Performance Care Series: Your Shoulders Aren’t Tight, They’re Weak

Your shoulder has been bothering you forever. It’s a nagging pain. Sometimes you feel it on overhead lifts, or high-volume pull-ups. So, you mobilize and mobilize and maybe you feel a little better that day —or worse, you don’t—  but the vicious cycle continues.

You think, ‘Something in there is tight. It has to be, right?’ Wrong

There’s a good chance that your shoulder just isn’t strong enough or balanced enough, a common trend when looking at shoulder disfunction among CrossFit athletes.

“People spend so much time mobilizing their shoulders because they think mobility is the answer. It’s very often not,” said Dr. Sean Pastuch who, along with partner Dr. Jeremy Todd, specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of any kind of dysfunction that limits athletic performance.

“Because of the trickle-down from the CrossFit Games, the most heavily programmed movement, based on a Beyond the White Board study, is pull-ups. And things like burpees, muscle-ups are a close second and third.

Those are all shoulders moving downward. There are very few exercises that including pulling the shoulder in an upward rotation. We are spending all this time pulling and pushing down and very little time pulling and pushing up, except when we use our hips to do it.”

Those movements —push presses or push jerks— aren’t requiring just your shoulder to move the weight. So, Pastuch —who has worked with numerous CrossFit Games athletes— says it can’t be counted as a true shoulder upward rotation.

What can? Things like the shoulder press, Cuban press, strict handstand push-ups, high pulls and behind-the-neck presses. Pastuch and Todd, who own Active Life Rx, have simple guidelines to create balanced, injury-free athletes.

For example, you should be able to take 33 percent of your bodyweight in one arm and do a high pull (without hips or legs) for just as many reps as you can strict pull-up. If you think that sounds easy, try it.

And if you think that this kind of stuff — which promotes joint health and strength in end range of motion— is just for the elite athletes, think again.

“It’s actually more important for an every day CrossFitter,” Pastuch said. “People will survive without it, but we just want people to go in with the mindset that, ‘I’m going to do what I do today for 20 years’. And if you can’t, you need to change it. Our careers are ongoing.”


Assess. Before you pick up a barbell, before you hang from a pull-up bar, make sure your shoulder can actually move through the full range of motion.

Here’s a quick test:

If you aren’t passing, you need to understand: high volume pull-ups aren’t the best thing to be doing right now. You actually need to be doing BOTH mobilizing and working strength in that end range of motion.

“Does that mean you can’t ever do pull-ups again? No,” Pastuch said. “But think of it like a bank: doing pull-ups is a large withdrawl. You have to make a lot of deposits before you make a big withdrawal so it doesn’t hurt you. It means if you want to do pull-ups, you are doing high pulls or behind the neck presses at least the same amount, if not more, during your training.”

If you did pass without any problems, there’s nothing range with you shoulder’s range of motion. Time to get stronger and more balanced.


This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is some of the most effective, and commonly, programmed stuff on the Bulletproof Shoulders program. Nothing fancy, but you’d be surprised how much better you feel spending 20 minutes a few times a week of adding this stuff in before you train.

1. Whether you failed the assessment or not, the behind the neck press should be part of your training program.

“It starts you in external rotation which is a dis-advantageous position to press,” Pastuch said. “But you should be able to press [behind the neck] as much as you do forward because of how much higher the bar starts.”

2. High pulls. These are highly under-utilized in CrossFit, but it’s one of several drills that USAW senior international coach Danny Camargo uses frequently. (We previously spotlighted these with a barbell.)

The stipulations for this are the same as we mentioned earlier. If you can’t get anywhere near 33 percent of your bodyweight, especially at first, find a weight you can do 8-12 reps of (as heavy as possible.) You also may feel some irritation on these, which is totally normal. (If you are feeling actual PAIN, stop. Everything. Always.)

3. Farmers carries. These are all over Performance Care programming and it’s not the first time –or first person– who has mentioned to us the importance of carrying.

If there’s one thing to take out of this article, it’s that you should carry more. Single arm carries, overhead carries, yoke carries. Any and all variances are great.

As part of your strength training, the Active Life guys recommend you work up to holding 50 percent of your max deadlift in one hand. The max distance also depends on the reps you can deadlift, though think of 100 meters as the gold standard here.


Check out our other Performance Care installments on ankles and hips.

Disclaimer: This isn’t meant to treat, diagnose or cure any injuries. Those with serious shoulder issues, especially ones that don’t go away, should check out Active Life RX’s Performance Care to get assessed and on the right track to being pain-free. Athlete Daily is a proud affiliate of Performance Care. Use code DAILY for 50% off your first month.  

All photos via Shaun Cleary.