7 Simple (But Valuable) Shoulder Saving Tips

ava_cowanAnyone who trains hard with a barbell in search of continuous progress will get injured at some point.

It’s not a question of “if”, but “when”.

One of the most common ways barbell training can inflict damage on your body is in the form of shoulder injuries.

A bum shoulder can make life virtually miserable. Almost all upper body pressing goes immediately out of the window. Setting up and gripping the bar hard for a set of squats doesn’t exactly ease the discomfort you’re feeling. Not to mention even flipping through TV channels with a remote controller becomes a pain in the ass once the pain in your shoulder gets severe enough (talk about a First World Problem!) 

However, the worst part is that once the damage has been done, the healing process usually takes quite a while. Some days your shoulder will feel almost 100%, the next day it will get irritated during a light warm-up set, and you’re back to square one.

I say all this because I’ve been there and know how much having an irritated shoulder sucks. Walking around with a shoulder injury severely limits what you can do in the weight room. Consistency is the biggest factor in making sustained progress, and you can’t be consistent if you are always injured.

Here are 7 practical ways to rehab an existing shoulder injury or prevent it from happening in the first place…

1. Perform Dips on Rings

Some folks develop cranky shoulders when dipping on fixed bars (like the hot female in the image above is doing), especially when they get stronger and start adding some decent weight to their dips, say 40-50 kg for reps. Adding another plate or two beyond that point is not exactly going to make it easier on the joints.

To simultaneously make your training easier on the joints but harder in general, switch to ring dips. Unlike a dip station with fixed bars, with rings the distance and position of your arms is up to you and can be dictated by what feels safest and most natural for your body. 

And as far as the difficulty factor of ring dips is concerned, regular dips are not even in the same ballpark. It’s not unusual to see a fairly strong guy shaking like Robert Downey Jr. during heroin withdrawal while trying to balance their body in the middle of a rep the first time around because of the instability factor that training on rings brings into the equation.

2. Do At Least as Much Vertical Pressing as Horizontal Pressing

You want to make sure that for every set of bench pressing you do, you’re performing at least an equal amount of overhead pressing (military press/push press/behind the neck presses etc.) as well. This not only builds stronger shoulders (obviously) but will prevent any muscle imbalances that may occur due to an over-reliance on the bench press as the primary upper body lift.

3. Start Every Training Session with Band Pull-Aparts and Shoulder Dislocations

Perform 50 reps of both exercises as a part of your upper body warm-up.

You can do them between sets and on off days, too.

4. Finish Every Training Session with High-Rep Pump Work for the Shoulders

Do 100 total reps (could be 1×100, 2×50, 5×20, 4×25 or whatever) of front and lateral raises or DB presses.

The key here is to keep the loads light and get as big of a pump in the shoulders as possible. 

Something I learned from Paul Carter is that when you flush a ton of nutrient-rich, healing blood through the muscle tissue on a regular basis, it’s gonna be pretty damn hard for inflammations to occur in that area. And that huge pump you get from performing ultra high reps might just stimulate some more growth in the shoulders which can never be a bad thing.

5. Switch from Flat Barbell Benching to Incline Benching

Most shoulder injuries in the gym occur due to flat barbell benching. Granted, letting your elbows flare to the side or bouncing the bar off your chest are a big reason why they take place so often, but even good technique doesn’t necessarily keep you from getting hurt.

In some circles dropping the bench press from your program would be akin to heresy. But unless you’re a powerlifter training for a competition, why would you perform a movement that gives you pain and can eventually lead to a serious injury?

That’s like complaining how pouring battery acid in your eyes impairs vision, then doing that next Monday, too.

It makes no sense to me.

What I recommend is removing the flat barbell bench press in favor of the low incline (15-30 degree) bench press. You still get to bench with a relatively heavy barbell, yet decrease the beating your shoulders gotta take, thus increasing the odds of remaining injury-free.

That’s what I consider a win-win situation.

6. Train the Rotator Cuff with External Rotations

I know this tip sounds less sexy than the thought of watching Hillary Clinton in a Girls Gone Wild flick but training the rotator cuff with external rotations will keep your shoulders healthy in the long run.

Here are a few good exercises for rotator cuff prehab/rehab:

• Standing band external rotation

• Scarecrow

• Side lying external rotation with a dumbbell or plate

• Half-kneeling cable external rotation*

Pick one or two of the exercises above and perform 3 sets of 12-20 sets per arm as a part of your warm-up.

7. Practice Handstand Holds and Push-Ups

These can be done on off days or as a part of your warm-up routine.

Kick your feet up against a wall and “stand” face down on your hands while bracing your abs. At first you want to work up to keeping that stance for 60 seconds without pausing, after which you can start doing partial reps (insert a set of pillows under your head to limit the range of motion).

Over a few weeks you should be able to increase the ROM until you’ll be able to perform your first real handstand push-up. Work up to 10+ reps of full ROM HSPU’s and you won’t have weak, injury-ridden shoulders any more.

* Video demonstration by Eric Cressey of Cressey Performance

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About the Author Yunus Barisik

Yunus Barisik, CSCS, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for an elite junior hockey organization based in Espoo, Finland. He has trained hundreds of hockey players at the junior, college and pro levels, including NHL Draft picks and World Champions. An accomplished author, Yunus has had articles published on top fitness and performance sites, including STACK and Muscle & Strength. He also wrote Next Level Hockey Training, a comprehensive resource for ice hockey players on building athletic strength, size and power, while staying injury-free.

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