shoulders Sports Performance swim swimmers shoulder The Training Edge

Ready for Shoulder Season? Here’s how to help your training clients claim strong shoulders.

National Academy of Sports Medicine
National Academy of Sports Medicine

They power sports performance, functional fitness, and healthy posture—and may turn heads. Here’s how to help your clients claim strong shoulders.

By Brian Fiske

After a long winter and short spring, summer is making its much anticipated arrival. For most people, Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of outdoor fun—everything from swimming to playing catch with the kids. And for some of your clients, things get a whole lot more active than that. Just look at the explosion of triathlons. USA Triathlon’s membership has boomed in recent years to more than half a million, and the organization now sanctions more than 3,500 events each year.

So right now there are lots of people who are ready to splash into the water and move more than they have all year. Powering much of that action: shoulders. Yes, it’s shoulder-baring time—and with all that swimming, running, and more, it’s also shoulder-working time. With your NASM training, you’re prepared to help them do it all, while heading off injury, improving range of motion, and maybe even warding off depression. Keep reading, and get ready to help.

A Tricky Joint

Ask Rick Richey, MS, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, MMACS, LMT, owner of R2 Fitness in New York City, about the most common misperceptions that people—trainers included—have about shoulders, and he’ll quickly point out the problem of thinking that the shoulder is only the point where your arm attaches to your torso.

“Trainers should always consider the full shoulder girdle,” Richey says. It includes three joints and 17 key muscles. Among them: the rhomboids in the upper back, the levator scapulae that run through the back and side of the neck, and the pectorals of the chest. “In order to address the health of any one of these, all must be evaluated,” Richey says. Fortunately, your NASM training gives you the tools you need to perform those assessments.

What you’re most likely to see? For many—especially people who work long hours at a desk, or those who tend to focus their activities solely on swimming, running, or biking—it’s a combination of inflexibility and overactive and underactive muscle groups. This leads to a rounded posture and poor range of motion, which sets the stage for a litany of problems.

“Training and racing with imbalances can easily lead to injury,” says Dennis Mohagen, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, swim coach and athletic coach with Tri Fitness Training Center in White Bear Lake, Minn., who works with clients ranging from 9-year-old hockey players to adult Ironman athletes. “And living with such imbalances is uncomfortable. You need balanced strength—shoulders included.”

Act on a Hunch

An example of the importance of shoulder work is highlighted in the story of an Ironman triathlete Mohagen is working with. She won her age group at an event last summer, but she didn’t have the back and shoulder stability to hold her posture. “She told me that, at the finish, she felt hunched over like an old lady,” he says. “She was concerned about injury.” Developing postural strength is a core part of her program now.

“In running, we focus on the crown of the head staying tall,” Mohagen says. “In swimming, a cue I use is to imagine that the athlete is being pulled to the other end of the pool by the crown of the head. You’re trying to maintain that same tall posture.” But, he adds, much of the ability to stand tall throughout exercise depends on shoulder—along with back and core—strength.

“A lot of the postural issues I see stem from a lack of shoulder—particularly posterior—work,” Mohagen says. “On their own, people tend to focus on pec and biceps work, and it exaggerates poor posture and leads to upper-crossed syndrome.”

Shoulders in Shape

So how do you build the strong shoulders your clients need?

  • Focus on flexibility. “With my swimmers, especially the triathletes, the first priority is flexibility and range of motion, along with stabilization,” Mohagen says. “We’ll start with a lot of the basic movements, like a radioulnar pronation and supination [holding a weight with your arm at your side, then rotating the arm in and out], with light weights.” It ties into the first step of the Optimum Performance Training™(OPT™) model, but Mohagen points out that it’s not about strength with these movements—it’s about reengaging a range of motion that many clients lack.
  • Find balance. Balanced strength is what makes shoulders look good and perform at their peak. Your assessments will find where clients lack balance. But, according to Richey, it generally means developing and strengthening posterior delts and traps (middle and lower) and rhomboids. “This can help bring everything back into alignment and out of the hunch,” he says.
  • Don’t work through pain. Muscles may burn or feel sore, but joints should never hurt or pinch. If an athlete comes to you with that kind of pain, don’t proceed—it could be a sign of impingement, an irritation of the rotator cuff or bursa that, with repeated irritation, could require medical intervention. “Anyone with shoulder pain should see a physician rather than a trainer,” Richey says.
  • Work the chain. It all comes back to the kinetic chain and the relationship between your shoulders and the rest of your body. “Almost everything we do is a compound or full-body movement,” Mohagen says. “Even if we’re doing a rear delt movement, I’ll add something like a single leg Romanian deadlift, or squat to curl to press.”
  • Be ready to show. In recent years, Mohagen has added a new tool to his repertoire: his iPad. Why? His work with swimmers and triathletes has taught him that clients with shoulder imbalances aren’t always aware of when they’re in or out of alignment. So, if they’re struggling with their position during a workout (swimming or otherwise), he’ll take a short video to quickly show them how they look. “They’ll say ‘It doesn’t feel that way,’ ” he says. “But then it’s amazing how quickly they adapt to the correct position.”

 What the Science Says: Surprising Side Effects of Slouching

The shoulders-rolled-forward effect of too much time hunched over your desk (also associated with overactive pectorals and anterior deltoids) can do more than give you a slouched look. Studies have connected poor posture to:

  • Depression. A 2012 San Francisco State University study published in the journal Biofeedback found that a slouched posture can increase feelings of depression.
  • Higher stress. Harvard Business School researchers have found that people who slouch have lower testosterone levels and higher cortisol levels than people who stand in more powerful poses—both of which are signs of stress.
  • Low confidence. The same study found that slouched posture—and the associated hormonal shifts—also leads to low self-confidence.

The good news: Research has shown that standing in a more erect, open position (straight and tall with hands on hips, for example) for as little as two minutes can create positive changes in mood and stress levels. Specifically, it can increase testosterone by about 20% and decrease cortisol by about 25%. Posture matters—in more ways than you think.

Boost Your Skills

Full Range, Full Power

The shoulder is a complex and complicated joint that’s a key part of athletic endeavors from basketball to triathlons, as well as everyday concerns like proper posture. Two NASM specializations—Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES) and Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES)—in particular give you the ability to spot shoulder imbalances (including ones that lead to upper-crossed syndrome), improve full range of motion, prevent injuries, and build the strength needed for your clients to perform at their peak, fight fatigue, and look their best.


Dennis Mohagen, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, fractured his scapula when he was in high school—an experience that taught him the importance of injury prevention.

Rick Richey, MS, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, MMACS, LMT, is an NASM Master Instructor who enjoys helping clients with all areas of fitness—including their shoulders.



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National Academy of Sports Medicine

National Academy of Sports Medicine

Since 1987 the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) has been the global leader in delivering evidence-based certifications and advanced specializations to health and fitness professionals. Our products and services are scientifically and clinically proven. They are revered and utilized by leading brands and programs around the world and have launched thousands of successful careers.