Shoulder Dipping: Ruining Your Strength and Shoulders


Our scapulas (wing bones) are a hot mess. Partly due to aging, partly due to our desk jobs our upper backs get incredibly tight and immobile. This reeks havoc on our shoulders. The easy fix is most often to get the scapulas more mobile and moving correctly with the arm. However, once load is applied often all bets are off and you are left with poor form that I call, “Shoulder Dipping“. The results are sub-optimal strength gains and often creating more cranky, stiff and painful shoulders-most often being bicipital tendinitis. There are 2 main exercises that work the back: horizontal pulling (row) and vertical pulling (pull/chin-ups, lat pull downs). Each presents their unique challenges and we’ll address what each is as well as a plan to fix it.

The Problem

The first issue when doing this exercise is getting the right muscles to do the work. This requires some focus and attention to what you are actually doing. Are you questioning what muscle is doing/should be doing the work? The next issue to¬†shoulder-dippingaddress is your range of motion-how much movement are you doing. Often the exerciser will pull the hands all the way to the body which will have the elbows go behind the plane of the body. This is fine if you possess superior strength and/or mobility. Most however end up looking like the example on the left instead of the right. I call this ‘Shoulder Dipping’ because the front of the shoulder dips forward creating significant strain through the front of the shoulder.

Because of shoulder dipping you end up loading the front of the shoulder (biceps tendon) instead of your lats, rhomboids, and traps like you’re trying to do with this exercise. The muscles in the front of the shoulder are obviously smaller and weaker than your back so your strength gains stall, and despite your efforts you start developing pain in your shoulders.

The Fitness Solution

  1. Lighten the weight and focus more of pulling your scapulas together.
  2. Do drills as demonstrated in the Stiff Shoulder Solution.
  3. If the bent-over series shown above are no longer an issue, you can try scapula retractions.

    This is a great way to load the joint and muscles while focusing on doing the movement correctly. Set up so that the anchor of the band or cable is about parallel to the ground. Squeeze the shoulders together focusing on the lower portion of the shoulder blades because you’ll want to shrug your shoulders to do the movement-which is wrong.

  4. Another great way to fix this problem is to do some isometric holds at the end range of motion to ensure that you have the right position. Spending some time at the end of the movement-where you tend to be weakest-will help you start and end in the right spot. Start light and as you can hold longer and longer (a good time to shoot for is 30 secs), you can add weight. Remember, it’s all about the proficiency of the movement, not just the raw weight moved.