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How to Develop Shoulder Stability with Gymnastic Rings

How to Develop Shoulder Stability with Gymnastic Rings

Gymnastic rings are the best way to develop strength in the stabilising muscles that support the shoulder joint. The free movement nature of gymnastic rings makes them inherently unstable compared to other exercise equipment, particularly when you are in a support hold.

The body's adaptive response to the instability stimulus is to strengthen the stabilising muscles of the shoulder joint, in particular the rotator cuff. A stronger and more stable joint results in injury resistant shoulders and better proprioception and improves your coordination and control for other pushing exercises such as the bench press.

What are the muscles responsible for shoulder stability?

Anatomy of the shoulder joint showing the four muscles of the rotator cuff responsible for stability

Anatomy of the shoulder joint showing the four muscles of the rotator cuff responsible for stability

The primary muscle group responsible for shoulder stability is the four muscles and tendons of the rotator cuff. These are the Supraspinatus,Infraspinatus,Teres minor, and Subscapularis

Thanks to the ball and socket structure of the shoulder joint, the arm has a very wide range of movement, hence why you can rotate your arm 360 degrees. This allows you to push or pull through a large range of motion (depending on shoulder flexibility). 

Therefore the rotator cuff strength is very important and often neglected aspect of movement.

Strong rotator cuffs arm particularly important for pushing exercises such as:

  • Bench press, Shoulder press, Dips, Push ups, Olympic lifts, Handstands etc.

and pulling exercises such as...

  • Pull ups, Rows, muscle ups, curls etc...

And practically any other upper body exercise with any element of a push or pull motion.

If you have reach a plateau with these then it may be lack of rotator cuff strength that is holding you back rather then insufficient strength in your arms, chest and shoulders, particularly with bench press. 

The other muscles that surround the shoulder joint and work in conjunction with the shoulders are the...

  • Pectorals,

  • Deltiods

  • Trapezius

  • Triceps and biceps

The primary function of the muscles is to move the arms in a particular direction, whether it to be a lateral raise of the arm with the deltiods or a pushing motion, primarily with the pecs. 

Often we train these muscles for strength and size. This means their capacity for stability rarely is tested. 

In order to be proficient with gymnastic rings the muscles have to adapt to the instability stimulus which gives you more body control, strength and stability. 

How Gymnastic Rings Improve Shoulder Stability

Gymnastic rings improve shoulder stability by directly strengthening the muscles and tendons of the rotator cuff and other muscles responsible for stability.

Conventional shoulder exercises such as over head press or lateral raises do very little to strengthen the stabilising muscles of the shoulder joint. Instead they tend to target the shoulder for aesthetic purposes or perhaps to develop pushing strength.

Additionally machine based weight lifting with equipment such as the smith machine bench press and chest press are designed to remove the element of instability from the exercises and instead isolate certain muscles.

As a result the chest and arms may get stronger but as you don't have to stabilise the equipment yourself the stabilising muscles are not tested and therefore you develop a strength imbalance between the rotator cuff and the primary movers (usually chest and triceps).

Because of this strength imbalance, the strength gained from using machine weights does not transfer very well to free weights as the component of stability plays more of a factor.

Exercises such as bench press and dumbbell press do require shoulder stability and will help develop some strength in the rotator cuff but the stabilising muscles are not the primary target of the exercise.

Therefore even with free weights, strength imbalances tend to occur between the stabilising muscles and the primary movers of pushing exercises.

The shoulder has a wide range of motion, thanks to the ball and socket joint. This allows you to move your arm both laterally and rotationally 360 degrees, but can make the shoulder vulnerable to injury. This is why having strong shoulder stability is important to anyone who works out or is involved with sport, for both injury prevention and to aid athletic performance.

Gymnastic rings have the ability to directly address the strength imbalance between the muscles responsible for stability and your chest, arms and shoulders.

This is because rings are a form of 'suspension training'  and therefore they are inherently instability. Instability may sound like a dubious attribute at first but its an assets as it is the key to strengthening the shoulder.

