The causes of this will of course vary, but one thing we can do is ensure that we take care of our shoulders when we’re training.
They are plenty of things we cannot control but training sensibly is one of the things that we can.
The shoulder joint itself naturally provides a tonne of mobility, but often with great mobility, there comes great instability.
This mobility isn’t standardised, it will also differ between people as our bodies adjust to the way that we live our daily lives (i.e. hunched over desk all day).
Because of this, finding out whether you currently have the mobility/stability to do exercises safely is the best place to start.
One movement that is often the undoing of someone’s shoulders is straight overhead pressing. Being one of the “big 5” for strength, it’s usually the go to exercise on any day involving shoulders.
The issue is that the barbell overhead press is a pretty rigid movement that doesn’t allow for many changes to accommodate the physiological differences between people.
You can use dumbbells that offer more variation in terms of positioning, but you also have a more unstable movement that causes its own issues.
It’s not just overhead pressing that can cause issues, chest pressing can also be a problem for many as well. Warming up for these movements is often a good place to start, check out my chest pressing warmup here
It’s important to note that, although these movements can cause issues, it’s the sub-optimal mechanics that they often reinforce which are the problem.
Whether you’re a seasoned lifter or gym newbie, here are some things that you can do to ensure your shoulders stay strong and healthy.
Shoulder and thoracic mobility is paramount to being able to lift above your head effectively.
Simply put, if you can’t lift your arms above your head without compensations in the body, then do you really think it’s a good idea to add a load to this pattern?
Our bodies are master compensators, so if you’re trying to move a certain way, the body will find the easiest route to achieve it.
If you lack the mobility needed in the thoracic spine to get your arms above your head, then the body will find that mobility elsewhere.
This is often found in the lower back which is when you develop an arch and flared ribs during overhead movements.
Assess your shoulder mobility to find out your current limitations and what you can work on to improve them.
A simple way to do this is to film yourself (from the side) slowly raising your arms straight above your head.
If you start to see excessive curvature in the lower back, ribs flaring or change in hip position, then you may need to work on your mobility in the upper body (thoracic spine and/or shoulders)
Try my mobility drills at the bottom of this page to improve your thoracic and shoulder mobility.
Pull More Than Push and Pull Before You Push
The problem with this is that we end up with a lot of strength in the front, but a lack of means to stabilise this through the posterior chain.
The frequency with which people train their chest usually heavily outweighs the frequency in which they train the opposing muscles in the back.
Because of this, the shoulders are continually being put under stress and in positions which can compromise their structure and stability.
Pull more than you push to ensure that you’ve got the strength and stability to support your pushing.
Also include pulling movements into warm-ups for days that include pushing movements, to activate the stabilising musculature in the posterior chain (resistance bands work well here).
Establish Your Boundaries
Bench pressing painful or uncomfortable? Then find a joint friendly alternative using another angle.
The point is that you need to find what you will and won’t do in order to achieve your goals.
Is getting a desired aesthetic look for your shoulders really worth battering them to the point of no return?
Can you find alternative exercises that will achieve a similar outcome?
These are the questions you need to be answering.
Or, none of this may apply to you and that’s fine. But taking into consideration the exercises below will only be a positive addition to your training regardless.
Exercise That You Can Start To Implement
There are plenty of things that you can start to do to improve the way you treat your shoulders.
Here are just a few exercises that I’ve found to be the most simple and effective to implement on a wider scale.
These not a cure for your shoulder pain, but may be a remedy to poor mechanics leading to it.
If you do have chronic pain then I would recommend seeing a specialist to get a diagnosis (if you haven’t done so already.)
For more exercises and daily information, you can keep up with me on Instagram here.
Thoracic Extensions - Mobility
- Position the foam roller at your mid-back, just under the shoulder blades (no lower than this)
- Extend over the foam roller, through the upper back (avoiding arching through the lower back) and return to the start position
- Reposition the foam roller as needed, refocusing it 1-2 inches around the start position.
- Repeat for 10-20 reps.
Wall Slides - Mobility
- Stand against a wall (or door in this case) with your back pressed against it, and your arms bent
- Sit down against the wall and extend your arms overhead, keeping your back and arms pressed against the wall as you do so
- Keeping both pressed against the wall, return to the start position
- Repeat for 10-15 reps
Band Dislocates - Mobility/Stability
- Using a light resistance band, hold it towards the end and pull to develop tension (the closer to the middle you hold the band the harder it will be)
- Keeping this tension on the band, extend your arms overhead and back towards your buttocks.
- Maintain an extended arm throughout the movement and return to the start position
- Repeat for 10-15 reps
Band Pull-aparts - Stability
- Using a light resistance band, hold it at shoulder level away from the body
- Hold it towards the centre (the closer the centre the harder it will be)
- With a natural bend at your elbow, pull the back apart and towards the chest
- Pull through the upper back and squeeze your shoulder blades
- Repeat for 10-15 reps
Landmine Press - Comfortable Pressing Mechanics
- Using a landmine attachment (or stable surface to press the barbell against), adopt a half kneeling position under the end of the barbell
- Make sure the rear leg of the half kneeling position is on the same side as the pressing arm
- Holding the end of the barbell, push up and away from the body at the angle the setup provides
- Repeat for required reps relevant to performance goals: i.e. strength <8 reps, hypertrophy <12 reps.
Face Pulls - Stability and Postural Correction
- Using a cable machine and a rope attachment, position the anchor point level with your face.
- Extend your arms and rotate your arms inwards, grabbing the rope with your thumbs pointing towards you.
- Keeping your elbows raised, pull the centre of the rope towards your face (between nose and mouth), opening up the chest and pulling through the upper back.
- Repeat for higher rep ranges of 10-20.
Putting It Into Action
Unsure on how to put these exercise into practice to improve your shoulder health?
Then why not trying my online coaching programmes?
Build a strong body, train pain free, and achieve your goals with my sustainable methods.
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- Jordan KP, Kadam UT, Hayward R, Porcheret M, Young C, Croft P. Annual consultation prevalence of regional musculoskeletal problems in primary care: an observational study. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2010;11:144.
- Watson J, Helliwell P, Morton V, Adebajo A, Dickson J, Russell I, Torgerson D. Shoulder acute pain in primary healthcare: is retraining effective for GP principals? SAPPHIRE–a randomized controlled trial. Rheumatology (Oxford). 2008;47(12):1795–802
- , et al Management of shoulder pain by UK general practitioners (GPs): a national survey