Shoulders are the most vulnerable joints when it comes to injuries. If they aren’t being developed evenly or you are performing too much of a particular exercise you can place your shoulders at an increased risk for pain, injury, and impingment. What’s more is many of the common shoulder exercises you see in the gym are often times the biggest culprits to shoulder pain.
This article will cover the causes and some potential risks associated with shoulder pain and exercises that you should and should not do in the gym. This will hopefully help in preventing or even fixing shoulder pain and weakness. That being said, I am not a doctor nor will I pretend to be. It’s important to seek advice from your medical doctor before beginning any exercise routine, especially if there is pain involved.
Common Causes of Shoulder Pain
The shoulder joint has the greatest range of motion out of any other joint in the body, but all that range of motion means sacrificing stability. The ball and socket joint in the shoulder is similar to the one in the hip, but different due to the depth at which the ball sits in the socket.
The hip joint has a much deeper socket and is surround by some real powerhouse muscles. The shoulder joint has a much more shallow saucer-like socket and is surrounded by some very powerful muscles in the front but weaker smaller muscles in the back. This leads to a much greater instability. What’s more, the popularity of working the pectorals and lats further increases the risk of shoulder pain and injury, which takes us to our first culprit.
1. Underdeveloped External Rotators
Shoulder joint stability relies on the even development of all the muscles acting on the ball and socket joint. If you have underdeveloped external rotators, or more specifically the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and teres minor you could be at serious risk of a shoulder injury. That could possibly mean laying off the chest and lat exercises until you’ve given the smaller muscles in the back time to catch up. The reason I mention the lats is because of the insertion point to which they attach to the humerus or upper arm bone. Overdeveloped lats result in the shoulders to roll forward giving some guys the caveman-like posture.
Here is a somewhat simple test to determine the strength of your external rotators in relation to your pectorals. Determine your 3RM for the incline bench press. This is the maximum weight you can press for 3 repetitions. Take 9% of that weight and perform eight repetitions of an external rotator exercise. If you can’t perform all eight repetitions with proper form you need to start emphasizing external rotator exercises in your routine.
Below are two great exercises to start including in your routine. To better emphasize an exercise place it early in the workout while you are at your strongest. Start with 3 sets of 12 repetitions and then move up to 4 sets of 10 repetitions adjust weight accordingly. Do this exercies two to three times per week.
2. Poor Posture
Poor posture is the last thing you want when performing shoulder exercises. Muscles, nerves, and tendons become impinged in the joint and result in pain and limited range of motion. Be sure to practice good posture at all times, but especially when exercising the shoulders. Before you begin an exercise hold your head up and pull your shoulder blades down and back. This will ensure your body is in the best position to perform shoulder strengthening and mobility exercises.
To check and see if you suffer from poor posture perform the pencil test. Hold two pencils and let your arms rest at your side. Look to see where the pencils are pointing. If they’re parallel or almost parallel, good job! If they are nearly poking you in the manhood you’ve got some work to do.
If you did poorly on this test you need to start emphasizing exercises that focus on scapular flexion and external rotation. One of the best exercises to fix your posture is the Face pull. Here is a great video from T-Nation demonstrating the Face pull. Pay attention to the grip.
Another great exercise that will improve your posture and in turn result in greater shoulder stability is the serratus shrug. Props to Vinh Tran for this great video demonstrating the serratus shrug.
3. Limited Range of Motion
Limited range of motion can be caused by a number of factors. Typically it’s the result of underdeveloped or tight muscles in the shoulder joint. Here are two tests to check the shoulder joint’s range of motion.
