Building Bulletproof Shoulders

Aug 1, 2011
by James Wilson  
Get a group of mountain bikers together and a lot of them probably have or have had some sort of shoulder issue. From overuse injuries due to hours in the saddle with bad posture to impact injuries from crashes, the shoulders are a sensitive area that takes a lot of abuse in our sport. Fortunately, you can use a smart training approach to both rehab back bad shoulders and create bulletproof shoulders to guard against a future injury.

To best do this you need a 3 pronged attack:

1 - Mobilize: You first need to make sure that the upper back and shoulders are mobile enough to get into the right position in the first place. Hours spent hunched over in our daily lives and when riding results in some muscles getting "locked long", which means that they literally can not shorten enough to allow the shoulders to get back into a good position. Foam rolling the upper back and lats along with a T-Spine mobilization drill done with the foam roller are some of the best ways to address this problem.

2 - Pattern: Once you have established proper mobility you need to train the shoulders to move properly. The basic idea is the get the shoulder blades to pull back and down so that they can help stabilize the shoulders. If your shoulder blades move up and out then your shoulders get pulled into a bad position and are much more likely to get hurt. A corrective exercise like the Reach-Roll-Lift is a great way to re-pattern how the shoulder moves and help ensure that your shoulders stay strong and stable.

3 - Strengthen: Now that your shoulders have adequate mobility and proper movement has been patterned it is time to get them strong. Shoulder strength comes from a strong upper back stabilizing the shoulder blades and an understanding of how pressing comes from a forceful lockout of the elbow. Two of the best exercises for this purpose are the Quarter Get Up and the Single Arm Shoulder Press.

In this video I demonstrate how to do these exercises:

Views: 24,217    Faves: 243    Comments: 14

A good place to start with these exercise would be to do a program like this once or twice a week:

- Foam Rolling: 10-15 strokes along the upper back and both lats
- T-Spine Mobilization Drill: 10 reps
- Reach-Roll-Lift: 5 reps each arm
- Quarter Get Up: 5 reps each arm X 2 sets
- Single Arm Shoulder Press: 5 reps each arm X 3 sets

Shoulders that have adequate mobility, stability and strength are much less likely to get hurt and, if they do get hurt, are going to heal up much move quickly. What's more, getting your shoulders into the right position will also help with your overall body position and balance on the trail - bad shoulder position will make it hard to achieve the butt back-chest down posture needed for proper body position as demonstrated in the Body Position Clinic I posted a few months back.

This is another example of why strength training is a must for mountain bikers - no amount of riding can help create bulletproof shoulders. In fact, a lot of riding will actually help create the bad posture that can increase the chance of them getting hurt. If you're serious about staying on the trial and off the couch rehabbing an injury then you need address this sensitive area.

MTB Strength Training Systems is the world leader in integrated performance training programs for the unique demands of mountain biking. As the strength and conditioning coach for the Yeti World Cup Team and 3 National Championships, his programs have been proven at the highest levels. As a regular contributor to several popular magazines and websites, James has helped thousands of riders just like you improve their speed, endurance and skills on the trail. Visit to sign up for the free Trail Rider Fundamentals Video Mini-Course.

The MTB Strength Training Systems Logo

Author Info:
mtbstrengthcoach avatar

Member since Feb 3, 2009
59 articles

  • 26 1
 Just to put it into perspective - I'm 35 and did the whole "just lift heavy weights, dude" thing for well over a decade . I trained powerlifting style, bodybuilding style and Olympic Lifting style before I got into the "functional training" thing. I also train people on a daily basis and between my facility and my online programs have worked with hundreds of riders. I've personally had AC separations on both shoulders that I had to come back from. I'm just assuming that few people who have posted negative views on this article have any where near that amount of both personal and professional experience.

All functional training really is is an appreciation for the quality of a movement before you look at the quantity. Getting strong is a huge part of the equation but not all strength is created equal. You can have massive dysfunction in the shoulders and still be "strong", however you can only pile fitness on top of dysfunction for so long before something breaks down. If you look at top lifters they have perfect form, if you look at your average gym rat they have pretty crappy form. All these exercises do is give you the tools to fix how you move so that you can keep moving at a high level for many years to come.

