Shouldering; the Burden

5 reasons you’re destroying your shoulders by the way you exercise

If you walked into any gym, boot camp, personal training studio, or popular exercise class and took a survey of how many people currently has shoulder pain, you’re going to get an overwhelming number of people to raise their hand; or just shake their heads because they can’t raise their arms. Or, you can just watch people as they exercise and take account of how many wince and rub their shoulders after they grind and pop through another set. Many people, including personal trainers and class instructors blame shoulder pain on getting older when in fact, that irritating, stingy, and  burning sensation, that burdensome dull ache, and that deteriorating range of motion is a direct result of how they’re exercising. Dealing with shoulder pain is no fun and the rehabilitation that comes after rotator cuff surgery is no walk in the park either. So if you want to avoid getting to know an orthopaedic surgeon and your new physical therapist, I suggest you stop doing these three things in your workouts immediately.

5 Reasons You’re Destroying Your Shoulders by the Way You Exercise

1. Not Warming Up – Walking into the gym, doing a few arm crossing movements, or grabbing a small weight and doing shoulder circles is not warming up. Those muscles, tendons, and ligaments are COLD, and need to be gradually warmed up before you lift anything. Here’s what you need to do to make sure your shoulders are really warm and ready to go:

  • Get blood flowing throughout your entire body by walking on treadmill or riding a bike for 3-5 minutes at a slow to moderate pace.
  • With a slow motion, cross and uncross your arms in front of your body 10 times without jerking; I call this the butterfly. Be sure to alternate which arm goes on top as you cross them in front.
  • With your arms straight out to your sides (like a scarecrow), do 20 shoulder circles both directions very slowly. Very Slowly!
  • Stretch your chest, shoulders, upper and lower back, triceps, and biceps for 30 seconds each stretch.
  • ALWAYS do an extremely light weight warm up and then another slightly heavier warm up before doing your first set of every exercise. For example: When I do bench press, I use the bar for 12 reps, then 95lbs for 10 reps, and then I do my first working set.

2. Going Beyond a Normal Range of Motion – This is a quick trip to the orthopaedic. You should always be able to see your hands during any upper body exercise. The most common exercise where I see people going way beyond a safe range is chest flys, chest presses (both barbell and dumbbell), side lateral raises, rear deltoid raises, and bent over dumbbell rows. When you go beyond a normal range of motion in any joint, your muscles lose the ability to control the resistance therefore putting a higher than normal stress on tendons and ligaments. Shorten those ranges and lighten those weights.

3. Using Too Much Resistance – This one is very popular. It’s really very simple; when your muscles are exhausted and you keep going, your joints are compromised. It all comes down to form and technique and when you do exercises correctly (that means no cheating by bending your back, swinging, bouncing, or jerking the weight), your joints will be preserved. Use a weight which you can fully control through the entire range of motion.

4. Going Way Too Fast – This one really makes me cringe to watch because it truly is just a matter of time before the “Big Pop” is felt. I’m going to make this one very easy. No matter what exercise you’re doing, you need to count 4-5 seconds for each and every repetition you do. In addition, you need to completely pause at the top and bottom of each repetition. Guess what this will do? It will not only keep your joints safe, it will take care of #3 above as well because I guarantee you will have to lighten everything up. Try it and see.

5. Overtraining – Overusing ones shoulders is a big problem in exercise and here’s why. Your shoulders are used in both pushing and pulling exercises so this in itself can take its toll on your shoulder health. In addition, if you put too much stress on your shoulders by overtraining them in one session, your recovery time is extended and they won’t be fully recuperated when you train them again. For this reason, I give myself four full days in between my push and pull exercises and you should do the same. Also limit how many exercises, sets, and reps you do for your shoulders as well as for all body parts.

Shoulder pain or any joint pain for that matter is not a normal part of exercise. If you were to ask an orthopaedic or a physical therapist what percentage of their patients comes from the gym, you’re going to get a very big surprise with some of their answers being as high as 80%. How’s that grab you? No matter how you look at it, dealing with shoulder pain is a constant burden and I don’t know what’s worse; paying $35,000 for a new shoulder, or that feeling you get when you hear your surgeon tell you what I’m telling you right now.


Bobby Whisnand “The Exercise Doctor”

Bobby Whisnand is heavily endorsed throughout the medical community. He has authored three books and has just completed his corporate wellness enhancement program designed to motivate entire companies to better production in both work and home.  He is certified through the International Sports Science Association as a Specialist in Exercise Therapy and a Specialist in Sports Nutrition. He is also a Cooper Clinic Certified Personal Trainer and was a fitness expert for the American Heart Association.