As with all of my fitness and training articles, understand that I’m not a medical professional.
All I’m doing with this shoulder injury advice is to present you with what I believe helps. You should always consult a professional *in person* if you’re really worried about pain in your shoulders.
I’ve been lucky enough to experience no shoulder injuries in my 10+ years of lifting heavy weights in the gym.
This by no means makes me more credible than a professional muscle expert hired by athletes and sport organizations, but I still think it’s a benefit to share what I’ve learned with you and the rest of the world.
I hope you’ll agree.
I’ve experienced pain in my elbows which I don’t actually attribute to lifting weights. I hurt my left elbows from slamming it into a metal corner years back. From time to time, pain flares up when I’m lifting heavy weights.
So that’s really the only pain I’ve experienced over the years from lifting weights. My shoulders are still storng and healthy, and I’m into my 30’s.
I mention my elbow pain for a reason: you may experience shoulder pain due to an injury you experienced *outside* of the gym.
Perhaps it was on the football field, or a surfing accident, or you fell off a skateboard, or got in a car accident, or you fell on some ice.
You may know exactly what kind of injury you had that has messed up your shoulders. Or, you could have injured yourself in the gym.
Things like bad form, too many sets, too many reps, too much weight, overtraining and bad routines can cause injuries to your shoulders.
Either way, my goal with this article is to help you lessen your pain and make training an enjoyable experience.
Let’s dive into some tips you can take with you to prevent common shoulder injuries.
1. No Upper-Body Weight Lifting For 2 Weeks
Yes, this might suck to hear. But, your body will thank you for it.
If you’ve been lifting heavy weights for months and months without giving your body an extended break, this may be exactly what the doctor ordered.
But I’m not a doctor…
Anyway, this is tip #1 for a reason: you may have an injury that isn’t able to fully heal due to consistent weight lifting.
Taking a couple of weeks off from the weights may be exactly what your shoulders need right now. Allow your body to rest and recover.
A couple weeks away from the weights aren’t going to cause your physique to drastically change. As long as you’re tracking your macros, your body will be fine.
Whenever I take a couple weeks off from the gym, I always return stronger than I was before. I am able to bench more weight than I was able to before the break even though I haven’t benched in weeks.
Plus, any pain I may have had in muscles or joints is gone. This is exactly why I want you to think about taking a break as the first step to preventing further shoulder injuries.
As the title states, this 2 week rule only applies to upper body weight lifting.
I highly recommend that you continue to hit the gym using my leg workout routine to that burns fat.
You can also hit your abs and do some cardio. As long as you’re keeping your upper body out of your exercises, going to the gym is fine.
The key with this first tip is to give your arms and shoulders an extended break. No iron. No body weight exercises. Give them the rest they crave so they can heal.
If after two weeks you notice no improvement to your injury, you should consult a doctor at this point to get a more professional diagnosis of what the real problem is.
For all we know, you could have a tear. One of my friends tore his pec and had no idea for months. He was walking around and working with a torn pec for months before he got it looked at.
Therefore, it’s important to take your injuries seriously. Don’t write them off. Extended pain could be a serious problem.
2. Stick to Body Weight Exercises for a Few Weeks
Lets assume that you’ve taken a couple of weeks off and you’re ready to hit the upper body one again. What’s the best approach?
The last thing you want to do is re-injure your shoulder. Therefore, avoiding heavy weights is a must until you are absolutely certain that your shoulders are healed.
I am a big fan of body weight exercises and calisthenics in general. A combination of weight lifting and calisthenics is the best routine in my personal opinion.
You’d be surprised at how much strength you can build just through body weight exercises. When was the last time you tried a hand stand push up? It’s one of the hardest movements to perform and a sign of great strength.
I definitely do not want you jumping into anything handstand at this time. The risk is too great for your shoulders. Let’s start light.
A simple plank for 45 seconds will fatigue your shoulders. Give it a go and see how you feel. You can make this exercise more difficult with a wall plank. This puts more stress on the shoulders.
Even harder is the wall walk. You start in the wall plank position and “walk” up the wall. This exercise is extremely difficult if you’re new to body weight exercises so take it easy.
Another good exercise is the pike push up. Aim for around 10-12 reps for 4 sets. See how your shoulders feel after performing this exercise.
Wall planks with pike push ups is more than enough to fatigue your shoulders. Hopefully, you’ll won’t experience pain from these. If you do, then you may be dealing with a more serious injury.
As always, see your doctor if your injury won’t go away. Take it easy with these body weight exercises if you’re new to them.
3. Less Push Days, More Pull Days
One of the biggest causes of shoulder injuries in the gym is from heavy flat bench pressing.
For this reason alone, I stick to incline bench pressing for building up strength in my chest. I recommend you adopt this practice as well. It is much safer on your shoulders.
I still perform flat bench pressing from time to time. However, I lift with a light enough weight so that I can perform at minimum 10 reps per set.
Most people spend way more time with pushing exercises than pulling. However, it’s in my opinion that the back is in need of more work than your front.
Your shoulders will thank you for this type of approach in the gym. Plus, it’s the back that actually makes you look wide and thick.
I suggest hitting both the chest and shoulders on the same day once per week. There’s no reason to have more than 1 push day if you’re dealing with a shoulder injury.
Spend two days per week on pulling exercises. Build the back while you recover from your injury. You’ll be setting yourself up for long-term size and health in general.
A healthy back is incredibly important for your long-term health. This is especially true if you tend to sit at a desk for most of the day.