I can easily press two 24 kg kettle bells for reps and do a Turkish Get Up with 90+ pounds so I'm far from an advocate for pink dumbbells and bands. If you want to write these exercises off then fine but I know from personal experience that "how" you move is much more important than "how much" you move. Move well, then get strong and move often. Ignore that advice at your own peril as I've learned the hard way.
  • 5 0
 James, thank you and please don't ever stop making these videos. There are many misconceptions in the fitness industry. Many people believe they're a fitness authority figure because they've lifted a few weights in their time; however, you truly are a fitness authority, and as you said, it's all about "how you move" rather than "how much you move."

Every video that James has provided will help you gain functional strength, increase your mobility, and most importantly, assist in keeping you injury free. These are things that should be important to every rider.
  • 1 8
flag theskidkid (Aug 1, 2011 at 15:49) (Below Threshold)
  • 2 0
 Mtbstrengthcoach, thank you for clarifying for people on here! I am more inclined to Bodybuilding style lifting over power/olympic lifting but I also appreciate more functional fitness routines.

FORM is MUCH more important than quantity of reps or weight no matter what you are doing (Quality > Quantity). It takes a tremendous effort to get even just "very good" form before starting the process of adding reps or weight. Perfecting form is an on going process that never stops.

Chances are if you are one of those people who think they have "good" form, your form actually sucks. You should seek help from a personal trainer at your gym no matter where you think you stand.
  • 1 0
 cheers for this video. I have had quite a few crashes recently in which i have badly damaged my shoulders, it took a very long time for the first one to heal and the others have not been so bad, however i have since been trying hard to get them stronger but seem to be getting nowhere.. this video seems to be just the ticket and i'll see how it goes!! please keep making these, they are a really good way to get some proper advice for a change and i am sure it is of great benefit to all who take it in.
  • 3 0
 I lift a lot of weights too, and I agree that weightlifting is critical for preventing injuries and maximizing performance. But these exercises are awesome because they complement your weightlifting and create a more balanced workout. I really appreciate James' perspective - it's important to focus on functional strength and mobility. Do all of these things and you will be impressed!
  • 1 0
 this is f*ckin great! i hurt my shoulder blade badly 2 years ago due to a moto crash and it still hurts. everytime i do my exercise's from PT i feel great (the foam roller and rubber band). im 15, i should recover quickly. wtf mother nature??
  • 15 53
flag rffr (Aug 1, 2011 at 1:54) (Below Threshold)
 Seriously? This article/vid is a f*cking joke. Lift weights. Simple. I have 2 torn rotor cuffs, 5 stage 2 s. shoulders, and a shattered collarbone. Lifting wights is all it takes. Military pressing the shit out of things, and doing the many other weight lifting things that work on everything from your shoulders to your neck.

This shit in the article is like the yoga of the M/A world.

Buy a curling bar for 40$, some oly weights, and just do the normal workouts. None of this pansy shit. This is 100% gimmick in the article and won't do a damn thing. or hey, it will do something in 150% of the time normal weights could do it.

Negative prop me if you want, but take it from someone that has had the most severe shoulder, neck, and collarbone injuries, not some douche that obviously hasn't spend more than a combined 3 years in casts, splints, and slings from injuries.
  • 4 31
flag rffr (Aug 1, 2011 at 1:56) (Below Threshold)
 And btw, there hasn't been a single injury with me since I started body building. Build muscle. That is what it's about. Muscle mass takes loads of stress off your ligaments and rotary cuffs.
  • 64 2
 ohh broo you are so tough man......
  • 6 1
 well your not supposed to do weights untill you've stoped growing cos it can stunt your growth.
  • 3 33
flag rffr (Aug 1, 2011 at 2:25) (Below Threshold)
 I'm in my late 20's it's not an issue for me. I was lifting weights at 15 for competitive swimming, and I'm 6'2 now. That stunting growing relates only to extreme weight lifting at very young ages such as 12 year olds.

And kev, nice Sarcasm. I've probably seen more injuries than you, and learned how to prevent them in my 15+ years of competitive bike racing. I have also been shot, and stabbed... so tough guy... yea... much more than 99% of mountain bikers are.

