8 Ways To Avoid Common Shoulder Injuries Caused By Weight Lifting

Let me preface this post by reminding you that I’m not a doctor, nor am I a shoulder specialist. Hell, I won’t even claim to know half as much about shoulder anatomy or the prevention/rehab of common injuries as someone like Eric Cressey does.

What I am however is someone just like you, who started weight lifting over a decade ago with perfectly healthy and pain-free shoulders and assumed I’d never have any problems of any kind.

That of course changed within a few years as I began to experience the same common shoulder injuries that are experienced by damn near everyone who is weight lifting regularly and doing at least one of the many stupid things many of us tend to do.

“Stupid” in this case ranges from:

  • Problems with form on certain exercises.
  • Problems with exercise selection.
  • Problems with overuse and overtraining.
  • Problems with the overall design and programming of the workout routines we’re using.

So, that makes me someone who has been there, done that and will pretty much always be dealing with the prevention of my own shoulder problems.

Based on my own experience, I feel like I now have a pretty good understanding of what I (and most people) often do wrong to cause these problems in the first place, and that qualifies me as someone capable of helping you avoid making the same dumbass mistakes.

So, here now are my top 8 tips for preventing the common shoulder injuries caused by weight lifting…

1. Push & Pull Equally (Or Maybe Pull A Little More)

Most people weight training for the purpose of improving the way their bodies look (especially guys) are more interested in the muscles they can see rather than the ones they can’t.

That means chest and shoulders almost always get more emphasis than back, and that means most people end up doing a lot more pushing exercises (like bench presses and shoulder presses) than they do pulling exercises (like rows and pull ups).

The problem with this lack of balance around the shoulder girdle is that it’s an extremely common cause of shoulder related injuries.

Luckily, there is a simple solution: do equal amounts of pushing and pulling. In fact, some of the big time shoulder gurus whose advice I value actually recommend doing slightly more pulling that pushing for this very purpose.

As far as practical application goes, this means that for every horizontal push (like the bench press), there should be a horizontal pull (like seated cable rows). And for every vertical push (like a shoulder press), there should be a vertical pull (like a pull up or lat pull down). I cover this in more detail in my article about Movement Patterns.

Keeping your pushing and pulling volume equal (or slightly in favor of pulling) is probably the easiest way to eliminate one of the biggest causes of shoulder imbalances.

2. Stop Bench Pressing “Bodybuilder Style”

A “bodybuilder style” bench press would be when you flare your elbows way out in the direction away from your body and lower the bar more towards the upper part of your chest. It’s one of the many stupid things bodybuilders have come up with. The purpose here is to better “isolate the chest.”

While this may be true to some VERY slight degree, it also just so happens to kill your shoulders. I don’t recommend bench pressing like this at all, even though it tends to be the default way some people learn to bench press. (This of course only helps explain why shoulder injuries are insanely common among the average weight lifting person.)

Once again, there is a simple solution. Tuck your elbows in towards your sides a little bit as opposed to out and away from your body (yet still not fully tucked like a close grip bench press), and lower the bar down towards the bottom part of your chest as opposed to the top of it.

This puts your shoulders in their safest position, and it also puts you in your strongest position. So in addition to injury prevention, getting this form right will have a positive effect on how much you can bench.

3. Stop Doing Super Wide Grip Pull Ups/Pull Downs

Here’s another idiotic idea that comes from bodybuilders (more proof that with enough steroids, you can look amazing despite how dumb you train).

A common theory (more like myth) is that the wider your grip is when doing pull ups and lat pull-downs, the “wider” your lats will become. That’s cute. In reality however, a super wide pull up/pull down grip just means less range of motion and the increased potential for shoulder injuries as a result of the dangerous position they are put in.

My Pull Ups vs Chin Ups comparison covers this as well.

The solution? Simple… avoid using a really wide grip. I personally don’t go any wider than just slightly outside of shoulder width, and I recommend you do the same. Don’t be one of those people with their hands all the way out on the widest parts of the bar.

