Let's go through how to train upward rotation for real. I believe this is the most extensive article ever written about it, and every piece of advice presented in this article will be practical.
The exercises demonstrated in this article will be helpful whether you are having shoulder problems and overall upward rotation weakness or you want to take your training to the next level.
Upward rotation will mostly affect your performance with exercises where you are pushing overhead. This includes barbell front press, dumbbell overhead press, kettlebell press and handstand push ups.
At some point in my training career, my back was incredibly strong and horizontal press exercises like push ups and bench press were progressing nicely as well.
How about handstand push ups or overhead press? They weren't weak, but they were clearly lacking behind the progress of my other lifts and exercises.
In the end of 2014, I decided to really focus on overhead pressing, whether it was doing barbell presses or handstand push ups. I spent almost every workout doing at least a couple of sets of pressing overhead.
My progress was slow and almost minimal. What the heck was going on?
During the summer of 2015, I decided to really find the culprit behind my lacking overhead press performance, and eventually I found it: weak upward rotation and weak serratus anterior muscles.
Thanks to my lack of progress with pressing overhead, I will now give you the best upward rotation article ever written.
What Is Upward Rotation?
Upward rotation is the rotatory movement of the scapula where you are moving the scapula laterally and upward. The motion feels like you are moving your shoulders up and forward at the same time.
The muscles behind upward rotation are the serratus anterior (lower fibers) and the trapezius muscles (middle and lower fibers). Serratus anterior muscles are the feather-like muscles below your armpits. They are also called "the boxer's muscle".
The exercises demonstrated in this article should feel in your traps and serratus anterior muscles - otherwise you are doing them wrong.
You might also feel the exercises in your neck, because muscles like levator scapulae will get worked on to some extent due to the fact that many exercises also include the shoulder elevation.
Why Should you Exercise Upward Rotation?
There are many benefits training upward rotation:
- In case your upward rotation is weak, you will tremendously improve your durability against injuries, because most injuries are a result of structural imbalance.
- Training upward rotation will cure your depressed shoulders. If your shoulders are clearly depressed (pushed down with your normal stance), then training upward rotation will likely help.
- Upward rotation will improve your overhead press and other pressing work.
- Your serratus anterior will get stronger. Great serratus anterior strength is behind many impressive bodyweight strength feats like planche.
Upward Rotation Exercises
Upward rotation exercises from light and easy (in case you are injured) to advanced and difficult (in order to build elite level strength):
Elbow Wall Slides
This is a simple but effective exercise to improve the mobility of your upward rotation. Keep your elbows close to the wall (see the picture above) and move them upwards while doing the upward rotation with your scapula. 3 seconds up, 3 seconds down.
This is the first exercises you should focus on and the primary exercise you should do when you have injured your shoulders.
Your upward rotation will get strong up to a certain point, but after that point you will see very little improvement. You might become injury-free, but your upward rotation strength is not really progressing.
Make the exercise harder by using small weights or small dumbbells in your hands like you can see from above.
Upward Rotation with a Barbell
This is an intermediate or advanced progression of the elbow slides against a wall.
In this variation you can use a wall if you want to, but at this point you should have learned the range of motion well enough to be able to do these without using the wall.
We recommend taking a supinated grip and then push the barbell up while doing the upward rotation with your scapula. Lift as high as you comfortably can.
Upward Rotation Shrugs (Serratus Shrugs)
This is a special variation of the regular dumbbell shrug. With upward rotation shrugs (you can also call them serratus shrugs), you are pushing your shoulders forward and then shrugging your shoulders upwards.
The exercise should feel in your traps, but also clearly in your serratus anterior muscles. Do them enough and you might feel a nice serratus anterior burn you have never felt before.
Upward Rotation with a Gymnastic Ball
This is by far the hardest upward rotation exercise you can do. I learned this from a strength coach who trained UFC fighters for a living.
Your abdominal muscles will get worked on, so try to keep your core tight. Also keep your shoulders pushed forward while you are moving the gymnastic ball upwardly rotating your shoulders.
You will feel a real burn in your serratus anterior muscles. Your serratus anterior might even cramp. I have yet to find an exercises that really kills the serratus anterior the way this one does.
If you want to take your serratus anterior and upward rotation to the next level, then this is the exercise you have been looking for.
Upward Rotation Programming
I would recommend doing these exercises as a part of your mobility or training routine. You can also do them individually.
Sets and Repetitions for Upward Rotation Exercises
Elbow Wall Slides: 5 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.
Upward Rotation with a Barbell: 5 sets of 5 repetitions.
Serratus Shrugs: 5 sets of 5 to 15 repetitions.
Upward Rotation with a Gymnastic Ball: 5 sets of 5 repetitions.
You can either start your workout with these drills, or end it. If you are injured, you can do these for multiple sets many times a day.
Train hard, stay safe.