Shoulder injuries are one of the most common in athletics and the work place, but everyone is susceptible. Most people will have some type of shoulder pain at least once during their life time. I was around 13 years old the first time I hurt my shoulder while shoveling dirt and rocks for my uncle. Looking back I am pretty sure I tore my rotator cuff. It hurt to try and raise my hand above my head. Since then I’ve tweaked my shoulders a number of times during various activities including lifting weights. Now that I’m older (43), but in the best shape of my life, I take extra care with my body and especially my shoulders. This article is not to about diagnosing shoulder injuries, that is up to a qualified doctor. If you have sharp pain in one of your shoulders I always recommend seeing your doctor or chiropractor immediately.
The shoulder joint is a complex ‘ball and socket’ joint. It has amazing range of motion, but is also very unstable. The rotator cuff is the group of muscles and tendons surrounding the shoulder joint that help keep it securely in place. Rotator cuff tears are one of the most common causes of shoulder pain in adults. Athletes who throw objects, such as baseball or tennis players, have a high rate of injury as well as occupations that have the person repeatedly lifting their arms overhead. Other causes of shoulder pain may include osteoarthritis, tendinitis, impingement, or a fracture.
I practice below regularly to keep my shoulders healthy and pain free:
• Strengthen the shoulders by following a sensible resistance training program. You can use bodyweight, resistance bands, or free weights. Stick to the basics such as overhead shoulder presses, side lateral raises, front raises, and bent over laterals. Work to address all three heads of the deltoid including the front (anterior), side (lateral), and rear (posterior). Pick at least three exercises, do 3-4 sets per exercise, and 8-12 reps each set.
• Use strict form when performing exercises. While strengthening the shoulders can help prevent injury it can also be the cause of injury if done incorrectly. When pressing overhead start by keeping your arms at 90 degrees and press straight upward. Don’t let weight just sit on your joints by completely locking out your arms. When doing side lateral raises don’t raise your shoulders, but instead think of lifting your elbows outwards while keeping your traps down. If you are not entirely sure if your form is correct seek guidance from a certified trainer or a creditable source. I don’t recommend learning form by watching random people at the gym. I see incorrect and dangerous form at the gym on a daily basis.
• Perform warm up sets before attempting to lift heavier weight. When I intend to do three ‘working’ sets I don’t count my warm ups. I have no problem doing as many warm up sets as it takes before lifting heavy. I always start with a light weight and do 15-20 reps to get the muscles warm, but also to help lubricate the joint itself. Before doing shoulder presses I always do at least two warm up sets and sometimes more if needed.
• Rest and recovery are just as important as the exercise especially when it comes to an overused joint like the shoulder. Be sure to have 1-2 rest days each week in your resistance training program to allow your body and central nervous system to recover. Remember chest work often involves a lot of shoulders as well. If you are not working chest and shoulders on the same day be sure to have at least a 48 hour space between the two. I also recommend a lighter ‘de-load’ week every other month to allow the body to recover at a deeper level. This involves doing 60% volume and weights for a week.
• Don’t work through the pain. The Deltoid muscles burning during exercise is one thing, but if you experience any kind of sharp pain stop what you’re doing. This is not an area of the body you want to play tough. You may find that certain movements cause you discomfort or pain while others do not. Remember there is never one exercise you have to do. There are countless options out there to strengthen and build that same muscle. Sometimes exercises just need a little adjustment with the hand placement and angle to feel better for an individual.
Here is my personal shoulder mobility warm up I do before any heavy shoulder and chest lifting. I will also rotate through some of these between the first initial sets.
Warm Up: I get on the recumbent bike or treadmill for 10 minutes before lifting to get the blood flowing. Do any stretching or mobility work after warming up.
Mobility Exercises: There are many shoulder mobility exercises out there. Here is list of my favorites that I like to do. I run through each movement twice and do 7-10 repetitions each.
• Overhead Stretch: This is often done with a long tube, but I use a hand towel because I always have one in my gym bag. Start holding a pole or towel with a wide grip and fairly straight arms in front of your thighs. Raise the bar straight up over your head and behind you.
• Lateral Lift: Start with your hands at your sides and do a side lateral raise until your hands are straight up over your head then raise them up as high as possible allowing your shoulder blades to also lift.
• Internal/External Rotation: There are a lot of variations of rotational exercises and some you can incorporate bands, cables, or light weight. I simply hold my arms up so they make 90 degree angles and slowly rotate my lower arms. I do keep my shoulder blades pinched when doing this movement
Bent Over Position: Hinge at the hip to keep your low back safe.
• Prone Y: Raise your straight arms up so they make a Y. Have your thumbs out and externally rotated.
• Prone Laterals: Lift your arms straight at to the sides until you feel the deltoid contract.
• Prone T: Lift your elbows up so your arms make 90 degree angles then slowly externally and internally rotate your lower arms.
The key to any type of preventative routine is to be consistent. It only takes one wrong movement to cause a serious shoulder injury. It can happen during that one rep when you didn’t take the time to warm up. Staying injury free will only help you stay on track with your fitness goals. Keeping your shoulders healthy will allow you to reach out and grab that box of cereal you desperately want. Do it for the cereal.
Annihilate to Motivate,
Michael Wittig, ISSA CPT
IPE Natural Pro 3x Champ