Weight lifting is where it's at. If your over 18, you better be lifting, just like the MX guys, just like the pro DH guys. If your say 12-15, lift weights, but look around for specific regimens for your age.
  • 5 31
flag rffr (Aug 1, 2011 at 2:28) (Below Threshold)
 Btw kev, your 16, I have been competitive racing for a year less than you are old. If you don't listen to seasoned competitors and instead try and mock them with "tuff guy" comments, you have a whole lot coming for you. Listen to people that have been doing this near longer than you have been alive. I literally wouldn't bother to have logged in to post if it wasn't something worth while.

And yes, I'm one of those guys that has been heavily MIA from PB due to all the absolute dip wads on PB. This site makes me cringe 99% of the time due to the idiots that troll it in comments.
  • 45 0
 rffr, I'm also tough on the internet.

Fact is rffr, seems like you probably know stuff about the sport but not a lot about the internet. You could be 6'2" in real life, but online your a wall of text about 1/10th the height of my computer screen. You can probably intimidate people you meet in person and they listen to what you say because of it, but on the net you are an anomymous keyboard jockey.

Kev wasn't the first to start with the overly agressive comments, you began with an attack on the original video. If you had simply stated your view in a more neutral manner I'm sure kev wouldn't have reacted the way he did.
  • 9 9
 I have to say, good post flam.

And yes, you have a good point. I was a little harsh about the video and article, and should have put it in more of a constructive manner. The issue is, many of the articles are basically "rehab" ordeals, and it tends to really rub me as a bad influence (just like mainstream media does) so I lashed out a bit.

You had the calm and thought through type of post I normally have. I guess my patience on PB was at 0 tonite after seeing pointless flame war after flame war. The specific ordeal that drove me away from here.

But anyways cheers mate!
  • 4 4
 rffr I'm with you here. Being an 18 y/o olympic lifter, this is a joke. You want to make your shoulders stronger, you do low rep max weight. Its plain and simple. Should press, push press, clean and jerk, whatever. All will benefit you a 100 times over this stuff.
  • 1 1
 rffr your right ,bodybuilding is way better and i know better have massif shoulder and bigger muscle to take the hit wen you go down,
  • 5 0
 aww look everyone went home happy. Big Grin
  • 3 0
 rffr dont you mean late 30's?
  • 7 0
 "None of this pansy shit." ROFL
  • 4 0
 from what I have come to learn and understand (as a former Pro Freerider with repeat shoulder dislocations) heavy weight training alone cannot strengthen your shoulders?

I use a "Theraband" to strengthen the rotator cuffs - its a very subtle action, and then use free weights (dumbells) to strengthen my shoulders, and an NSD powerball for overall conditioning with no impacts

its all about balancing, surely? just pressing weights without strengthening the rotator cuffs will lead to easy dislocation from a huge imbalance
  • 2 0
 or play rugby or a similar contact sport and your shoulders will thougen up pretty quickly.
  • 2 0
 Surely it depends on the type of muscle you want to build. Big weights few times will build big (and yes, probably stronger) muscles, body builder style, smaller weights many times will build lean muscles, gymnast/pilates style, and can also work very defined muscle groups separately, which is awesome for recovering from injuries. Depending on your fitness, lean will keep working longer than big muscles because they take less energy to run.
So really it's not fair to say this one's shit, different things work for different people in different situations.
  • 10 0
 "And yes, I'm one of those guys that has been heavily MIA from PB due to all the absolute dip wads on PB. This site makes me cringe 99% of the time due to the idiots that troll it in comments."

You are that guy, genius.
  • 2 0
 Q: Are James' exercises better than traditional weight lifting?
A: To keep all parties happy, let's say it is debatable.

Q: Are James exercises better than doing nothing?
A: Yes, and there is no debate about that.

What I am trying to point out is that this article is all about the perspective of the reader. Most people just ride, and that is not enough, especially as you get older and recover from injuries. My physio prescribed exercises similar to these and that is why I am still pinning it at almost 40 years of age and after a torn ACL and cracked head of humerus all the way through.