Most people have muscle imbalances which lead to injuries due to not incorporating enough pull exercises.
This problem is easily rectified by backing off on push movements. Your chest doesn’t need as much work as you think. Plus, you’d be surprised at the growth you can achieve just from body weight exercises.
Body weight exercises should be your go-to when you’re dealing with an injury. Trying to shoulder press 100+ pounds with an injury is asking for trouble.
Therefore, take it easy on your body. Hit the shoulders once per week and give more emphasis to your back muscles.
4. Two Injury-Causing Shoulder Exercises
There are several exercises that can tear up your shoulders over time.
The worst, in my opinion, is the upright row with bad form. Whenever I see someone overextending with the upright row, I cringe deep inside and pray for the man.
I was told years ago that the highest you should lift the bar in the upright row is to your nipples.
Let’s visualize this movement (not my nipples): holding the bar fulling extended, you pull the bar up towards your chin.
Most people do just this: they keep pulling the bar until it reaches chin level (even worse, I’ve seen people pull the bar to the top of their head! Talk about cringe).
This is how people get injured from the upright row. It’s why it can be such a dangerous exercise.
Therefore, never pull the bar higher than your nipples. You will still give your shoulders plenty of exercise performing each rep this way.
And, your shoulders will feel much safer! I’ve been doing upright rows in this manner for years without any pain whatsoever.
Another common exercise that causes shoulder injuries are the weighted dips. It might shock you to hear this, but it’s true.
I am a big fan of dips. However, when you start adding on heavy weighted reps, you risk injury.
The movement alone puts a lot of stress on your shoulders. You should avoid chest/tricep dips of any kind while recovering from a shoulder injury.
Only when your free of injury should you start to incorporate dips back into your routine. But, stick to body weight and higher reps.
5. No More Heavy Flat Bench Pressing
I’ve put this point about flat bench pressing in it’s own little section because it’s biggest cause of injury to weight lifters.
If you hit the gym long enough, you’ll always come across someone who injured their shoulders from bench pressing.
And, it’s not limited to older people. I know guys in their early 20’s that can’t bench anymore because of the heavy pressing for years. Their shoulders have issues and they need several months away from the bench.
The good news is that your chest doesn’t have to suffer from removing the flat bench press from your life.
If you’re currently experiencing a shoulder injury from bench pressing, learn to love the incline dumbbell press.
Inline pressing in general is much safer for your shoulders, especially if you’re lifting heavy for the strength gains that come with it.
Once you’ve given your shoulders plenty of weeks to recover and repair, and you’re sure it’s not a serious injury that requires medical attention, return to weight lifting with the incline dumbbell press.
Start light of course and work your way up. Always remain conscious of how your shoulders feel.
Eventually, you may be able to return to the flat bench press. But, keep the weight low. Use the flat bench press for higher rep work and will still build size.
Make sure your form is solid in all of your pressing exercises. Keep your elbows tucked in and move the weight slowly.
The incline dumbbell work is more than enough to rebuild your chest strength. And, your shoulders will thank you for it over time.
6. Shoulder Dislocates, Band Pull-Aparts and Face Pulls
Let these 3 exercises become staples in your shoulder work from this day forward. These three exercises are easily my most favorite for overall shoulder health.
They increase your flexibility and mobility in your shoulders. Doing so helps prevent injury. Jumping straight into a heavy shoulder press without warming up properly is a recipe for disaster.
The best exercise for warming up on upper body days are the shoulder dislocates. Starting out with 15-20 of these will get blood into your shoulders. They’ll be stretched and warm.
Grab yourself the bands and perform a set of these. If you can’t get to 20 reps, then do as many as you can before you need to rest.
From here, you can go straight into the band pull-aparts. You can perform 2 variations: palms up or palms down. Both are great for shoulder mobility and flexibility.
You want to perform at least 15 of these with the band. Try to hold at the top of the rep for a second or two. You got to make sure the band is light enough so that you can feel your shoulder blades coming together.
The last exercise are the facepulls. However, I do not warm up with these. Instead, I use this exercise as my finisher.
I keep the weight low and the reps high using a rope attachment. I also externally rotate my wrists. At the top of the lift, it looks as if I’m doing the classic bicep flex. The rope is above my head.
Doing the movement this way pulls your shoulder blades together in your back. With the weight low, this exercise is a great way to get blood flow throughout your shoulder. Your rotater cuffs will grow stronger from this type of movement.
These movements are all about that mind-muscle connection. Close your eyes and do these reps very slowly so that you can intensely focus on the feeling of your shoulders in these movements.
If you are using a band that is too thick, or a weight that is too heavy for face pulls, your are wasting your time. The shoulders won’t get the activation needed to make these exercises worth it.
Again, these are great exercises to perform when recovering from an injury. Using these with the body weight movements will strengthen your shoulders and get make them even stronger in the long run.
I’m Not A Doctor
It needs to be stated one last time: I’m not a doctor, so please be careful with whatever step you take moving forward.
Don’t do anything stupid. Use your head. If you’re experiencing pain in your shoulder while exercising, stop that exercise immediately. You will only cause more damage that will take longer to heal over time.
Don’t “push through the pain” like some other morons might suggest.
And, definitely see a doctor if the pain continues to pop up week after week. You could have a serious injury that needs addressing asap.
This is why you need to start slow with very light weight and body weight exercises. Don’t jump into the iron right away.
Have you recovered from a shoulder injury? What was your rehab process like? Tell us in the comments below.