When it comes to lifting related injuries, the shoulders take the cake for most common and most annoying. You learn very quickly how important shoulder stability is to your overall fitness and health when the ability to press overhead, bench press, do push-ups or just lift your arm laterally goes out the window.
Unfortunately, I see a lot of lifters and active individuals who simply accept their shoulder pain or discomfort as the norm and continue to train without addressing it. So let’s get one thing out of the way: Pain is feedback that something is amiss. Nagging pain, constant discomfort and aches is not the norm. If it is, then it’s time to assess, correct and revamp your training.
Taking all anatomy and medical issues asides, we can usually discern the cause of shoulder pain by looking at a few things.
- You train them too often: The #1 mistake that leads to unhealthy shoulders is this. Lets say you read an article about a fitness model who trains shoulders 2x a week. You want some sexy boulder shoulders too so you ramp up your shoulder training for Tuesdays and Thursdays. Here’s the problem: You are not an elite-level athlete or fitness model. You train hard, yes, but you also have a life to balance training and recovery around. Beating your shoulder muscles down with excessive, heavy training won’t make them grow, it’ll make them hurt. Trust me on this one. I made this mistake so you wouldn’t have to.
- You have no clue how to turn on your stabilizers. The shoulder complex is well, very complex. To move your shoulder or scapulae in upward rotation, abduction, adduction, flexion, extension and downward rotation requires activating several stabilizers that help protect and support those movements. When a client starts Pilates with me, we work a lot on scapulae isolation and stabilization because unfortunately, most of us have no idea how to stabilize the shoulder girdle. No matter how strong an individual is, shoulder or scapulae stabilization is not intuitive for most of us. However, with a little training and body awareness we can learn how to activate those stabilizers, protect our shoulders and thereby, move with precision and control.
- You train too heavy. There’s nothing wrong with heavy lifting, but doing a ton of lateral raises and overhead presses with 85-95% 1RM is a heck of a lot of load for those muscles, especially if you’re training them often in a sport like Olympic weightlifting and have limited mobility to begin with. Training to failure every session or aiming for a PR each time is completely unnecessary for strength or hypertrophy. There are numerous ways to get strong without adding more weight to the bar.
- Your form stinks. Let’s face it, we can always use a little technique work no matter how experienced we are in the weight room. Ask a coach to check your form every once in a while. A few tweaks here and there might actually improve your lifting and keep you injury-free. It also helps to take video of your lifts and have it analyzed by a coach.
- Your programming ratio is off. Training chest and shoulders all the time won’t make you stronger, it’ll get you hurt. Try looking at your problem to see if maybe you’re hitting the same muscle group too often. There are only three muscles in the shoulder, do you think it’s necessary to hit the anterior deltoid 4 different ways in a single session? The answer is “No”.
- Your warm-up sucks. The warm-up is not optional, especially if your training calls for bench or overhead pressing. Spend some time activating the stabilizers and learning how to pack your shoulders during your warm-up. Doing a few arm circles will not suffice.
Shoulder-friendly exercises for pressing gains
Knowing why you’re experiencing pain or discomfort is one thing. Training around that without aggravating it further is another. (NOTE: If you are in pain, go see a professional. I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on TV).
Bench pressing is all the rage if you’re a dude, but if you have shoulder issues and don’t need to bench press for competition, then there really is no need for this exercise. A person with a history of shoulder impingement should avoid wide-grip bench pressing as it puts the shoulder in a vulnerable position. The scaps are pressed down into the bench and if you already have limited range of motion, smashing them up into the bench isn’t helping matters. Alternatively, using a narrow grip may help but it does limit the amount of weight you can lift. What I have found helpful was learning to set my scapulae in a powerlifting-style bench press. A powerlifter uses her full body to push the load and this helps move more weight. Watch it here.
- Reach your arms up and pull your scapaule down to “wrap” around the bench
- Maintain that tension as you grip the bar and set up for your bench
- On the concentric (lifting/upward) phase, drive through your heels, glutes and chest
- Leave a little bit of a gap between the working arm and your torso in your set-up. Let some light shine through! (Thanks Eric Cressey for the cue.)
- Avoid dropping your elbow too far back on your way in
- As you press up, lean into the bar to get full shoulder flexion and upward rotation
- Brace your abdominals and avoid jutting your head forward when you extend the arm up
Neutral grip DB bench press
Wide grip bench prisoning makes the shoulders work hard while putting them in a more vulnerable and unstable position. Plus, having your shoulder blades pinned up against a bench doesn’t allow it to move freely. This is why a neutral grip tends to work best for cranky shoulders. Bodybuilding.com hits a home run with this tutorial.
- Neutral grip (palms facing each other) is more shoulder friendly than a wide-grip angle, reducing the risk of shoulder impingement
- Try using an incline bench too. This position puts our shoulders closer to its most neutral position and allows greater range of motion without overloading the anterior deltoid and creating any flare ups.
Make no mistake….shoulder injuries suck. The good news is that an injury forces us to get creative, work on muscular imbalances and teaches us a thing or two about our bodies. So if cranky shoulders are a factor, like it is for me, there’s no need to throw out exercises like push-ups or the bench press. Instead, try out different variations of an exercise, adjust your set-up, revisit other exercises that emphasis scapular stability and movement, and check back on how you’re doing a few weeks later.