If performed correctly, something is better than nothing.
  • 4 0
 bring it on rffr, challenge you to a game of GNAR and we'll see whose got the biggest dick
  • 2 0
 rofl thats funny
  • 1 0
 " Surely it depends on the type of muscle you want to build. Big weights few times will build big (and yes, probably stronger) muscles, body builder style, smaller weights many times will build lean muscles, gymnast/pilates style, and can also work very defined muscle groups separately, which is awesome for recovering from injuries. Depending on your fitness, lean will keep working longer than big muscles because they take less energy to run.
So really it's not fair to say this one's shit, different things work for different people in different situations."

Body building isn't all about massive weights. You do ALL kinds of workouts in body building. From weight balls, to cardio, to pushups, pullups, lunges etc. You use weights to help your ligaments and tendons. Body building revolves around the "Complete" workout of your body, and not just "getting big muscles".
  • 2 0
 "bring it on rffr, challenge you to a game of GNAR and we'll see whose got the biggest dick"

Guys comparing "dicks" seems awfully homo to me.

But I'm always down to play some DH road rash with chains and bats to prove who has the most heart.
  • 3 0
 rffr sounds like a tool box without any tools! Life isn't that bad.
  • 2 1
 What are you talking about mayha49?

Between your analogy, and your life isn't that bad comment, I'm scratching my head to figure out how that made any sense. Some people obviously need to be wearing DOT helmets when they ride..
  • 1 2
 Helmets have nothing to do with yur shoulders smart one. they protect your head. FYI.
  • 2 0
 ^ I think rffr was referring to the damage done to one's brain when crashing while wearing helmets not approved by DOT.

ha, ha 'Road Rash'... the only Megadrive game I never clocked.
  • 3 0
 rffr... personally i think this video is really helpful.. I happen to climb, run and surf as well as mountain bike, so putting on a shit ton of useless muscle just makes things harder when it comes to my other sports. I have also damaged my rotator cuffs.. wait for it.. 5 times. 3 on left shoulder and 2 on right, been on a spine board and unfortunately more.. in other words couldn't care a less for what has happened to you in the past. the stuff in the video seems perfect for helping me recover and sort my shoulders out, as well as strengthening the stabilizers which have been well and truly mucked up by sport specific training. so please stop trying to rip into his videos when they are actually useful to people. (oh and from my injury comments, please dont think of me as a tough guy as i really dont want to be put into that category, cheers). One last point.. if you look at his comment under the article he explains it and is right. my shoulders are not weak, in some respects, and that was fine until things got way too out of balance and now i find that if i want to improve at climbing (completely unrelated to mtb funnily enough) i NEED to sort this in-balance out or i will damage my rotator cuff yet again. now theres a paragraph more of stuff you will just ignore and try to rip into Razz cheers again mtbjames for the video.
  • 2 0
 Some f*cking argument...
@rffr, why don't you get your thumb out of your ass, and stop being a weenie... If you're so intellectual in the following applications, go make your own video. To be honest, I think the body building fact got to your head, so you're just looking to bitch about anything that doesn't meet your standard...

Don't forget to wash that thumb....
  • 1 1
 Rofl. Look at the date. Why are you reviving an old argument. Also, nice comment. Rather than actually put a decent opinion down, you just basically bashed on me. Cool way of contributing brah, and cool story. A+ on the troll factor being this discussion has been dead for over a month.
  • 1 0
 That's besides the point, you were being a douch, so I thought I would sink to your level, in fact I just sunk to your level.

So A+ eh? Does that mean if I contributed to this argument say 30 days ago, I would have gotten a better grade? Dam... To bad.
  • 2 1
 Lifting heavy weights is NOT the way to heal a fucked shoulder! This type of stabilizing exercises IS what is needed, and later on weight lifting. Take it from someone with three torn shoulder ligaments that was almost completely unable to use his left arm for months, and learned the hard way that mobility and stabilizing muscles is necessary to work on before even THINKING about weight lifting!
  • 1 0
 Those comments were aimed at the "create bulletproof shoulders to guard against a future injury" line. Obviously heavy weights are bad for anything injured.
  • 1 0
 On the 4th of July I had a terrible DH crash at Bromont and as a result had a level 3 AC Separation. It's now been 4 weeks and the mobility in my shoulder is much much better after doing some PT. James, your video could not have come at a better time. I was looking into strengthening my shoulders and lat's, so that I could ride again this season (I'll freak out waiting a year if I can't ride).

