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.
- 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:
- Eric Cressey’s Shoulder Savers Part 1
- Eric Cressey’s Shoulder Savers Part 2
- Eric Cressey’s Shoulder Savers Part 3
- DieselCrew’s Shoulder Rehab Protocol
- DieselCrew’s Shoulder Warmup
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.
137 thoughts on “8 Ways To Avoid Common Shoulder Injuries Caused By Weight Lifting”
Are there ways to make Dips safer or would you usually suggest just avoiding them?
Assuming your form is fairly solid, I’d probably suggest just avoiding them completely if you know they are giving you problems.
That’s what I’ve personally done myself, and in the time before that, any little adjustments I tried to make (like going much less deep) never helped. I’ve seen a lot of other people report the same thing. Dips just seem to be an exercise people can either do without problems or they can’t.
And if you fall into the “can’t” group, then there’s just too many other equally effective and much more shoulder-friendly ways to train the chest/triceps to warrant attempting to make dips work.
You said that dislocates are the real miracle worker above but I have never heard of them. So how do i do them?
Here’s an okay example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNilld58tks
They can be done with bands like the guy in the video is using, or a jump rope (that’s what I usually use), or a broomstick, or anything similar (but NOT a barbell or anything weighted). Depending on your flexibility at first, it’s usually best to start with a wider grip (easier) and gradually try to make it narrower (harder) over time. This is a reason why bands are good to start out with, because they have some give and can stretch to suit your specific flexibility.
i think a lot of what u say makes sence. from a bodybuiling point of view iv been training since i was 16 i,m now 40 of course your spot on, anything behind the neck is a no, no to many nerves endingings to trap,this is a simple basic rule, we learnt this years ago but i,m still amazed at how many people dont know this simple rule.it,s great to hear from people that have been there and done that.what i feel you where talking about is rotor cuff ex again100% right your shoulders are only as strong as your cuff,s. but in my humble opion[and i am a nueromusclaur therapist]streching is vital not just for shoulders but for the hole body.i feel that bodybuliders are so far behind the times its unreal.its still so fuc…. macho like got to lift big, the amount of young guys out there that think warming up and streaching will interfere with there best lift is unreal.nice to hear from a clued in guy keep up the good work.
Yup, good points. Thanks for the feedback.
Whoa! a really interesting article! My shoulders are not giving me any pain but I feel some discomfort in a few exercises (the tip about tuckin the elbows a bit and lowering the bar towards the bottom part of the chest is something I’ll start doing ASAP)… About the Dips… I have chair dips (with weight on my legs) included in my upper body routine, do you suggest to avoid chair dips too? or just parallel bar dips; I’d like to hear your opinion on that because even though I don’t feel any “pain” right now, I’d like to avoid any future shoulder injury 😀
Bench/chair dips are definitely less problematic than parallel bar dips, but they can still give some people issues. It’ll vary from person to person.
Thanks! I’ll continue doing bench dips, and if I feel some kind of discomfort, I’ll replace them with another exercise, do you think military push-ups hit the triceps like bench dips do?
They’ll both hit the triceps, but they are 2 completely different exercises, so it’s not an ideal comparison.
That´s awesome. Thanks a lot for this informations.
Rafael from BRazil.
I hurt my left shoulder doing dumbbell shoulder presses. Now all exercises seem to bother it. I can do bench presses, but not really very heavy. I quit dips. I also agree with you on wide grid pull ups. Narrow grip does not bother me. I am also not able to do lateral raises, even using a 10 pound dumbbell will hurt my shoulder. I actually mostly just work legs now.
Have you had a doctor check it out?
Thanks to you, my shoulders are getting better! Although i feel the occasional pain when i try to push myself in the gym. when this happens, i apply ice and am back in the healing process. I am 22 yrs old, male. I have had this shoulder impingement for the past 2 years. During these 2 years, I had barely made any progress in lifting heavier weights and hence my gains were minimal or almost nothing. it was very very frustrating. doing dumbell flyes always resulted in pain post-workout, I used to see guys lift weight almost equal to their body weight but her is was, lifting only less than half my weight. Not that i was in a rush to gain muscle faster, but the fact that my body wasn’t responding to the amount of time and effort i put into sculpting it was killing me! Not until recently I discovered that a protein rich diet and lifting weights in proper form and lifting ‘bearable’ weights was the key to my goal. I started following this mantra about 6 months ago, but this shoulder impingement problem creeped out of nowhere (i think it was because of all weightlifting i did with improper form and improper diet is the reason to this). i had been searching for answers online a lot and i finally found this blog of yours, it has been helpful, so thank you! I have learned to respect my body now.
That’s awesome man, glad to hear the site has helped.