4. Avoid Exercises That Commonly Cause/Worsen Shoulder Injuries

While any weight lifting exercise done incorrectly has the potential to cause problems, there are certain exercises that have just proven to be more dangerous in terms of causing or worsening shoulder injuries.

Yes, even when they are done with absolutely perfect form. In fact, especially when they are done with perfect form.

In this case, the problem is the exercise itself and the overall movement and range of motion it requires. The most common exercises fitting this description are:

  • Pull ups/lat pull downs done BEHIND the neck.
  • Overhead presses done BEHIND the neck.
  • Dips
  • Upright Rows

With the exception of upright rows, I started out doing everything else on that list. None of it ever bothered me until I worked up to about body weight + 25lbs on dips, at which point one of my shoulders began to feel worse and worse. So for me, dips were THE exercise that started my shoulder problems in the first place (and I’ve found this to be true with MANY people).

I actually continued behind the neck pressing/pulling for a few years after that without any problems, but I stopped doing them at some point mostly as a precautionary measure. It’s now been years since I’ve done dips (which were a favorite of mine) or any exercise behind the neck.

If my shoulders could talk, they’d thank me on a daily basis. Yours probably would do, even if they seem fine right now.

5. Adjust Things Based On What’s Safest For YOU!

In addition to the exercises mentioned above, which tend to be the most common non-shoulder-friendly exercises there are, some people may just find that certain other exercises bother them for whatever reason.

Case in point… incline barbell pressing gives me problems. But the incline dumbbell press and the incline hammer strength machine feel perfectly fine. So, I personally avoid the incline barbell press completely in favor of one of these other variations.

Similarly, any kind of close grip bench press bothers me as well, as does this one specific lateral raise machine my gym has. I avoid them too. Guess what else… I also don’t lower the bar ALL the way down to my chest when bench pressing.

Blasphemy, right? I stop just short of the point where the bar touches my chest because that last inch or two is another common cause of shoulder injuries for me. (More about that here: Should The Bar Touch Your Chest When Bench Pressing?)

Would any of these examples bother someone else as well? Who knows, and better yet, who cares. They give me problems, so I’ve adjusted to avoid them. You should do the same.

6. Neutral Grip Is Usually Safer

Does an overhand or underhand pull up/lat pull down grip sometimes cause shoulder pain or discomfort? Does a typical dumbbell pressing grip feel a little not-so-good sometimes as well?

If so, please direct your attention to the neutral/parallel grip. This specific grip (where your palms face each other) is the most shoulder friendly grip there is, as it basically forces you to tuck your elbows in towards your sides (as opposed to flaring them out like you would in a super wide grip pull up or bodybuilding style bench press).

If any other grip is ever giving you problems, this is the first grip to turn to.

7. Use A Smart Overall Workout Schedule

One of the first workout schedules/splits I started out using went a little something like this:

  • Monday: chest and triceps
  • Tuesday: shoulders and abs
  • Wednesday: off
  • Thursday: legs
  • Friday: back and biceps
  • Saturday: off
  • Sunday: off

Now aside from the fact that this split uses the highly ineffective once-per-week training frequency (another genius idea that originated with bodybuilders), I ended up training my shoulders a total of 3 times per week AND on consecutive days.

How? Because the shoulder girdle is involved in virtually every upper body exercise, especially presses, rows and pull ups/pull downs. That means that in addition to their own “shoulder day” (which is just a hilarious concept in the first place), they get trained to some extent with chest/triceps and back/biceps.

And that’s one of the many common ways overuse injuries occur without even realizing that there’s actual overuse taking place.

Once again however, the solution is simple. Use a workout schedule that is less dumb than this one and others like it. In fact, this is one of the MANY reasons smart people like the upper/lower split so much. It guarantees a maximum of 2 direct or indirect shoulder training sessions per week with a proper amount of spacing between them.

It’s also part of why it’s my default split recommendation in general, and part of why I use it for The Muscle Building Workout Routine.