At 44 years of age, I guess I'm lucky to even recover this quickly so far. What you mention about the shoulder blades is 100% correct. Thanks for the video, it's exactly what I have been looking for. Hopefully I'll be able to ride before the end of the season.
  • 1 0
 Since I don't have the foam roll (yet) I tried the Reach-Roll-Lift exercise.
Killer (in every sense)... :-/
it'll definitely be part of my routines from now on. I just can't believe how locked up my shoulders are. No wonder I'm feeling o miserable as the season is progressing....

Keep up the great job


  • 2 0
 Do this stuff. I took my shoulder for granted and have 6 months of pain to show for it, plus another 6 of rehab that I'm in the middle of.
  • 5 1
 So if someone goes to shoot me I block it with my shoulder?
  • 12 0
 no dont do that the bullet will bounce off your shoulder and will go straight into your head....
  • 1 0
 just bounce it off your face then, i did once
  • 1 0
 ^---and it obviously hit the side of your brain to use words correctly. ^_^
  • 4 0
 i am not understand you. do not make funny, i have not been here long distance yet. i am wanting to friendship with bicycle peoples.
  • 1 0
 Okay my bad....
  • 1 0
 yea what about dislokated shoulder? Nothing can help... if it happed once to you, shit will come back. Only surgery that will place your shoulder on hooks can solve the problem and then comes the training and rehab...
  • 1 0
 Broke my collarbone and did ligament damage to my shoulder 3 months ago now, still isn't right. These exercises are worth doing!
  • 2 10
flag rffr (Aug 1, 2011 at 1:59) (Below Threshold)
 Haha, yea, right. I shattered my collar bone into about 40 pieces and I was back BMX racing in X in the ABL bmx in 2 months. These workouts are rehab type workouts. Preventative workouts ='s lifting weights. Finishing rehab ='s lifting weights. Everything this article said was what my doc told me to do when I was re-habbing my absolutely effed collarbone. This won't do crap for preventing injuries, but it will help heal them.
  • 2 0
 Yea well considering my hospital didn't tell me anything on exercises to strengthen my shoulder. They told me it would only be a 2 - 3 week injury so little guides like this are pretty useful to me mate!
  • 2 0
 and looking at your other comments you're suggesting people get massive? I somehow don't think that kind of body type is ideal for mountain biking anyway.
  • 1 0
  • 1 0
 rffr has a point-these are PT/rehab exercises. The question is: can this type of exercise be prophylactic in preventing injuries? I am sure there a lot of riders that have had shoulder injuries that were not rehab'd properly and could benefit quite a bit from the exercises in this article. But if not...? James apparently is an adherent to functional type training. This seems to be popping up in conditioning programs for every sport these days. But is it a revelation in athletics or another fad? I am going with the former.
  • 2 0
 oh, and I am sitting on the couch with a separated shoulder, so I'm pretty psyched either way.
  • 2 0
 functional training is growing as the next step from rehab, mainly for athletes. But bodybuilding and getting huge is far from funtional. You can have huge shoulders all you want, but its not of much use in injury prevention, and offers little functional stability.
Its better to train the stabilizers in terms of their recruitment during certain movements (motor patterns). Your rotater cuffs and scapula stabilizers are more important. Its okay to train the prime movers, but they alone wont prevent injury.

So ignore the get huge advice.
  • 1 3
 Nshore3, QUOTE ME from where I said "get huge". You obviously know zip about weight lifting if you think body building means "get huge".

Body building means building your body. I didn't say become a competition body builder, in which size is the means, I said lift weights and get strong. Lower weight, more reps produces leaner stronger muscle. Low rep and high weight gives massive size.

Stabilizers get trained from free weights, not from "specific exercises". If you use free weights, your training and strengthening your stabilizer muscles more than doing rehab exercises like in this article.

If you want to debate, and tell someone not to listen to someone, at least have the slightest clue what your talking about before hand...

btw, there is more people agreeing with me than disagreeing with me if you haven't noticed...
  • 2 0
 Body building/get huge pretty similar to me.

