chin nod with shoulder w exercise

The Shoulder W Exercise

Shoulder W ExerciseLast week I wrote an article on what I considered essential exercises to add to every program, which included the shoulder W exercise for external rotation.  I received a lot of feedback from that article and many requests to post a video describing the technique.  Although, this is a pretty simple exercise, there are some tips I can share to help you maximize the exercise.

Why I Like the Shoulder W Exercise

Like I mentioned in my previous article, I have been a fan of the shoulder W exercise for some time now.  If you’ve taken my Evaluation and Treatment of the Shoulder online course, you know what I mean.  The exercise combines shoulder external rotation with scapular retraction and posterior tilt, definitely a great combo and advantageous for many people as it recruits the posterior rotator cuff (infraspinatus and teres minor) and the lower trapezius.

A study by McCabe et al (NAJSPT 2007) demonstrated that the shoulder W exercise exhibited a moderate amount of posterior rotator cuff and lower trapezius EMG activity.  But more notable for me was the finding that this exercise produced minimal upper trapezius activity and the highest ration of lower trapezius to upper trapezius activity.  I’ve written about how the upper trapezius can affect shoulder function and how upper trapezius and lower trapezius imbalances may cause shoulder impingement, so you know how much I am going to like an exercise that really emphasizes the lower trap and posterior rotator cuff!

Shoulder W Exercise Video Demonstration

In the video demonstration of the shoulder W exercise below, notice that I grasp a good piece of Theraband about shoulder width apart and hold with my thumbs up.  I’ve seen many people recommend that you point your thumbs back, I don’t really think that supinating your forearm changes the exercise so I’d rather keep the forearm in neutral and really just focus on the shoulder and scapula.

The other tidbit I would recommend, and the origin of the name “W” exercise, is that I like to keep a 90 degree angle at the elbow, which ends up form a “W” when you reach end range of external rotation.  This happens because the lat muscle mass causes your arms to abduct a little bit of your body.  I wouldn’t recommend trying to keep your forearms parallel to the ground.

If you perform the shoulder W exercise with thumbs back and keep your forearms parallel to the ground (and thus don’t form a “W”) I feel that you are really missing out on the scapula retraction and more importantly, the scapular posterior tilt that you achieve when forming a “W.”  Try it yourself, you’ll feel what I mean.

Realize that this isn’t rocket science here, there are several variations of bilateral shoulder external rotation exercises, but I wanted to share my thoughts on performing the shoulder W exercise and why I prefer it, what do you think?

33 replies
  1. John Hosten
    John Hosten says:

    Loves this exercise, only discovered it recently via you. ER/scap stability/lower trap all involved – great multi muscle involvement.

  2. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    No I just thought that as you can handle more “pull”/weight in the traditional band pull apart and as the movement of the scapula is practically the same (no upward rotation) that it might be more effective. Probably it’s the opposite!?

  3. Bob
    Bob says:

    Both athletes are experiencing severe pain and a crack/pop near the biceps tendon during the eccentric portion of the exercise. Form looks good, I cue them to brace their core to limit extension and their scapula is retracted.



    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      “severe pain” isn’t good, that is the only thing that causes the sensation? I wonder if they have a subluxing biceps tendon or other pathology. I would refer out.

  4. Bob
    Bob says:

    Hi Mike,

    I added this exercise to our program, and 2 athletes (tennis players) are experiencing a painful crack/pop during the eccentric portion of this exercise. What could this be and any recommendations?



    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      Bob, where? AC joint area? back of shoulder blade? I must say that isnt very common at all. Make sure you are emphasizing the shoulder movement and not incorporating too much back extension etc.

  5. Joe
    Joe says:

    Hi Mike,

    I orderd a copy of you and Eric’s Optimal Shoulder Performance DVD and all the exercises have been of great benifit to myself and the rest of the clients we have at the gym.

    I was wondering if you had plans to release anything similar on the hip? As I found even after 4 years of university and a few years in the industry and god knows how many books later, Optimal Shoulder Performance has given me a hell of alot of food for thought in terms of injury prevention and rehab.

    Joe Rogers

  6. Vince Nash
    Vince Nash says:

    Hi Mike. I use Theraband bands and tubes in my classes. I use the W shoulder exercise often. Most of my clients and class members benefit from this great exercise. Vince.
    PS. stay strong, eat well.

  7. Andy
    Andy says:

    For the W, is the shoulder in slight abduction or should the arm just rest by the side as you externally rotate? I remember reading somewhere that slight abduction of the shoulder helps increase EMG activation of the external rotators…

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      Yes, I tried to note that above, by keeping your elbows flexed to 90 degrees, your arms will follow the contour of your lats and will thus abduct slightly. See the photo at the top of the post.

  8. Gord
    Gord says:

    Mike, I like your video on the shoulder W exercise. I had done something similar earlier you might find of interest. It wasn’t specifically for shoulders but rather aimed at upper crossed postural correction. If interested, you can check it out:
    You’ll have to excuse the high production value on the video :-)

  9. Christopher Johnson
    Christopher Johnson says:


    Good to see you training. Looks like you are fit these days. I like your video demonstration too. Question…do you ever start the exercise in more internal rotation to improve shoulder external rotation strength since to add sarcomeres we should be strengthening in a lengthened position. I realize that it’s not solely about strength as the neuromuscular component is critical. I have also started incorporating this exercise in a rockerboard in an A-P and M-L direction once the patient exhibits good form and it serves as a nice progression. Hope all else is well and glad to see the Sox are off to a great start. Hope I didnnt just jinx them.


  10. Pip
    Pip says:

    Hey i’m an OT student interested in upper body physical rehab. does anyone have any suggestions on what kind of settings I would be likely to gain the most experience in, in terms of different types of injuries and rehab? (eg, hospital or clincal or would I be better to with community?)

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      Chris, thanks for clarifying, still looks different. I wouldnt really group that into the “W” category as it doesnt put a lot of emphasis on the rotator cuff. I dont think the exercise achieves the same goals. Not bad for posture, but also not applicable to everyone.

  11. Chris
    Chris says:


    what are your thoughts on the pivot prone variation tumminello uses?

    I find it tweaks on my dodgey shoulders less.

    • Mike Reinold
      Mike Reinold says:

      Chris, Nick has some good exercise. The pivot prone looks a little different than what we are working on here. That looks to be a good lat exercise, one that has a vector that goes through your head, which I like and have talked about here –

      But the W is different and focus on retraction, ER, and posterior tilt. It should feel great on your shoulders and posture. Looks like if the pivot prone Nick is talking about hurts your shoulder, you are forcing your arms too far behind the plane of your body. This will cause some discomfort in the shoulder for sure.

  12. ChrisNunz
    ChrisNunz says:

    I did this exercise a lot during my physical therapy from my shoulder surgery, a long with traditional external rotations and I definitely feel it helped a lot. I still do this now as the first warm-up before upper body work.

    Also Mike, what do you think about “YTWL”s for warming up the shoulders as well before lifting?

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  5. […] I am going to like an exercise that really emphasizes the lower trap and posterior rotator cuff! Mike Reinold PT SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: "Shoulders and external rotation", url: […]

  6. […] and I’ve been reading up on many of his posts. One in particular that caught my eye is on the Shoulder W Exercise where Mike goes into great detail on why the W drill performed with a resistance band is very […]

  7. […] and the hip external rotation clamshell exercise.  In a recent Academy blog post, I linked to his shoulder W exercise using Thera-Band® tubing.  He recently posted a video of his hip external rotation clamshell […]

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