The free movement of the rings means that you have to actively stabilise your body rather then the equipment providing the stability. 

The body's adaptive response to instability is to strengthen the muscles and tendons that support the joint, in particular the rotator cuff. So as you become more experienced rings training all the muscles around your shoulder learn how to adjust to the new stimulus and you get stronger and very quickly feel more stable.

When you first use gymnastic rings the instability can be fairly overwhelming and will cause you to shake, as your body fights to keep still. The feeling of shaking is because the stabilising muscles have never had to support your body weight in this way and therefore are relatively weak, as with most new forms of resistance training that you haven't experienced before or had time to improve at. 

What is a support hold?

Support Hold on Gymnastic Rings

Anytime your shoulders are above the height of the rings during exercises such as dips or any isometric holds such as hold an L-sit in top position then you are in a 'support position'.

Holding yourself above the rings in a support hold is far more difficult then holding on to the rings when your body weight is hanging underneath. 

This means that a dip on rings is far more difficult then a ring pull up.

These are the common calisthenics techniques that occur in support hold

  • Ring push ups

  • Ring dips

  • The majority of the ring muscle up

  • Planche

  • Holding yourself in top position

  • Handstand

Techniques that occur with your body weight below the height of the rings are:

  • Pull ups/ chin ups

  • Inverted rows

  • Front and back levers

  • Ring roll outs

  • Triceps extensions

Instability is definitely a factor with exercises that are below the rings, for example ring pull ups as a general rule are more difficult then bar pull ups. However instability is far more pronounced when you are in support hold. 

When you are doing ring pull ups, i.e. in a position where you are below the rings, once you have engaged your grip, you can hang somewhat passively in a dead hang without significant effort or muscular engagement. 

When you are in support your centre of gravity is above the point of instability. The onus of stabilising your body is on your shoulder muscles, as well as overall increased engagement from your chest and core.

This is why the first time you attempt a dip on rings it feels almost impossible because of the overwhelming new stimulus of instability whilst you are supporting your weight.

This is particularly frustrating as it feels like the strength that you have gained from other pushing exercises, (bar dips in particular) should transfer to ring dips. 

I personally could comfortably achieve 12 dips on the parallel bars and weighted dips with +30 KG (66 lbs) for around 4 to 6 reps but only managed a very shaky two reps on my first attempt at ring dips.

I took consistency over a period of time to equalise the strength imbalance between stabilising muscles and my chest and arms. Now I can rep as many dips on the rings as the bars and even do weighted ring muscle ups just through hard work and gradual exposure.

Which exercises are best for developing shoulder stability?

The exercises that are most effective for developing strong, stable shoulders are always going to be exercises that are 'in support' holds. 

However for most people instability through suspension training is a completely new stimulus, therefore to attempt and exercises or support holds with full body weight right off the bat will likely be too overwhelming.

Therefore we have to gradually expose ourselves to the instability in succession with gradually increases in intensity.

Where should I start?

If you are completely new to the rings I would recommend you familiarise yourself with the feeling of their free moving nature by practising some ring rows or pull ups.

These exercises will help you to get comfortable with how the rings rotate and move throughout the duration of the movements. Any instability in the rings should be tolerable as with these exercises you centre of gravity is below that of the rings therefore instability is far less significant.

The first exercise that is in support is the...

Ring Push up for Shoulder stability

Ring Push Ups

The ring push up is the perfect place to start as you can easily control the level of intensity by adjusting the angle and your feet are on the ground so that the instability is manageable. 

They are also a fantastic exercise engaging chest, triceps and shoulders for muscle mass.

Adopt a push up position using the rings with a fairly high angle as in the first photo. Leaning at an angle of around 45 degrees with you hands in the rings is the perfect place to start. 

Always start in a lock out position and then proceed to do push ups as you would normally.