Why wasn’t this website around 20 years ago?! At 45, my shoulders are a wreck! I started lifting over 20 years ago, with some block-heads at a local gym. We did ALL the shoulder no-no’s: incline barbell press, deep (super deep) flyes, deep bench, weighted dips, barbell up-right rows and NO back work. My shoulders give me trouble whenever I bench. I am in the process of resting them and will start (tonight)Dieselcrews rehab protocol for strength, fexibility and over all shoulder health. I know we are all different, but how long do you suppose I should follow that routine before starting my weight routine (one which I picked up here, by the way). Anyway, love the info and your way of making it simple to undestand. Keep up the great work!
Ha, glad to hear it man. And I’m with you… I wish I knew this stuff 10 years ago. Better late than never, I guess.
Regarding your question, that’s really impossible for me to answer. And honestly, when it comes to anything injury related I don’t even feel comfortable even taking a guess.
When in doubt, a doctor or someone equally qualified is always a good idea.
Ok, thanks for the honesty! I am going hunting for a week and the rest will be good. When I get back, I will run through Dieselcrews program for 2-3 weeks and then ease back into the weights. In the meantime, cardio and legs, I guess.
Thanks for the honest and easy to understand insight. Love the website and will share with anyone who will listen and wants to learn a thing or two.
BTW, I saw a doctor years ago and went through weeks of PT for bursitis. I think rehab and SMART lifting techniques learned here will do me just fine…I’ll let you know.
No problem man. Also keep an eye on how your shoulder feels during leg work. Depending on the exact injury, some people also have issues with the holding the bar in position during squats.
Great info on the dips! You’d think at 56, with 35 years of powerlifting under my belt, I’d have it down to a science…especially being a big Westside follower.
I dislocated my collarbone on March 20 (Funny how we remember these things) doing a 615 Deadlift. My Deadift is now coming back quickly, but my Bench Press is a train wreck. I can only handle around 260 pounds without pain and crashing…although I can rep the 260, getting 12 solid ones today. Go figure?
I’ve been finishing off my bench days with dips, 4 sets of 15, with 30-60 pounds over body weight. After reading your article, I suspect doing dips is hampering my recovery…big-time. Especially as I sit here with a LOT of unnatural pain in both shoulders at 1:30am.
I hear ya. The bench is usually the first exercise to go to crap and the last exercise to come back up. Just something about it, I guess.
But if you have any shoulder pain and you happen to be doing dips, dropping them would definitely be my first suggestion every single time. Hopefully that alone solves your problems.
Right now I just want to go back in time and punch myself in the face because I was doing ALL of these wrong(except for 3 and 6 because I didnt do pullups at all) since I started working out 6 months ago which is why I injured my shoulders 2 times already!
I am currently skipping all upper body exercise except for abs for at least 2 weeks until my shoulders heal. I bought a pullup bar so I hope pull-ups in conjunction with some barbell workouts for my upper back will help keep things balanced. Do you think I should do only upper back exercises for awhile when my shoulders stop hurting? BTW: I workout at home and I have a bench,a pullup bar and some dumbells-do you think I should buy something additional for my back workouts? Thanks for the awesome advice man I wish I saw it when I started 🙁
I know the feeling dude, I’d like to go back in time and do the same.
Regarding what you should do now, that’s impossible to say. It’s depends on the specifics of your injury and your body, and it’s something that can honestly only be answered by some qualified expert in person.
And as for additional back stuff, that depends on what you can afford and fit in your house. A pull-up bar and a way to do bent over barbell and/or dumbbell rows is certainly sufficient.
Hi. Really good to read this and see there are other people out there in a similar boat to me. I’ve had a shoulder injury for a couple of years and I’ve never got it sorted. I saw a physio and he told me to just keep working through it and strengthen my seratus anterior which was rubbish advice and did nothing. It’s only on the one side for me. I have pain in the shoulder and back and lots of trigger points. I’m not sure if my shoulder is out of place or I’ve had a tear but my trap and deltoids and lat are all much bigger on the painful side. I was recovering from left wrist break when I started my training to beef up and did moer pushing than pulling exercises and remember my shoulder first going doing a heavy preacher curl. I just wondered if you could advise me on who the best person to see is as so far the physio and the osteopath have not bin much help. I just want to know how to get my shoulder better and finding someone with the answer is tough and frustrating. Hope to hear from you if you don’t mind I would really appreciate some advice
A doctor is the only one who can answer this for ya.
So I’m 21 years old and just started lifting about a year ago at a local cross fit gym. I was doing my chest routine this morning, and on my fourth set of alternating incline dumbbell press, I was 5 reps in when I felt/heard my right shoulder pop out. (right shoulder was extended at the top and I was pressing with my left when it occurred). I dropped the weight immediately, and as I lowered the weight with my right arm it popped back in. No pain, but it gave me a bit of a scare, hence why I’m on this site.
