I wish there had been a resource on keeping shoulders healthy when I first got into barbell strength training, because I certainly could have used it.
Or maybe there was but I was too thick-skulled to listen. Injuries are for old guys and pussies, I always thought.
Boy, was I wrong.
While I’m by no means a “shoulder expert”, my own shoulder problems have led me to modify and find safer ways of training over the years.
Plus, I have seen my fair share of guys with shoulder issues training hockey players – a sport where shoulder injuries are about as commonplace as Big Macs on a fat kid’s dinner plate.
So without further ado, here are a few simple tips how to keep training hard while preventing shoulder pain.
Few people realize this but a larger diameter bar is actually less stressful on the joints than a regular one.
Plus, you can’t go as heavy with a thicker bar. So you still get a great training effect with lighter loads, which is safer.
Snatches and jerks can wreak havoc on the shoulders, especially if your shoulder and thoracic mobility suck. For some guys even a clean can become problematic, causing pain in the catch position.
For an easy fix, replace those movements with kettlebell swings – performed no higher than shoulder height (arms parallel to floor) – and various medicine ball throws.
You’ll still be able to train for increased power without the risk of being sidelined due to injury.
And don’t worry about what some die-hard Olympic lifting fanatic said about the necessity of snatching, jerking and cleaning for improved athleticism on some training forum.
You can’t train when injured. Stick with what’s comfortable.
If you absolutely insist on Olympic lifting regardless of the risks involved, focus on pull variations and perform snatches with a clean grip.
Overhead presses have gained the unwarranted reputation of destroying guys’ shoulders.
They don’t. But they can definitely aggravate existing ones.
Know the difference.
Behind-the-neck presses will likely go out the window if you’ve had shoulder problems and wish to keep them healthy in the long run. Regular military presses perhaps as well.
Your best bet would then be to perform a standing overhead press with leg drive or what most people know as a “push press” – this helps in overcoming the bottom part of the lift which is more stressful than after the barbell clears the sticking point, and where most shoulder injuries occur.
But even then, the stress on the joints may be too much when using a straight bar.
If that’s the case, 1 arm dumbbell push presses, thick bar push presses and log presses (with a neutral grip) should be your top choices for direct overhead work.
For those of you experiencing pain/discomfort every time you attempt any direct overhead work, your next option is to switch to incline benching.
Any barbell or dumbbell variation will get the job done, just make sure the bench is set up at a 15-30 degree angle. I’ve found this to be a better choice than a flat bench for trainees with existing shoulder problems while you still get to go heavy here.
Another, even safer pressing movement is the landmine press, which can be done standing or from a half-kneeling position, just like Tony Gentilcore does in the video below. I prefer half-kneeling for beginners since it teaches you how to properly lock in the abs and squeeze the glutes, avoiding compensation from the lower back with overhead exercises.
That means leaving a couple centimeters of space between chest and bar in the bottom position of any bench press variation.
And, as I have already mentioned in the past, performing pulls and high pulls on cleans and snatches.
When barbell pressing overhead, you’d start the movement at about chin level, not off the upper chest.
On dips, your upper arm should go no lower than parallel to the floor. The bottom portion of the dip contributes very little to additional strength gains but is a lot more stressful on the shoulders than with the upper arm at and above 90 degrees.
On chins, especially if done on a fixed bar, leave a slight, barely noticeable bend in the elbows at the bottom. This will keep all the tension and stress on the muscles instead of the joints.
Another way to make things even safer is to never go near failure, grinding and locking out those ugly-looking reps that take you five seconds to complete. All reps should be done in a piston-like fashion – smooth, good bar speed, just shy of full range of motion both at the bottom and at the top.
So if you were incline benching the 40 kg dumbbells, you’d bring the DB’s down to within a few centimeters of touching the chest at the bottom and within a few centimeters of locking out at the top. This ensures that your upper body muscles bear the brunt of the physical stress – not the wrists, elbows and shoulders.
Once you start getting close to that territory where lifting speed slows down, having to take a couple seconds between each rep with the dumbbells held at the top with straight elbows, terminate the set.
Here’s Ronnie Coleman demonstrating exactly what I mean on the dumbbell bench press:
While you won’t be able to use as much weight and perform as many reps as you normally would when locking out at the top, you’ll stay in the game far longer into the future.
And that’s all that matters.
Gymnastic rings are special in that they allow for natural movement of the joints to occur.
Some people experience shoulder pain when performing dips or chin-ups on straight bars even without any external load. Since the bar is fixed, you can’t move freely and that could lead to joint problems down the road.
With chins on rings, for example, you can start with your palms facing away and finish with your palms facing you or you can keep a neutral grip the entire time.
It’s up to you and can be dictated by what feels safest and most natural for your body, as demonstrated by Ben Bruno below.
So now you know how to avoid shoulder pain.
To finish off, here are my TOP 5 safest, most effective upper body pressing movements for those suffering from shoulder issues, in no particular order…
1. Thick bar or Fat Gripz floor press
2. 1 arm DB push press (neutral grip if necessary)
3. 1/2 kneeling landmine or kettlebell press
4. Log clean & push press
5. Ring push-up
You can still train hard and heavy while injured.
But you gotta train smart.
That means ditching the exercises that cause pain. And replacing them with safer options.
Follow these recommendations and keep getting stronger without grinding your shoulders into dust.
And here’s the perfect plan for doing just that…
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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.