The Importance of Shoulder Work for Powerlifters


Sebastian Padilla

How to Increase the Longevity of your Lifting Career 

 “He who lifts the longest will be the strongest”- I remember hearing this on a YouTube video several years ago as a teen. This resonated with me as I knew I wanted to be in the lifting game for the long haul, but multiple shoulder injuries almost made the idea of bench pressing any decent weight seem impossible. Thankfully, I was wrong, but it did force me to look at how to maximize my longevity and prehab movements to progress in the game.  

When it comes to the bench press, having a balanced approach to shoulder training will help keep integrity in the joint, allowing you to bench as long as possible. While bench pressing is the primary focus in powerlifting upper body training, you should also aim to extend longevity in the sport for as long as possible to get as strong as possible. 

Components of the Shoulder 

The key to keeping healthy shoulders relies heavily on bench technique and appropriate accessory selection. The most important part of keeping structural integrity in the shoulder joint is the scapular retraction, scapular depression, and an arch from the upper back. But what if you lifted with improper technique and are now having wonky shoulders? Fear not, because after fixing your bench technique you should look into building strength in the rear and side delts to help even out the shoulders. 

The shoulders are composed of 3 primary parts: the front delt, side delt, and the often neglected rear delt. When benching with improper technique, the shoulder often gets internally rotated and the front delt ends up taking a lot more weight than it should. This leads to overdeveloped front delts in comparison to the side delt and arguably more important rear delt. This muscular imbalance promotes an internally rotated position of the shoulder which turns into a vicious cycle if not addressed.

Exercises to Increase Shoulder Strength and Improve your Bench 

So how do you address internally rotated shoulders with overdeveloped front delt? You work the rear delts and upper back… a lot. My favorite rear delt/upper back movements are: cable rear delt flies, face pulls,  and chest supported dumbbell rows with an upper back emphasis. 

Rear Delt Cable Fly

A rear delt cable fly is done by lowering the adjustable cables to the lowest setting, bending at the waist to have your chest parallel to the ground, and pulling the cable away from you. The key to a well-executed rear delt fly is to have a slight bend of the elbow at all times and to be sufficiently far away from the cable machine to get tension from the beginning.  

Face Pulls

Moving on to the face pulls, this is great for targeting the rear delts, upper back, and emphasizing external rotation of the shoulders. This is usually done with the rope attachment but if your gym’s rope attachment is too short try using two rope attachments (one per hand) to give you the necessary range of motion. The face pull is done by setting the adjustable cable machine to about face height and pulling the rope attachment towards your face. The key to a well-done face pull is to point the elbows outwards as you pull the rope towards your face. 

Chest-Supported Dumbbell Rows

Lastly, the chest-supported dumbbell rows with an upper back emphasis help strengthen the upper back a bit more directly while still targeting the rear delts. To perform these you must lay on top of an incline bench (usually the lowest or 2nd to lowest incline works best depending on how tall you are) and have a set of dumbbells lying underneath the bench. You then grab the dumbbells and pull them towards your face in a similar fashion to the face pulls.  These movements will help add strength and stability to your shoulders leading to a healthier joint that can be used to train longer. 

How the Overhead Press is Misunderstood

What about the overhead press? I often get asked about the overhead press for powerlifting by clients. Many old schooled training programs incorporate it into their routine but unfortunately, the exercise does not translate well into the bench press and often reinforces the overuse of the front delt. Instead of adding an overhead press in hopes to increase the bench press, a powerlifter is much better off just benching more often (if the athlete can tolerate the frequency) or doing more triceps work to help with elbow extension. The only reason the overhead press can help increase bench strength is because of the extra triceps work it adds, but they can also place greater fatigue on the athlete by adding another compound movement in their training. 

Start Putting in the Work Now so you can Lift Longer

To emphasize the importance of shoulder work for powerlifters is to ensure longevity on the bench press and allow you to achieve your maximal strength. Movements such as rear delt flies, face pulls and chest supported rows can strengthen commonly lagging muscles leading to healthier shoulders. 

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Alex Gaynor


Sebastian Padilla


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