I guess what I’m looking for is a possible guess at what happened and advice on how long to wait before lifting again? Also what exercises will help me to strengthen my shoulders?
Any input would be much appreciated!
Thanks in advance for getting back to me!
Impossible to say. This is something that needs to be checked out in person by a qualified professional to know anything for sure.
I started with trainer four months ago and was doing well. Then, my left upper back started pinching and my right shoulder hurts when I do any kind of pushup. It’s a bummer because things were going well and I’m female, one of my goals was to strengthen my upper body. Now there is no way I can do anything that is pulling or pushing those areas to hard and pushups cause me a great deal of pain. I still want to keep strengthening but at this rate I’m wondering what I can do. I’ve seen the doc. He mentioned knots but I’ve had massages for that and the pain is still in those areas. Strong script for antinflams but this is getting me nowhere fast. Meantime I’m working my lower body more and doing whatever uppers I can do that don’t hurt. What now?
That’s honestly an impossible to question for me to answer, especially online. My only advice would be to see another doctor, ideally someone who specializes in this sort of thing as opposed to just your GP.
Do you know anything about the relationship between working out legs and increasing testosterone. Second, would you be interested in writing the rest of my book!
The testosterone boost from training legs is too insignificant to actually matter. People love to ignore this and say “squats increase test levels so much they’ll make your whole upper body grow too!!” Pure bullshit.
I have learned a lot of these lessons the hard way. I have learned that the range of motion of the shoulders is fairly limited and to go above or below the range just places unwanted strain on the connective tissue of the shoulders at disadvantageous angles.
I am still not sure about whether the shoulders should be allowed to move up toward the ears during pull ups or lat pull downs. I also still don’t have a good feel for the best way that I should perform seated rows. There seems to be a lot of conflicting information about the correct way to perform a seated row.
What specifically about seated rows are you unsure about?
This was absolutely the BEST shoulder-related advise I have ever read. In the summer of 2008 I had surgery on my left shoulder’s labrum following chronic dislocations. That shoulder is now ROCK SOLID. However, favoring my right arm during that time and also considering I am right-handed has significantly weakened the right shoulder…
I recently started seriously lifting again following a near 10-year hiatus, and 2 weeks in I noticed some very pinching-like pains in my right shoulder, particularly during barbell bench and flies. At first I was stupidly thinking “I just need to work through the pain and build up….” The pains in my shoulder were strikingly similar to what I was experiencing pre-surgery on the right shoulder.
THANK GOD I found this article… I have extremely long arms and was touching my chest on bench, I was doing dips, and many of the other no no’s listed about… I read this article (as well as all of Eric Cressey’s shoulder saver articles) and these literally saved my ass another surgery!!
3 weeks ago I started following this advise, stopped barbell bench for now (DB only), stopped dips, doing a different set of the shoulder rehab protocol exercises every workout day (4-5 days a week) – and so far, the pain is nearly gone!!! I feel my shoulder becoming much more stable doing the exercises, and I think in a couple of weeks I will be solid enough to resume barbell bench CORRECTLY.
I’m 27 y/o and never thought I’d have shoulder issues this early in life, but clearly I was destined to have weak shoulders. This article saved me from completely destroying my shoulders – and for that THANK YOU SO MUCH!
For those of you reading this, take the advise – even if you currently have no issues, it will save you from a surgery.
You are quite welcome dude, very happy to hear this article helped in any way.
I felt the need to comment on this once again for an update. Yesterday was my first day back on Barbell Bench after 6 weeks off…
Put up 40lbs more than when I quit, followed all the advise and did the CORRECTLY for my body type – and I’m proud to say, absolutely NO pain!!
Guys…. Read this article…. Follow this advise…. Save yourself a world of pain like I did.
You can’t go wrong with this advise.
That is some damn good news my friend. Again, glad the article helped.
Thanks for the update.
65 yr old who hits the gym 3-5 times a week. Using moderate to light weights just to keep muscle tone and mitigate the ravages of old age. Started doing dips (6-8 sets of ten reps of body weight) and widened my grip on pull-ups to maximize shoulder/upper back results. A month later tendinitis in left shoulder and constant soreness. Very depressing since I thought my workout days were over. Found your article, stopped dips, narrowed grip, assumed neutral position and am back in action. Thanks a million.
Extremely happy to hear it!
I’ve had a pain on the front of my right shoulder from pitching hardball which I’ve stopped and started to lift to try and get my back muscles in balance. I’m glad I found this site as I was doing bench presses wrong, dips, wide grip etc. Hopefully after I revise my routine the pain will disappear.
Hope it helps man.
I’m a beginner and have moved to your full body split with great results on my lower body.
I’m still struggling with shoulder strain on my bench press. It was particularly bad when I widened my grip to the markings on the bar. Do you find wider or narrower grips to be a bigger strain on your shoulders?