Speaking of which, my new guide to The Best Workout Routines actually contains the exact shoulder-friendly version of this muscle building program that I personally used to not only maintain muscle while my shoulder healed, but actually build some in the process. I highly recommend it along with the many other intelligently designed programs in that guide.

8. Warm Up/Prehab/Mobility Work

I didn’t know what shoulder dislocates, band pull aparts, YTWLs, scapular pushups or cable external rotations were until it was too late and I needed to know them, but they became a huge part of the recovery process for me, and they remain a huge part of the warm up and mobility work I (and so many others) do on a VERY regular basis to prevent any future shoulder problems.

I highly recommend making it your business to know what these exercises (and others like them) are now so you’ll only ever have to use them as part of prehab work as opposed to rehab work.

I do many of them, but I’ve found dislocates to be the real miracle movement of the group. A lot of people agree and often report a rapid reduction in pain when they start doing them regularly. I usually use a jump rope or pipe, but a broomstick is just as good and a band is definitely easiest to start with.

As I mentioned earlier, there are plenty of people who are more knowledgeable about this stuff than me, so I’ll put you in their capable hands. These are some good places to start:

Really anything Eric Cressey or the guys at Diesel Crew have written or put out about shoulder health is pretty much as high quality as you’ll find in terms of the prevention of and recovery from common shoulder injuries.

It May Not Be Pretty, But You Better Listen To It Anyway

Now, unless you have already had shoulder problems in the past or are currently having them right now, I know that most of the people reading this will probably ignore all of the advice I just gave. Don’t feel bad, my feelings aren’t hurt.

Your shoulders on the other hand… they probably will be.

See, I was just like you. I was only interested in the “pretty” advice. You know, workouts, building muscle, losing fat… that sort of thing, But information about shoulder injuries? No thanks, my shoulders feel fine. That stuff isn’t relevant to me. It’s just boring.

Yup, I thought all of that just like some of you are probably thinking it now.

Do you know when it becomes a lot less boring though? When it’s already too late. Then it becomes necessity in order to actually do those workouts, build that muscle, and lose that fat. Trust me, nothing sucks quite as much as not being able to do 75% of the exercises you’d normally be doing because they all cause shoulder pain.

You know what also sucks? Trying to force yourself to stay out of the gym because going and trying to “work through the pain” is only making it worse and delaying your recovery. I’ve been dumb/stubborn enough to have been there and done that too. It’s not fun sitting around losing muscle and strength because you can’t work out sufficiently enough to maintain it.

And injuries (especially shoulder related) aren’t an “old person” thing, by the way. I’m 28. My shoulders first started giving me problems when I was barely 21. It’s also not a guy thing or a girl thing or a goal related thing.

It’s a weight lifting thing, and if you’re weight lifting on a regular basis, then this is all relevant to you.

That’s why one of the best workout tips I can give you (and hey, “workout tips” are pretty, right?) is this: take care of your shoulders so they never become the short term or long term reason why you aren’t making the progress you want to be making.

And in my experience, these are the 8 best and easiest ways to do just that.

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107 Comments

  1. Mike says

    Thanks for the advice. I tried a crossfit gym before summer, and managed to injure my left shoulder. Too many reps beyond fail with poor form. At first, sharp pains kept me up at night, and I could not turn my neck to the left. After giving it a rest all summer, my shoulder seemed well enough to give your beginner workout routine a try. However, I still noticed some lingering stiffness and soreness in my left shoulder, especially when I turned my neck to the left.

    Anyway, I noticed this article, and started performing the shoulder dislocates and YTWLs before my workouts. I noticed an improvement right away. Not sure if it’s the right approach, but I started doing the shoulder dislocates during my off-time as well. I have a desk job, so I figure shoulder dislocates a few times a day may help. Hopefully, it’s not overkill.

    My shoulder is feeling much better now. I plan on incorporating more of the “shoulder savers” from your links. Your advice on elbow injury has also been helpful. I am not experiencing elbow problems, but I plan on following your advice as pre-hab. I’m not a young guy, so injury prevention is key to me.

    Thanks again.

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