Blackburns: The Best Shoulder Exercise You’re Not Doing

Posted: April 20, 2013 in Baseball, Training
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

If you’re a human and you’re alive in the 21st century, odds are good that you have pretty terrible posture. Years upon years of sitting, slumped over a desk, have  rounded your shoulders and turned your upper back into a kyphotic nightmare. If you’re a baseball, softball, tennis, or volleyball player, the effects are probably even more pronounced.

Look at the average human these days and this is what you’ll see:

shoulder slump

Head forward, shoulders forward, and hunched spine. None of these are good traits. How does this happen?

Over time, if certain muscles are habitually shortened or lengthened (by being in the same position all day) they will eventually adapt and become chronically shortened or lengthened. Case in point: Most people spend the majority of their day sitting. While sitting, they assume a position of hip flexion, which shortens the hip flexors. Guess what muscle group becomes chronically shortened as a result.

Here's a hint....

Here’s a hint….

Check the amount of hip extension in a person who sits all day and I can guarantee that it will be less than ideal due to their tight hip flexors. That is, unless they make a legitimate effort to correct the problem. This is accomplished not only by stretching the hip flexors, but by strengthening the hip extensors, which likely have lengthened as a result of constant sitting. If a joint’s mobility is affected, something is tight while something else is lengthened. Both issues have to be addressed if improvements are to be made.

Back to the posture issue. What often causes the forward rounded shoulders and kyphotic posture in people is tightening of muscles in the front of the body such as the pectoralis minor, and lengthened/weak muscles in the back. To strengthen the the back, we need to do exercises that will tighten up the rhomboids, trapezii, levators, and the external rotators of the shoulder.

The pec minor pulls the corocoid process forward, which rotates the scapula

The pec minor pulls the corocoid process forward, which rotates the scapula


Why is this important?

The shoulders need to be in the proper position to function well. If the shoulder is pulled forward by a tight pectoralis muscle and weak scapular stabilizers, it affects the kinematics of the shoulder joint in a way that can easily lead to injury. One of the easiest ways to tell if someone is at risk for shoulder injury is to look at their shoulder blades. If the shoulder blades sit against the rib cage and slide easily along it, then the shoulder is healthy. But if the shoulder blades are pulled off of the rib cage, then you’re walking a fine line.

Behold: scapular dysfunction

Behold: scapular dysfunction

If you’re an overhead athlete, scapular dysfunction can be especially debilitating. A poorly positioned scapula alters the kinematics of the glenohumeral joint, which can cause a wide range of injuries from rotator cuff strains to Tommy John ligament sprains. For these athletes, strengthening the scapular stabilizers to ensure proper scapular positioning during the overhead motion will go a long way towards keeping their shoulders and elbows healthy. And as an added bonus, throwing athletes will be able to throw harder because an increased ability to “load” the scapulae during the cocking and acceleration phases of the throw.

For my money, the best way to strengthen the scapular stabilizers is through the Blackburns series.

The Blackburns series consists of 6 “holds”, that are each held for 10 reps of 6 seconds. The isometric 6 second hold helps to increase time under tension and will help those muscles tighten up more quickly. The key with these holds is to make sure you’re squeezing your shoulder blades together as hard as you can for the entire 6 seconds. If you’re doing it correctly, you’ll get an intense burn not only in your shoulders, but in your upper back as well.

If you begin to do these every day, after several weeks your posture will be noticeably improved, and your shoulders will likely feel more stable too. If you’re an overhead athlete, you’ll also notice a difference in your throwing velocity or serve velocity (my throwing velocity jumped by 4 mph after adding these to my training program).

It looks ridiculously easy, but try to do the entire Blackburns series the next time you’re in the gym at the end of your “back” day, and there’s a good chance that you’ll be humbled.

Position 1:

Position 2:

Blackburns position 3

Position 3:

Blackburns position 4

Position 4:

Blackburns position 4

Position 5:

Blackburns position 5

Blackburns position 6



  1. […] less boring viewing. For a written explanation of what Blackburns are and what they’re for, click here. And yes, I’m aware that I freakishly long alien […]

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