As I understand it, flat dumbbell presses are supposed to be nicer to your shoulders as you’re able to adopt more natural movements. Do you find this to be true? AND, could I get away with just replacing barbell presses with dumbbells entirely or will I be unlikely to progress this way.
I’m really stuck here. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!
This kind of thing varies from person to person. Some people feel better with one type of grip, others feel better with another.
And yes, generally speaking dumbbell presses are more shoulder friendly than barbell presses for the reason you mentioned. A bar forces you into a more fixed position than dumbbells which allow you to adjust each individually of the other.
Barbells and dumbbells each have their own pros and cons (read this). But yes, it’s possible to do just fine training with dumbbells only. More importantly, if barbell pressing causes injury issues for you… it’s a really easy decision to make.
Yes, I agree the decision is easy! I’ve had to take over a week off of training due to pain in my left shoulder because training through pain is for idiots!
It’s good to know that barbell isn’t the only way to progress.
Do you find you still need to do shoulder pre-hab? Or, has enough stability built up over the years that you don’t need to?
Nope, I still include plenty of shoulder pre-hab stuff and most likely always will.
whats the best substitute for the Bench Press ,Lateral pull and pull ups I am avoiding these as these are troubling my shoulder from quite some time ..
Dumbbell presses instead of bench press is more shoulder friendly, especially with a neutral grip. And neutral grip pull-ups or lat pull-downs are usually more shoulder friendly than overhand or underhand grip.
Not sure what you mean by “lateral pull” though?
Hello and thank you for this article, i really needed the info. I will begin training again very soon as I have been unable to do so for almost two years. I had a full labral tear in my left shoulder, which was operated on in September. The following Febuary, I had the right shoulder operated on due to labral tears as well as A/C joint impingement. Needless to say, having both shoulders operated on within six months of each other was no fun at all. I still suffer from the A/C joint impungement, however the tears have healed and I feel strong enough to begin training again. I must admit though, I am a bit nervous about going back to the gym. Again, thank you for the article! It was well written and was an easy to understand read.
What do you do for warmup or “pre-hab”?
Could you share an example or template? I just came back from an injury and i want to make sure im helping my shoulder to prevent another one.
Needs a full article… I’ll get to it eventually. Until then, check out and follow the advice in the links in this article… most of what I do is based on it.
This is a great website with lots of info. I injured my left shoulder doing martial arts, more specifically Hapkido. I am 48 yrs old and train 3 times a week. I also go to the gym to strength train once or twice a week and I too was doing all the no-no’s on your list which I will stop doing immediately. But again its was the martial arts that injured my shoulder and the pain I feel is just like from doing dips and just holding my arm in the dip position hurts my shoulder. The pain is right under the bone.
Can you recommend an exercise to strengthen that part of the shoulder specifically? And would you know what part I injured? Also there was mentioned of dieselcrews program, where can I find that?
Thanks for your help!!
As much as I’d love to help, it’s just impossible to give any kind of specific individualized injury advice over the internet. This is something that can only be done in person by someone qualified to do it.
I am very glad I came across, it has been very helpful. I do have one question, more I would appreciate your advice. About a month ago I was doing overhead DB presses when I felt my right shoulder strain. I took about a week off from lifting and started going off and on. It didn’t really hurt in the gym when I did anything. It gets fatiqued a lot faster then my left shoulder and I don’t want to put as much weight as I usually do because I am nervous. I have full mobility without pain now. I went for a swim today and it felt pretty good. If I start doing your shoulder warm-up’s, you suggested and pre-hab for shoulder do you think it will heal completely? And is there a certain amount of time I should have waited or still wait? I appreciate the help.
Honestly, when it comes to diagnosing injuries over the internet, it’s really just impossible so I always avoid trying. My only real advice would be to see someone in person who’s qualified to answer your question.
Exercises I avoid due to shoulder pain:
wide-grip bench or military
I’m with you on all of those except flyes and lateral raises.
be sure to keep your back straight (preferrably push your chest out alittle), or lateral raises will make your shoulders worse.
Trust me i know
What is your opinion about pull-ups/chin-ups? I agree with you about dips (BTW, some folks use the term “dips” for tricep dips and push-ups for the regular dips … am unsure what you were referring to.
Do you think shoulder-grip pull-ups should be done away with as well?
Read this one: https://www.aworkoutroutine.com/pull-ups-vs-chin-ups/
I am 4 1/2 weeks post-surgery. Complete tear of my right rotator cuff and a ruptured bicep tendon. My original injury happened back in Feb doing flat bench on a Smith machine. I found out 6 hours later that benching on that machine is a no no.
Then I found this article. Upright rows. Dips. Incline press. I wish I knew then what I know now. I also know a lot about shoulder injuries. Good thing too: the left shoulder is popping and grinding now.