Another advantage of the rings is that they can rotate freely to the position that is most comfortable for your joints, so you should feel less of a strain on your wrist joint and tendons then regular pushing exercises where the equipment remains static and therefore you joints have no freedom to move or rotate in the way the would naturally prefer.

If you find the exercise either too easy or difficult you can adjust the height of the straps to a height that is easier or more challenging as required and...

  • Perform 8-12 reps for 3 sets

Generally speaking I would recommend you to do this exercise twice a week, but it will depend your capacity for recovery and other factors such as the appropriate nutrition and sufficient rest etc.

As you progress by lowering the height of the rings, not only will you stabilising muscles be stronger but also your chest and triceps

Once you are comfortable doing 12 reps for 3 sets at a lower angle on the rings it is time to progress to a more challenging isometric hold...

The Band Assisted Support Hold

Band Assisted Support Hold

This next progression is designed to get you used to the feeling of being in a support hold without the burden of your entire body weight. The band also provides some additional stability as at this stage you may not be ready to hold your full weight for a meaningful enough amount of time to really induce the adaptive response of an increase in shoulder strength.

If you have a range of resistance bands then this is perfect as you can progress as you get stronger by using bands with lower and lower reistance. 

Start by holding each end of the band in each hand and hold onto the rings. The height of the rings should be low enough for you to step into a top position hold easily without having to jump up or drop to low to get into position. 

Start by placing one knee on the band, allowing it to support part of your body weight and when you comfortable shift your weight so you are supporting yourself with the rings and place the other knee on the resistance band so you end up in a top support position as in the photo. 

Try and maintain this hold for...

  • 30 seconds

If you can comfortably hold onto the rings in a top position assisted by the band for more then 30 seconds without shaking too much then it is time to either progress to using a lighter resistance band with less tension or attempt a full unsupported top hold position.

The strength of your stabilising muscles and your chest and arms are beginning to equalise. You body is adapting to the stimulus of instability and becoming stronger and more coordinated.

If holding on for 30 seconds is too difficult then scale back and using a thicker resistance band or hold on for 10-15 seconds at a time to build up your strength.

When you get to a point where you can comfortably hold an unsupported top position for 30 seconds then your rotator cuff has become significantly stronger which...

  1. Stabilises the shoulder joint

  2. Making you more resistance to shoulder injuries.

The next progression form here is...

The Ring Dip for Shoulder Stability

The ring dip is perhaps the ultimate test of your shoulder strength and capacity for stability. The top hold position was and isometric hold whereas with the ring dip your shoulders not only have to support and stabilise your body weight, but also push your body up and down through a full range of motion. 

Your shoulders ability to stabilise isn't just being tested in one potion but at different angles of the shoulder joint. 

If you can achieve a top position hold for more then 30 seconds without any execessive shaking then the ring dip is well within your grasp

To full explain the steps and progressions to not only achive but perfect your ring dip takes another blog post so I have wrote...

If you want to progress from the ring dip and achieve full supremacy of the rings I have wrote a the definitive guide for...


Gymnastic rings training is simply the best way of developing shoulder stability. Rings have the unique ability to address shoulder strength with a focus on the rotator cuff.

Shoulder stability is vital for so many aspects of athletic competition and different exercises in the gym, that everyone has something to gain from ring training. 

Not only does shoulder stability positively impact athletic performance but it also conditions the shoulder to become more resistant to injury. Stronger rotator cuff muscles and tendons will give you more control and coordination in upper body movements and reduces the tendency of shoulder pain, impingement, tears etc. 

The big advantage of training with gymnastic rings to address strengthening stabilising muscles is that they are very easy to use in a progression that can suit any ability. You can gradually expose yourself to the rings inherent instability without overwhelming the muscles, adjusting the height of the rings and progressing through the sequence of exercises with increasing difficulty.  

Incorporate gymnastic rings into your training and reap the benefits of injury resistant shoulders and improved athletic performance.

If you have any further questions on rings training for increased shoulder stability please leave a comment below and share on social media ⬇️⬇️⬇️ 


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