Bulletproof Shoulders for Mountain Bikers

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:

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.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Simon says:

    Hi James: Great post. I remember learning about the reach roll lift in your first version of the UMWP, had forgotten what a great exercise it is. Any chance you can put together a bullet proof hips workout? Cheers, Simon

    Reply • August 24 at 3:43 pm
    • bikejames says:

      I just shot the video for my next post in the series and it will cover the hips and knees.

      Reply • August 25 at 5:01 am
  2. Simon says:

    Look forward to it. Quick question – can you overdo a patterning exercise like the reach roll lift? Eg, is it OK to do it daily? Who came up with that, by the way?

    Reply • August 26 at 7:58 am
    • bikejames says:

      Not sure who came up with it and it won’t hurt you to do it daily but the reality is that if you have to use a corrective exercise everyday and the problem is not getting better it may not be the right one to use. If you are trying to “fix” something instead of just using as “insurance” then it should make a marked difference very quickly or it is not the right strategy.

      Reply • August 29 at 1:08 pm
  3. Jakub says:

    Bulletproof shoulders are great, bulletproof hips will be useful, did you think about posting some advices about bulletproof wrists?

    Reply • August 31 at 7:16 am
    • bikejames says:

      The best thing you can do for wrists in make sure that they are mobile enough so that you can put a hand out and not get them tweaked too badly. These articles/ videos are about preventing overuse injuries and rehabbing old injuries than preventing acute injuries from falls. The wrists tend to get injured in falls and there is not much you can really do about that except learn how to fall better – seriously, practice some tumbling drills:

      Reply • September 2 at 8:41 am
  4. Keith says:

    Hi James,

    I have been experienceing some shoulder pain that I beleive is due to over use. I noticed after switching to flats I am grip the heck out of my bars on steep climbs. Any advide on body postion to break this habit? And what exercise can I do to fix the pain and prevent further injury.

    Reply • January 3 at 10:58 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Just being aware of your grip will help you loosen it up some. The othermthingmismto keep your shoulder back and down and do not let them hunch up.

      Reply • January 4 at 8:26 am
  5. Adam Lefevre says:

    Any thoughts on bar width and shoulder pain?

    Reply • April 3 at 7:41 am
  6. Fred Bacher says:

    Great series on shoulders. I wish I could do even one of these, lol. Just commenting to stress the importance of strong shoulders. I crashed on mine 21 weeks ago, broken clavicle, fractured shoulder blade in a couple of spots and 2 ribs. Now from either the trauma, age or immobility of being in a sling I have frozen shoulder. Lots of PT but really doesn’t help all that much and can actually delay “thawing”. Time is about the only solution and it could be a lot of it, months even years. I’m back to biking but have to be extra careful but I think this is the one thing that might be helping my mobility. These exercises will all be very useful to me one day….I hope soon. Thanks James

    Reply • April 3 at 9:52 am

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James Wilson
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James Wilson