Place your back and buttocks against a wall with your arms hanging by your side. Bend your right elbow to a 90-degree angle so your hand is out in front of you with your forearm parallel to the floor. With your elbow touching the wall rotate your right arm out to the side while maintaining the 90-degree bend in the elbow. The back of your hand should touch or nearly touch the wall. Repeat for the other side. Limited range of motion here is the result of underdeveloped external rotators. See number 1
For the next test assume the same position against a wall, but this time hold your arm out to your side with the elbow at a 90-degree angle. Your upper arm should be parallel to the floor with your forearm pointing towards the ceiling, similar to how you would give someone a high-five. Now, rotate the upper arm so that your forearm pivots down 180-degrees. Your forearm should now be pointing towards the floor, and you should be able to place your hand flat on the wall. Make sure the elbow maintains contact with the wall. If you can’t make the full 180-degrees then you have a tight shoulder joint and are at increased risk of injury.
Performing poorly on these tests means you should focus on strengthing the external rotators and improving the joint range of motion through stretching. One of the best stretches to improve range of motion is the Sleeper Stretch.
4. Exercises That Place the Shoulder at Risk
Some exercises you see guys doing every day in the gym put the shoulder in an “at risk” position for either a traumatic injury or a repeated stress injury. You might be surprised at some of the exercises listed, and you may think “I’ve been doing these for years and have never had a problem.” Just remember, it only takes one shoulder injury and you could be dealing with it the rest of your life.
Additionally, we aren’t all built the same. Some people can perform these movements without any problems, but as a general rule there are much safer alternatives that minimize the risk of injury. Below I list suitable replacements that place the shoulder in a better position and will keep you injury-free. Here are the shoulder exercises you should avoid.
1. Dumbell presses with arms out to the side. With the arm up and out to the side and the elbow at a 90-degree angle, you are placing the arms in a vulnerable position. Throw in the added weight and one wrong move can result in subluxation or worse a complete dislocation.
It’s also worth mentioning the barbell presses behind the neck. With this exercise, your shoulders are placed at an extremely vulnerable angle. With added weight and repetitive stress of the exercise you are at a much higher risk to experience an injury.
To avoid this fate and still safely and effectively hit the deltoids try the shoulder press with neutral grip and elbows out in front. This keeps your arm in much safer position throughout the entirety of the movement.
2. Shoulder Presses with a backrest. The backrest allows you to lift more weight but at the same time the added stress can be too much for the muscles in the shoulder joint. When the arm is at the 90-degree angle you are at the most risk for injury. It’s best to skip the backrest altogether and perform the exercise on your feet.
As an added bonus standing on your feet forces you to engage your core, but will limit the amount of weight you can lift. If you want to lift more weight load up a barbell and try the push press. By driving your hips and moving quickly through the at risk position you are less likely to experience an injury. This also allows you to place a greater load on the deltoid safely.
3. Shoulder flys with palms down. If you are doing shoulder flys that resemble pouring a pitcher of beer you’re placing the shoulder at risk of injury and/or impingement. With your arms out to your side and palms facing down The ball of the humerus moves into a position where you could potentially pinch nerves and muscles causing shoulder impingement.
To fix this, you should perform shoulder flys with your palms facing forward. This rotates the humerus posteriorly resulting in a safer range of motion.
You can also check out the Fitprofree.com’s complete list of The Best Shoulder Exercises Here.
To sum it all up…
If you are experiencing shoulder pain when you workout it is more than likely varying degrees of one, two, three, or all four of the above culprits. The ideal solution is to make sure you have adequate range of motion and balanced strength throughout the entire joint. Additionally, you should avoid the above exercises that can cause shoulder pain or injury and replace them with suitable movements.
One of the best ways to strengthen the shoulders is to use exercise bands to perform external rotator exercises from multiple angles as well as posture-improving scapular flexion exercises. Resistance bands are an inexpensive way to do this from your own home without needing a lot of equipment.
Here’s a great product on available on Amazon.com
- Bands Included: Yellow 2-4lbs, Blue 4-6lbs, Green 10-12lbs, Black 15-20lbs, Red 25-30lbs, Orange 35-40lbs and Purple 45-50lbs
- Any band can be used together at one-time to create multiple levels of resistance
- Features metal clipping system on bands for attaching to soft-grip handles or ankle straps
- Includes two door anchors, two sets of handles, two ankle straps, carrying case and starter guide
- All Black Mountain Products resistance bands come with a manufacturer warranty
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