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Common Imbalances in the Shoulder and How to Fix Them

The “CrossFit shoulder,” commonly seen in CrossFit athletes, was a real problem in the past. And while it seems to be getting better, more people need to know how to fix the problem or prevent it right off the bat. The three most important muscles that get neglected in *most* CrossFit programs are the Pecs, Lats, and Rear Delts. First off, many athletes spend a majority of the shoulder work either moving weights up, or moving themselves up, and neglecting pressing or pulling weight forward almost completely.

pull ups chest to bar crossfitSource: Photo courtesy of CrossFIt Inc

Even ring dips became kipping dips at some point so the chest got neglected there, and during push-ups everyone is told to keep their elbows in close, so it becomes a very tricep-dominant exercise. The other problem is the frequent lack of strict pull-ups and lack of pulling weight towards you. This means that the midback is almost completely underdeveloped.

So, if you don’t have Pecs or Lats, probably don’t have Biceps because CrossFit athletes don’t do curls, and don’t have Rear Delts or a Mid-Back, what’s there to support your shoulders? Upper Traps and Front Delts maybe? That doesn’t sound safe to be supporting weight overhead when you are literally not training 80% of the muscles around your shoulders.

Where to start? I’ve found the best way to begin incorporating these exercises is in the warm up. This way you know everyone in class is doing it and the work they are putting in is quality work, whereas if its accessory work, 75% of the class skips it and they’re already exhausted from the workout, so the quality isn’t going to be there. Start with the largest muscles: Chest and Lats.


My favorite exercise for the chest is what’s called a Pec-Walk. This is incredibly simple and I do this before almost every overhead workout. Take a medicine ball or two 5lb plates, and squeeze the sides by your fists, not open hands, hold it at sternum level and walk 200m. By the end your pecs should be burning like never before.

A great chest exercise to use as the strength portion of the workout is the decline bench press for a few reasons. I’ve found that the ROM is easier on most people’s shoulders; it’s a little easier to isolate the chest, and it’s also new to a lot of people in a CrossFit gym, so it can be refreshing to those long-time members. My absolute favorite workout with this is to work up in 5 challenging sets of 6 close grip+6 normal grip+6 wide grip decline bench. The goal is to find a max and hit failure somewhere during the wide grip presses on the last round.


These can be an easy thing to fix. My first recommendation is to do Dumbbell Rows or Landmine rows if your gym doesn’t have dumbbells. Test out a 5RM on each side and see what the difference is arm to arm. 10% is normal, but anything more than that needs to be addressed. When doing these, it’s important to make sure the shoulder isn’t rolling forward or shrugging up. Leave the ego at the door and really focus on keeping the form very strict.

Another great exercise is the ring row. Everyone knows these are a great scaling option for pull-ups, but the more experienced you get in CrossFit, the more you’ll need to do these. My favorite workout to do with these is 50 reps in as few sets as possible. Every break, perform 5-8 push ups. You can also incorporate them in the warm up by having the class split into two groups, 1 group does an isometric hold at the top of a row for 15 sec, while the other half does an isometric hold at the top of a lat pull (sometimes called a scap pull) for three sets of each. This will give the coach a chance to move around and ensure people are engaging lats, not traps, and give people time to create some mind body awareness.

Rear Delts

Most of CrossFit has a ton of front delt work, as most pressing will do that, and the side delts get some work if you are doing overhead squats. The Rear Delts, however, do not typically get work unless they are isolated. These are probably the least sexy exercise to work on in group classes, but they play a large part in stabilizing weight overhead front to back. So when doing overhead squats, if the weight is hard to keep in one spot overhead, stronger rear delts may help.

This is how I like to train them!


Hope you find something useful for you here, and keep an eye out on this series, upcoming common imbalances cover lower back and hips!

Tried something in the article, want to learn more, or have questions I may be able to answer? Drop a comment below and I’ll get back to you ASAP!

You can follow me @coachbchambers on Instagram, and my gym @bigbendstrengthandconditioning on Instagram, Facebook, and Youtube, and subscribe to our podcast “Big Bend StrongCast” on Itunes and Spotify.

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