By the way, I am 43 and was in the best shape of my life before it got to hurting so bad I had to stop working out. I bookmarked this article for when I can start working out the upper body again. And things are gonna be different: this is the most painful stuff I have ever experienced. Hopefully I can keep from tearing anything in the other shoulder.
That sucks man, but you’ll hopefully be back to 100% soon enough. Oh, and be sure to check this one out if you haven’t already.
Fantastic set of points, busted my shoulder at 23, continuous shoulder injuries for over a decade, am now 34 and injury free for the last 18 months purely as i have adopted the elbows in policy as oppose to elbows flared. I do this for both chest and shoulders. The funny thing is i can lift more and i have zero pain during and after working out. For anyone starting out in the gym its probably the most valuable bit of advice one can take on.
Great article, if only i had read this 10 years ago, the trouble is one only looks for articles like these after you get injured!
I hear you man… I wish I read an article like this 10 years ago too.
I have slightly injured my left shoulder doing dips + weight. I believe it’s the rotator cuff, as it kind of hurts when I raise my arms. My question is, can I still work out biceps and triceps? What exercises do you recommend?
Impossible to give injury specific advice over the internet. The only thing I can recommend is having someone qualified see you in person.
I should have seen this before starting 2 months ago. Just 3 days ago I pushed myself to the maximum dips I could and the day after my shoulder joints were painful, until now actually. Pull ups is impossible to do. Just hanging myself feels like some needles hitting my left shoulder joint.
Now my concern is how long will it heal. Days? Weeks? Months? I feel frustrated. I don’t use weights so I only do push ups (different variations), dips, and pull ups. Today I just did push ups to the most that I can. And also did low bar rows (I dont call it pull ups because I pull my body diagonally).
Will it still heal or not anymore? How long?
By the way, thanks for this article.
As much as I’d love to help, these are questions that only a doctor can answer in person.
This was an amazing article! I’ve had the exact same experience with dips — I was using a weight belt with a 25 lb plate and a chain hanging over my traps when I did them, and I felt great moving heavy weight. The chinup/dip superset in my arm workout was one of my favorites. I knew that upright rows and behind the neck movements were bad, but I didn’t know that dips should also be avoided. Recently, I’ve also removed incline DB press off my workout plan (another one of my favorites, but safety comes first!) I agree with all of your other points (especially the one about push/pull). The lats are the biggest upper body muscles, but are overlooked by many in favor of the “cooler” bench press. Some guys at my gym bench 155 lbs but only row 75 lbs!
I was having mild shoulder pain before I quit doing dips. How often do you recommend “corrective” exercises like dislocates and cable rotations? I use dislocates as part of my warm-up and cooldown most days when I work upper body.
Depends on the needs of the person. I personally do dislocates before every workout (upper or lower) and at certain times I was doing them on rest days, too.
Nice article. I have a moderate shoulder injury at the moment and it is without a doubt the most frustrating things I have had to deal with, it just sucks not being able to work out like you usually would. I will never take my shoulder health for granted again.
I had slight pains in my shoulder for a while but it got worse after doing weighted dips. I kept doing heavy pressing and it even more worse during an overhead press, due to bad form I think.
I have seen a physio who said it should be back to normal in 6-12 weeks but it is hard to tell if it is properly healing. I’ve tried to work my bench back up but any heavy pressing tends to make the pain worse. Just take it easy I guess for pressing movements until it is 100%.
I hear ya man. It does suck. To make it such slightly less, read this one.
Thanks allot… Really helpful
After reading your post I can say everything is 100% the same for me. I started with no shoulder problems. Injured my left shoulder while doing dips early on. I took a break and then did too much push and not enough pull, with bad form and injured both shoulders. After that I had a bad schedule that put shoulders after chest day and began to have discomfort that I could lift through. I am now following all of your rules (before I read the article). I am able to lift almost every day and the pain and soreness is gone. Every now and then I try to test the waters and break one of the rules and am reminded that its just not meant to be.
Glad to hear it. And yeah, the best thing you can do is stop giving into the temptation to test the waters. It’s almost always going to be a bad idea.
Jay, did you find arm isolation exercises and back exercises safe to do with your shoulder injury? I’m trying to modify my routine and wondering if I should leave upper body out altogether.
Yup, sometimes. This depends heavily on the specifics of the injury. Some will be bothered by all types of curls except maybe preacher curls/concentration curls. Some will be bothered by all overhead triceps exercises. Depends.
hey great article, just had one quick question. i’ve been doing upright rows with the e-z bar, and for me I really like the exercise because i feel like it works out my shoulders really good. now i also have noticed when i go heavy or when i lift the bar up way too high (past my chest) it does feel uncomfortable. now assuming i stay light and do it slow, would you say thats okay? because it is one of my favourites. thanks very much !
Can’t say for sure, but if something doesn’t hurt or cause any issues, it’s most likely okay. If that changes, adjust.
