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The Empty Can

Written on September 11, 2008 at 8:41 am, by Eric Cressey

Q: A trainer at my gym was telling me that the best way for a bodybuilding competitor to perform lateral raises was to execute them in or slightly behind the frontal plane and in the “empty-can” hand position (he said this is good for long-term shoulder health since he claimed it would strengthen the supraspinatus) while leaning slightly forward.

Do you think this recommendation is conducive to long-term shoulder health, or would it lead to excessive wear and tear and potentially create impingement problems? Or is it a case of this being perfectly acceptable for some populations and a nightmare for others? If it is the latter, who can perform them this way and who should avoid them?

A: I disagree wholeheartedly. The empty can is a provocative test; it’s what we do when we want to see just how angry an injured supraspinatus is.

If you want to keep the supraspinatus healthy, you don’t need to make a dedicated effort to strengthen it. You need to strengthen the muscles that position the scapula so that there is more clearance through which that tendon can pass under the acromion process. These would include lower trapezius and serratus anterior. Strengthening the muscles of the rotator cuff will help to depress the humeral head as well.

There is also a definite role for thoracic spine mobility (as I wrote about in a previous newsletter) in this situation, as it helps dictate the positioning of the scapulae.

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3 Responses to “The Empty Can”

  1. Pete Koeniges Says:

    About 15 years ago I heard Vern Gambetta say exercises can make a muscle “scream” or “sing”. The Empty Can makes it scream.

  2. Brenden ONeill Says:

    I dislocated my shoulder to the point of needing surgery. The “empty can” was one of the rehab excercises the doctor gave me. When I dislocated the other shoulder I just did the post surgery rehab exercises instead of the surgery. I definitely think the “empty can” with really low weight helps keep a damaged (too loose) shoulder in the socket.

  3. Dan Gacke Says:

    I am an active baseball pitcher who is also a CSCS certified strength coach, and my personal experience is in agreement with Eric. After reconstructive shoulder surgery four years ago, I have returned fully to baseball and pitching. A hiccup on that path was when I started doing “empty the cans” regularly, even at just 2 lbs. It led to more pain, which left when I scrapped the empty the cans.

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