Stabilizers can be trained with free weights but only if the person executes a good motor pattern. This will happen more when you perform a movement based exercise (ie: deadlift, cleans etc) which very few perform properly. These are functional exercises and not bodybuilding.
Performing a body builder exercise often isolates a prime mover, and doesnt train that muscle in a functional movement- which requires the recruitment of many stabilizers locally and furthur up or down the kinetic chain. Thus your training shitty patterns and actually grooving a movement pattern that will recruit less stabilizers. So when your doing a functional task like sporting, your gonna have this shitty pattern that ignores stability and renders you injury prone.
But in the case of the shoulder, theres maybe some exercises that recruit all the stabilizers needed. But even those who tax their shoulders the most, baseball pitches (elite ones, not weekend warriors) spend a ton of time on RTC and scapular stabilization.

"Stabilizers get trained from free weights, not from "specific exercises". If you use free weights, your training and strengthening your stabilizer muscles more than doing rehab exercises like in this article."
- Alright then- in the case of this article we are discussing shoulder rehab or prehab. Tell me a body builder exercise that will train your scapular stabilizers when treating or preventing a labral issue, dislocation, or impingement?

And this isnt a popularity contest, so I dont care if 90% of people agree with you. Im certain that those who are educated on the topic will disagree with you.
  • 1 0
 Keep it up mtbjames, its clear your following this field closely.
  • 1 2
 Those who are educated on the topic? Speak for yourself brah "Body building/get huge pretty similar to me."
  • 1 0
 I hate using wikipedia as a reference but you dont need to look any furthur to describe bodybuilding.
  • 1 1
 Uh oh wiki. Why don't you actually research it instead of look at wiki? The wiki page is based on sheer size. There are many types of body building, including lean, athletic body building.

Stop trying to debate and just admit you really have no idea what your talking about.
  • 1 0
 Yes, I admit it. between my undergraduate training, kinesiology courses, chiropractic degree (in final year), personal training experience, seminars with stu McGill and Craig liebenson (people you should know if your the guru your undertone suggests), and my own training, I have no idea what im talking about.
Clearly you are the guru of this feild becuase you imply it. So everyone, ignore what bike james is teaching and go body build! beacuase rffr said so.
Ill do the same, Ill treat my shoulder patients with shoulder press, ill take your advice and tell them to shoulder press the shit out of things!

Im done debating with you, your not objective, you try to belittle your opponent with insults. And if you decide to have any objective arguements, theres enough written in my bigger paragraph above to rebuttle any arguement you will have.
  • 1 0
 Cool story bro. Anytime someone goes into these crazy job titles and educational experiences 99% of the time they are crapping from their mouth. Btw, when have I belittled you with insults? Is calling someone out insulting them? Did I call you an idiot or another name? No, I just said you had no idea what your talking about. Like said, " Body building/get huge pretty similar to me." speaks for it's self.

"Ill treat my shoulder patients with shoulder press". I'm not talking about rehab. I'm talking about preventative work. If you actually read what I've been saying throughout all my posts on this page, the stuff in THIS VIDEO is REHAB stuff. Lifting a lot of weights is NOT rehab work.

This convo is actually pretty pointless due to the lack of comprehension from a supposed very educated person. Good day.
  • 1 0
 lol rffr you seem really against these videos. no idea why, you don't even need to look at them, especially as you seem to be completely invincible to injuries now with your get massive routine.
  • 1 0
 Tried the "Foam Rolling" exercise last night when I went to the gym... Lets just say that I found some new spots on my shoulder blades that needs some attention!
  • 1 0
 my shoulders give me so much trouble its not even funny. Frequent separations and dislocations. Gonna try these hopefully they will help.
  • 1 0
 Man i need this tup Broke my left collar bone four times and my right once Frown
  • 2 0
 Sam Hill needs to watch this video!
  • 1 0
 your pretty smart, james.
  • 1 0
 this guy is the mantis!
  • 1 0
 good stuff
  • 1 0
 very useful vid!

Copyright © 2000 - 2023. All rights reserved.
dv65 0.062774
Mobile Version of Website