Ring dips seem to be a little easier on my shoulders then when doing it on bars.
If I do shoulder press with my hands facing each other, does it change the muscles being worked?
Not much, but slightly. If the reason you’re doing it this way is for shoulder health, I definitely wouldn’t worry about it at all.
I love this page. Thanks for the valuable info about shoulder injuries and how to prevent them. I searched for a website that can help me in my condition and this helped me a lot so thanks to you. For your info, I have pain in my shoulder area particularly in the left chest and my upper back near my left shoulder. I guess that the pain started when i was doing bar dips without pull ups. It really makes sense when you said that pushing should be done with pulling so I will try that later on the gym. I had difficulty breathing for almost a week because of the pain in the chest. The pain also makes me uncomfortable since I have asthma that might be triggered because of the stress in my muscles. also, I agree when you mentioned that bench presses should be done not farther away from your chest not to strain your shoulders. Honestly, I also have done this mistake last week. I will try all your advice and i will give you a feedback after I tried all of your tips. I’m sure this will help a lot. Hope to hear from you. Im from Asia by the way.
Hope it helps! Also, just to state the obvious… get things checked out by a doctor.
As promised I tried your advice in the gym, the pain is no longer there. Thanks a lot.
Pull ups/lat pull downs done BEHIND the neck.
Overhead presses done BEHIND the neck.
I would add:
Pull ups/lat pull downs with an overhand grip
*Not even with a shoulder width grip because of the internal rotation of the shoulders.
On overhead presses with an overhand grip you can control the elbows more and keep them as close to the body as possible, but on pullups – especially on weighted ones – it’s much more difficult using that grip.
Rows with elbows out on an 90 degree angle
*~45 degree angle or less is fine, just like on bench press
The point that upper arms/elbows closer to the body is usually safer, is VERY important. Also worth noting is that every time your elbows travel behind your back, there is some risk involved. That’s why full ROM dips can be so devastating on the shoulders even when keeping the upper arms as close as possible to the body and using a neutral grip. Compare that to a neutral grip dumbbell shoulder press(elbows in front all the time) or floor press(elbows not too flared out) where it’s impossible for the elbows to travel too far back.
Regarding point 8, I would recommend some light external rotator stuff like cuban press variations(bar, dumbbells, cable etc.) and face pulls.
so you do the shoulder dislocates, band pull aparts, YTWLs, scapular pushups or cable external rotations before or after the push, pull, in general upper body workout? cheers
Most mobility oriented stuff I do before all upper body workouts. I’ll even do something like dislocates before lower body workouts as well. Other stuff that’s more aimed at training a muscle rather than improving mobility (like face pulls, for example) would typically be a part of the workout itself, usually at the end of it.
When I was young I found out that I’ve got a problem with my left upper limb. I cannot rotate it the way you’d rotate it while installing a light bulb (pronation and supination). This makes it almost impossible for me to make overhead press with dumbell correctly. So I want to ask you if it is possible to replace the Olympic barbell with a cambered one?
Do whatever doesn’t hurt. And get the opinion of a doctor if you haven’t already.
Experienced some discomfort in the ball portion of my shoulder when performing bench press last week. Felt like it was a little tight when I would perform the workout, Although my shoulders were not bothered when I would do any other workouts just the majority of bench press. Like I said the discomfort is mainly in the front of my shoulder on the ball portion.
This is the kind of thing you’d need to see a doctor to figure out.
Oh man, I hate to come back here with another possibly injury, but my shoulders are killing me, when I try to take stuff “using my shoulders”, pull stuff or generally daily things that require flipping (flipping a mattress for ex), pulling etc, but they feel fine when at rest.
I’ve stopped workout for a few days now to take it off.
Had this pain about 2 months ago during bent over rows (upper back/posterior delt pain), it disappeared pretty quickly. Now a few days ago on my last workout, I did feel that pain on both shoulders slightly different locations during overhead press.
Note I haven’t done ANY of the no-nos you mentioned, and I believe I have at least decent form. Could you tell me if and how (I’m assuming) bent over rows and overhead press could have caused an injury like that?
Without seeing your form (and a proper examination by a doctor), this sort of thing is impossible to even guess at over the internet.
Sure I get what you mean, but I was wondering if these could even cause it or not?
I heard dips and bench and others get mentioned a lot for shoulder injuries, so the fact that these ones could cause pain is a bit new to me
Pretty much everything can potentially cause an injury. Hell, you could sleep funny on your shoulder tonight and wake up with pain tomorrow.
Haha fair enough! 🙂
Have you tried cortisone injection or heard about it many people say it helps what do you think?
Depends on the injury. For many injuries, cortisone does more harm than good.
