Shoulder injuries don’t discriminate. They account for up to 36 per cent of all major weights room injuries (that is, the ones severe enough to require medical attention), and they target big and small guys equally. Dr Morey Kolber was one of those casualties. “I separated one shoulder and partially tore the rotator cuff on the other one when I was lifting in high school,” he says.
Kolber needed three months of physical therapy to get his shoulder back into working order. His physio’s advice moving forward was simple: use lighter weights. But even though Kolber followed that wisdom carefully, within a couple of years he had seriously injured his shoulder once more.
You may never be carted out of the gym with a blown shoulder the way Kolber was. But if you’re an average guy with a natural inclination to test your max bench or see just how much weight you can shunt overhead, chances are you have experienced shoulder pain at some point in your life.
That pain is a sign you’re doing something wrong, and larger problems could be looming. If the joint finally fails, with it goes the ability to do everyday tasks and activities you love. Everything from typing on a keyboard to sleeping through the night can become painful and challenging – in fact, more than 80 per cent of people with shoulder pain report trouble sleeping.
You can also say goodbye to your favourite pastimes, like swinging a racquet, throwing a ball or casting a line off a boat. So take action and read on for four ways to protect this crucial joint.
Stop Doing These Exercises
Part of Kolber’s problem was that he received bad advice from both his physio and his training partners. “The things I was told were good for my shoulders, I now realise were not,” he says.
Currently Kolber teaches at Nova Southeastern University in the US, and he began studying shoulder pain in lifters in 2004. Almost immediately he found a strong link between shoulder pain and moves done with arms in the “high five” position, like the behind-the-neck pulldown and shoulder press – body-building staples.
“These were exercises I did day in and day out,” he says. Rather than strengthening his shoulders, the moves were making the joints unstable by stretching the tissues tasked with protecting them.
Next, he looked at what happens to those unstable joints. Impingement is something that occurs when your rotator cuff – the four muscles that hold your ball-and-socket shoulder joint together – is pinched within the tight space where it’s attached. The condition, caused by inflammation, can lead to chronic pain. Lifters who did upright rows and lateral raises with their elbows above their shoulders were most likely to have impingement.
Sore-shouldered lifters typically blame the bench press. It might be a perpetrator, but Kolber found proving that connection impossible. “Some 95 per cent of people I study do the bench press,” he says. “Determining whether it’s a culprit is hard when everyone does it.” Your best bet is to correct your form to minimise your risk (see below).
Doing lots of reps with bad form on any shoulder exercise is a terrible idea
Focus on Your Form
The most surprising result of Kolber’s 12 years of research turned age-old advice on its head: the weight of the load actually doesn’t seem to matter. “People with good form who lift heavy don’t have a higher injury risk,” he says. “They’re told, ‘If it hurts, use less weight and do more reps’. But it’s not the weight. It’s muscle imbalance and poor movement patterns that cause damage.”
In fact, Kolber says, doing a lot of reps with bad form on any shoulder exercise is a terrible idea, no matter how light the weights are. It’s far better to do fewer reps with heavier weights while maintaining perfect form – that is, unless you’re doing those “high five” exercises. Then you’re in strife no matter how good your form is.
Strengthen Your Traps
Kolber discovered two big differences between lifters with shoulder pain and those without: the pain-free lifters were more likely to do external-rotation strengthening exercises. These moves target your external rotators, small muscles at the back of your shoulders that help stabilise your shoulder joint, balancing your deltoids and reducing your risk of impingement.
Also, in their upper back, their lower trapezius muscles were stronger relative to their upper traps. Your lower traps are easy to strengthen: just consciously pull your shoulderblades down and together. That alone increases lower-trap activation by 13 per cent, Kolber says. Do that before each rep on lat pulldowns and pull-up variations and they’ll be better able to protect your shoulders.
Don’t Sleep on Your Sore Side
Your sleeping position has a big impact on how quickly you recover and may even affect your future injury risk, says Kolber. If you do have pain or an injury, try to avoid sleeping on the hurt side with your
head resting on your arm. That can cut bloodflow to your injury, which in turn slows down the repair process.
But even if you don’t have pain, cutting off bloodflow to one shoulder every single night can make the joint more prone to injury. Kolber’s recommendation: if you’re feeling pain, sleep on the unaffected side with your arms out in front of you or hugging a pillow. This position facilitates bloodflow. Pain-free? Sleep in that same position but alternate sides nightly.
The shoulder-saving benchpress
Talk to a lifter with shoulder discomfort and he’ll likely blame the barbell bench press. With four simple changes to your form, you’ll spare your shoulders and push your lifts into PB territory, says trainer Eric Cresse
1 / Engage Your Legs
The bench press is a total body exercise, Cressey says. The more work you do with your lower body, the less strain your shoulders will endure. Spread your feet wide when you set up, and drive your feet down into the floor. Start each rep by pushing through your feet to help move the bar off your chest.
2 / Hug the Bench
Before you even touch the bar, pull your shoulderblades together and down, as if you’re “hugging” the bench with your shoulders. Keep your shoulders in this position throughout the exercise in order to provide yourself with a stable base and a powerful platform to press from.
3 / Narrow Your Grip
A wider grip limits your range of motion but also leaves your shoulders in a more vulnerable position. Narrow your grip so it’s exactly at shoulder width, Cressey says. As you remove the bar, don’t lose your shoulder positioning.
4 / Pull Before You Push
Letting the bar drop to your chest and bounce off your sternum is a surefire way to get hurt. Instead, pull the bar to your chest by flexing your upper-back muscles. That raises your chest higher and limits your range of motion, says Cressey. Then push yourself away from the bar, driving your upper back into the bench.