from a redundant rant, I'll give you the abridged version: these movements (especially in lat pull-downs) encourage you into flexed cervical spine and often reinforce poor shoulder movement. Very few people possess adequate shoulder and thoracic mobility to perform these. If you really want wings, stay away from these. Instead, try rowing variations, pull-ups (you add weight or go chest-to-bar if you want a greater challenge), straight arm pull-downs, and maybe the occasional Red Bull. (I couldn't resist...)
- Box dips. In a recent Instagram video, I mentioned that I stray away from programming dips on a bench or a box. Effectively, this variation places unnecessary stress on the anterior capsule and tendons of the shoulder. To perform these, a client must flare the elbows out excessively, while the shoulder again shifts into a precarious position. You will see this as well on bar dips, but to a lesser degree, because the athlete's shoulder and elbows are closer to his center of mass. The ideal way to do dips, in my opinion, though, is on the rings. The rings force the athlete to properly adduct his shoulder, and his arms are closest to his center of mass (thus resulting in a more mechanically advantageous position. If you're currently unable to do ring dips, stick to push-ups on the rings, and then slowly progress to a full ring dip.
- Upright rows. I'm sure you've heard trainers shun this exercise before. While I think it can be helpful for developing the shoulders for the right client, there are always other options. I've found that they cause more harm than good for most people, as usually the anterior deltoids are the strongest part of the shoulder. Instead, many people would benefit from training the posterior or rear deltoids with back flies to balance out the omnipresent imbalance from front to back.
In general, gym goers can benefit from fewer pushing exercises and more pulling exercises. I usually propose a 2:1 ratio for upper body pulling:pushing days. By this, I mean that you should only spend about one day per week doing bench press, push press, etc. (or at least with those movements as your primary focus), and two days with a pulling/rowing focus. The anterior deltoids and pectoralis tend to run the show (especially in men), and, thus, can cause a lot of pathologies and mobility restrictions. Your rhomboids, rear deltoids, lats, and lower trapezius can always benefit from some more love and attention.
There are plenty of safe and effective exercises that will still give you strong shoulders, such as those that I've listed in this article. You can be smart about your upper body training and avoid nagging injuries that will keep you sidelined for weeks at-a-time. Make these changes to your routine, and your shoulders will be happier in the long run!