15 Unique Shoulder Exercises to Make you Look Good, Move Well and Build Strength

Shoulder Exercises are essential for developing long term health, movement and strength. CrossFit especially demands strong shoulders so add these unique and underused shoulder exercises into your training. 

Firstly, you must understand your shoulders. 


Your scapulae (scaps for short) are the foundation of your shoulder joint and these flat wing like bones help to anchor your shoulder to your torso. Any exercise where you move your upper arm utilises your scapulae in some way and any weakness in the 17 different muscles that connect to it will translate into weakness in the movement. They are an incredibly mobile bone, tilting and rotating to accommodate the wide range of movement of the shoulder joint.

scapular health diagram of the skeleton
Anterior view of the Scapulae


Here’s a quick test for you: grab a small straight object like a pen or toothbrush, one in each hand and stand up straight, shoulders relaxed. Are your objects pointing straight ahead or inwards? If they’re pointing in towards your body, I’m sorry to say you probably have far from optimal scapular function.

Our modern lives of sitting in chairs and hunching over keyboards has weakened the muscles in this area causing poor shoulder mobility and stability, which can spell disaster if you’re an active CrossFitter. But not to worry because in this article we are going to show you how you can strengthen the surrounding muscles so you can hit new PRs and stay injury free.



Of your overhead reach, the muscles around your scapulae are responsible for roughly the final 60 degrees. Everybody knows that a strong overhead pressing or jerking position involves having your upper arm behind your ear, your glutes switched on, your abs tight and your ribcage pinned down. So if you struggle to get the bar directly overhead without having to break good form and flare out your ribcage – compromising safety as well as strength – your scapulae could be the problem.

scapular health snatch liftSource: Stevie D Photography
Good scapular health will help your snatch lift

Scapular strength is also fundamental for the snatch and overhead squat. When you’ve got the bar overhead in that wide grip, scapular and lat activation help to put your shoulders in a strong position and stop them rolling forward. As well as being an incredibly dangerous position for your shoulders to be in, inwardly rolled shoulders will shift your centre of gravity forward, bringing you onto your toes and often resulting in a failed lift.

You may be surprised to learn that even for a mostly lower body movement like the back squat good scapula function can help. If you can’t squeeze them tight to stabilise your back when you’re high bar back squatting, your torso is less likely to remain upright and the weight could pull you forwards onto your toes into a weaker and potentially dangerous position.


There is no way around it, Crossfit requires strong shoulders and good scapular health. From overhead squats to toes to bar, weak shoulders will lead to sub-par performances and possibly injury.

Poor shoulder position caused by weak or inactive muscles around the scapulae can stress tendons and ligaments around your shoulder girdle. This stress accumulates slowly, over weeks, months and even years. You may not notice these little micro injuries as they occur, but eventually that one final overhead squat with poor form could be the final straw that broke the camel’s shoulder.

If your scaps can’t move properly to get into strong positions, other parts of your shoulder such as the rotator cuff will have to try and compensate and move in ways that they are not designed to do so. This can result in rotator cuff tears, impingement, bursitis rotator cuff tendonitis/tendinosis and labrum injuries to name a few.


1 Kettlebell Cross Body Carry

?Cross Body loading patterns are a fantastic way to work rotational core strength. The mixed loading positions will force you to recruit your core muscles slightly differently than if you were to load symmetrically on each side. I find this cross body loading to be very effective in carries of different lengths and times.


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2 Side Lying Dumbbell External Rotation

Finding more ways to prioritize external rotation of the shoulder in training is something we work on a lot here at FBB. There is an overwhelming amount of internal rotation in training and life as it is, so getting clients to balance this with exercises like this is key. As a training suggestion, 3 days a week work in some small muscle scapular external rotation to help counteract over development of internal rotation.


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3 Single Arm Dead Hang

This is a monster of a grip exercise. Hanging from a single arm on the bar or rings will really challenge the grip. Why? Because it places a huge demand on the rotator cuff and flexors of that single side. What that results in is the grip being the weak link for many people when their scaps start to fail. So this can be a terrific way to build scapular strength and grip endurance. Additionally your overhead position will improve in the process.


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