How to Avoid Shoulder Pain at the Gym

There are a lot of ways to injure the shoulder—don’t let your workouts be one of them.  If you’re already having pain (or would like to avoid it), the following tips will help you keep those shoulders safe in the gym.

  1. Avoid all behind the neck exercises.  Although behind the neck shoulder presses, lat pull downs and back squats might evoke fond memories of your first foray into strength training (myself included), they’re also a recipe for shoulder disaster.  That’s the bad news.  The good news? All of these exercises have alternatives which keep the hands and weight in front of the face and are just as effective at targeting the intended muscles.
  2. Keep those elbows close.  Flaring your elbows out to the side during bench presses, push-ups and overhead presses places the shoulder joints in an incredibly vulnerable position. Perform those same exercises with the elbows in closer to the body and you’ll drastically reduce your risk of shoulder injury.     
  3. Don’t lose sight of your hands.  When performing chest presses and flyes, don’t let your hands disappear from your peripheral vision.  This will keep the elbows from dropping behind the plane of the shoulders which can produce excessive strain on joint structures.
  4. Take a look at your push to pull ratio.  If your routine emphasizes pushing (bench press, shoulder press, flyes) over pulling (rows, etc.), you’re asking for trouble.  Much of our daily life already encourages excessive recruitment of muscles on the front of our shoulders (seated computer work, driving, lifting/carrying tasks). Reinforcing this imbalance in the gym is a surefire way to end up with unhappy shoulders.  Aim for 3 sets of pulling movements for every 1 set of pushing movements at the gym.  Can’t think of many pulling exercises?  Look here  (video for I’s, T’s, W’s and Y’s).
  5. Don’t neglect the rotator cuff.  These (Shoulder ER and IR) simple exercises should be part of your regular workout routine—not just when you’re already hurting.
  6. No dips or upright rows.  Although frequently staples of strength and bodybuilding routines, dips (both on a bench or in the parallel bars) and upright rowing place unnecessary strain on the shoulder joints.  Avoid these exercises—your shoulders will thank you.

For more advise on safe shoulder exercises visit a physical therapist.  If you have pain or limited shoulder function visit your doctor.  Check back in two weeks for our two part series on shoulder training for the overhead athelete. 


Upper Extremity Weight-Training Modifications for the Injured Athlete : A Clinical Perspective. Martin Fees, Tony Decker, Lynn Snyder-Mackler and Michael J. Axe Am J Sports Med 1998 26: 732


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