Fantastic article! I hurt my shoulder a year ago doing the bench not knowing about tucking the eblows. Got checked and turned out it was a bone spur. I still feel pain til this day not as much though. Really sucks cause i wanna start my first ever bulk. Now is it possible that I can still strengthen my shoulder even though I can’t really go heavy on the weigths? I do shoulder presses, dumbell shrugs and face pulls. What other exercises u recommend?
That’s really the kind of thing that only your doctor would be qualified to answer.
Great article and great advice at the end. Ripped apart a tendon in my rotator cuff doing dips earlier this week.
Faced with decisions about surgery, months of rehabilitation and physio, and no endorphin inducing workouts in the near term, how I wish I could rewind my life for 15 seconds and not have done dips as part of my workout!
That sucks man, but I know exactly what you mean by the “I wish I could do back and not have done this one exercise in this one workout.” Been there, done that.
It’s reassuring to see that the twinge I feel in my right shoulder is a common strain amongst others. I was becoming demoralised. It’s tough enough as a beginner to eat right and honor the scheduling of one’s routine without having one’s momentum spoiled by a nagging shoulder injury in development. The variety and volume of solutions are fantastic Much thanks!
Hope it helps!
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.
Exactly what I like to hear!
Interesting, I noticed right after stress caused me not to turn my head to the left had subsided, my left shoulder pain was also decreased and I had more strength back. It’s like the upper traps support the shoulder responsiveness and they are tied neurologically together. So if the neck is relaxed or conditioned, the shoulder will also start to respond to stimulus again.
When my neck was stressed, I bought a heat pad and kept it on for 24 hours, I bought some pain cream and applied that to my shoulder for 2-3 days, that seemed to work and now I am working out again, where days before I was looking for orthopedic surgeons!
Great article and great advice. This definitely makes me more conscious of my shoulder health. What are your thoughts/advise on overhead presses and other shoulder workouts?
It depends on the person. Some people have shoulder issues and certain exercises are fine for them. Others have the opposite experience.
I know you said neutral grip is usually the safest but on my military presses it seems like my shoulders have been more sore using that grip. I have a pre-existing shoulder injury and for some reason barbell presses as opposed to neutral grip dumbbell seem to feel much better. Any idea why that could be? I was thinking maybe weak stabilizers as my shoulder was never properly rehabbed.
Impossible to say. You’d need to see someone in person to answer this one.
Firstly, I want to say I love your website! I recently started your beginner’s workout and I’m enjoying it a lot. Still playing around to find the perfect weight for each exercise, and I can’t do a pull-up yet (doing negative chin-ups now as a replacement; hopefully that’s good), but I’m becoming better every week.
Now for my question: I currently have no shoulder problems at all, but if I want to prevent problems pro-actively, is it okay to do some light shoulder exercises at the end of my workouts? I’m thinking about scap push-ups, resistance band rotations and full cans. Or could that lead to overtraining and/or tendonitis?
See #8 in this very article.
Yes, I’ve read it, but the reason I asked for clarification, is because you said in an earlier article that your beginner’s workout is perfect as is and should not be messed with. However, in this article, you recommend several shoulder exercises on top of that, which seemed contradictory to me.
As for the shoulder exercises, do you know if any of those are backed by proper science? Eric Cressey and the guys from DieselCrew seem knowledgeable, but they give no references unfortunately. There’s so much bro-science around, I’d prefer to see some actual studies, like this one for example:
Ideally, I want a science-backed, shoulder-only routine, in which all the important shoulder stabilizers are targeted by seperate isolation exercises.
Supraspinatus = full can.
Infraspinatus = ???
Subscapularis = ???
Teres minor = ???
Correct, the beginner workout itself should not be messed with. Doing things you need to do for injury prevention/rehab is a whole separate thing.
And no, as far as I know you’re not going to find studies about this sort of thing. This is where real world experience comes into play.
I was able to do chest flys (10kg DB) for 14 . 10 reps , then I increased the DB weight to 12.5kg and could only manage 6 reps each , and having shoulder sore starting from 3rd reps in 2nd set . What should I do here ? or change exercise ? Thanks .
Dude this was one of the best articles I have read on shoulders. Your last point really resonated with me. I’m haveing some shoulder trouble been out for 4 months keep going back pain would get worse. I would rest think I’m okay then it comes back.
I think I’m gonna retire from dips and barbell pressing I’m only 26 but it just seems not worth it because I want to train forever not just the next year.
Obviously heavy compounds are the best but it’s now a challenge for me to build a great physique without as many.
I think I have learned that if I can’t do a certain exercise that’s okay and if I have to take 3 weeks off that’s okay. You honestly don’t lose much in 3 weeks.
I’m grateful for the fact I can still train!
Thanks man, glad it helped!
I’m currently six months into doing your beginner full body routine and currently experiencing pain in my left shoulder.
It sucks because now i’m stalling on my reps only because of the pain and I’m hesitant to increase the weight. I’m eager to try these mobility exercises, lower the weight a little and see if the pain improves.
Thank you so much for your hard work on this website, whenever i need to know something, I first check in on AWR to see if Jay has not written something about it so I don’t have to filter through the shit. It has basically changed my life.
Ha, glad to hear it!
great advice, I injured my right shoulder doing pull ups, I gave them up for a year or so until my shoulder felt ok and started slowly again, until this week it started hurting again, I think I will give them up forever. do you think it will be fine to train back only with exercises were my arms dont go higher than my shoulders? cable rows and rows for example. do you think i should do incline cable rows?
Impossible for me to say as it will vary depending on the specific person/specific injury.
Thanks very much for this entry. I’ve been trying to bring up my lateral deltoids, and I’ve read that upright rows are good for this, since they are more of a compound movement than lateral raises (which I tend to suck at for some reason). However, I’ve also read that upright rows might be risky, as they could cause impingement of rotator cuff muscles. To avoid this, some have recommended a wider grip or doing single arm using dumbbells (or on a Smith machine). Any thoughts on this? Do you yourself do any of these upright row exercises? Have you experienced any trouble with them?
Nope, I’ve avoided all forms of upright rows for quite a while. Big fan of lateral raises (dumbbell and cable), though.
Thanks for the reply. Incidentally, I’ve read that having a forward lean when doing lateral raises is recommended to avoid shoulder muscle impingement.
Two more questions if I may:
1. Do you do lateral raises (an isolation exercise) after overhead presses or before?
2. Do you devote a separate training day to shoulders, or do you do shoulders on the same day as chest or back? Are there any disadvantages to doing one over the other (e.g., over-training shoulders)?
1. If I’m doing both in the same workout (which is pretty rare), pressing comes first.
2. Either with the rest of the upper body as part of an upper body day, or with chest and triceps as part of a “push day.”
A bit of a delayed follow up question. My left shoulder has been bothering me lately and I’m having trouble diagnosing the problem, even having spent a lot of time stretching and strengthening opposing postural muscle groups to improve shoulder stability and health. I suspect that the heavy dumbbell overhead pressing may be the culprit, combined with overuse. Do you still do OHP? If not, what do you substitute for it? Might front raises be a good replacement, since the OHP primarily targets front delts? Thanks!
Hello and thanks for the great site and for supplying all of the excellent knowledge! I have purchased your book and love it!
I want to know your most recommended shoulder rehab excersises. I have some mild shoulder pain mainly when doing barbell bench press and shoulder presses. Not bad but lingering. The videos you linked have great info but it’s tough to know which ones to start with to maximize benefit and minimize time required.
Which are your top 3-5 shoulder rehab and maintenance exercises and how often when do you do recommend to do them?
Looking for some hand holding here! 🙂
Glad to hear it dude!
As for your question, this is a topic that will require a full article to properly answer. In fact, a full series on shoulder prehab/rehab is actually already on my future to-do list. Stay tuned!
You mention making sure push/pull VOLUME is equal, but do not identify anything about strength. For example, my bench press is significantly heavier than my bent-over row (I can bench 20%-25% more). Is it enough for me to keep my total reps equal each week, or should I work towards improving my row until it is much closer in strength?
When I say “volume” I am referring to the total number of exercises and sets being done… not weight being lifted.
Thank you! It’s so hard to rehab a shoulder but these pointers really resonate! I’m 36 and have been struggling with mine for 15 years – after committing many cardinal sins (but particularly overtraining) in my teens and early twenties. I’m going to pay more attention to your stuff on grip – I’ve figured out through painful experience that going to full range of motion on bench/ pull-ups etc is not for me, but this makes me wonder about the fact that I tend to do pull up with overarm/ underarm vs neutral grip and I bet that is why it tends to aggravate…
No one teaches injury prevention but it is just so critical: training with injuries is so demotivating, and all power to you for actually sticking with and adapting training rather than simply lapsing. It gets harder with time though…
I hear you dude. Hopefully making some of these adjustments helps you going forward.
Excellent article. I got injured the supraspinatus for overdoing and perhaphs bad position, 2 years of intense CrossFit in love with broad-grip up-to-neck pullups, ring dips, kipping pullups, hands-stand pushups. It served my right … I had to stop, rehab and switch to running, biking, swiming …
Two years down the road pain is back after starting to weight my more and more regular body lifting, still in love with … But this time I’m not going to end up injured again. Inmediate actions: sadly retiring dips, broad grip is over, pursuing neutral position, pulling a bit more than pushing and all this preceeding by a warm up with dislocations with bar, stretching with bands and scapula contractions.
Most of the changes coming from this reading.
I’ll post in summer to give feedback
Sucks about the injury issues and the need to get rid of certain exercises (I know exactly how you feel), but I’m glad to hear this article has helped!
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