Your shoulder is a complex joint. Think of how many ways your shoulder can move and how we ask it to support loads in all those positions. And your shoulder is only connected to your skeleton in one place – the clavicle (collar bone). Compared to simpler and sturdier joints like elbows, knees, and hips, the shoulder is already at risk for mischief. So it’s no surprise that up to 36% of injuries that occur in the weight training population involve the shoulder.
One of the most common shoulder problems is impingement. This is when the bony structures of the shoulder move slightly out of place (usually through years of neglect and desk-sitting) and begin to rub against the delicate tendons and ligaments that move the shoulder. Over time these soft tissues become inflamed and even torn.
An upcoming study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research examined shoulder impingement in recreational weight trainees. Researchers asked, “Can we identify any common movements done by athletes with shoulder impingement? Can we identify movements done by the healthy athletes that could prevent shoulder impingement?” They examined 77 men between the ages of 19 and 56. They quizzed these men about their exercise programs and whether they suffered from shoulder impingement.
The researchers identified two exercises tightly correlated with shoulder impingement. First, lateral deltoid raises accompanied the group with shoulder impingement. Upright rows (a high pull with a narrow grip) were also a staple of the group with shoulder impingement. Both of these exercises involve pulling the elbows to shoulder height with the shoulders internally rotated.
But the researchers also found one group of exercises that may prevent shoulder impingement – strengthening the external rotators of the shoulder. These are the muscles that hold your shoulder blades in place and keep them from rolling forward and causing problems. This means performing band pull-aparts, seated rows, Kroc rows, active hangs, and even overhead squats if they can be done with correct technique. Stretching the internal rotators through the sleeper stretch should also provide a nice addition. Here’s how to do the sleeper stretch correctly:
But before we completely poo-poo shoulder raises and high pulls, let’s remember that these exercises didn’t necessarily cause shoulder problems, but rather everyone with shoulder problems was doing those exercises. Indeed, if you have terrible shoulder mobility and you high pull heavy loads with internal rotation, then you’re asking for trouble. Someone with excellent shoulder mobility and scapular stability can probably do those exercises with zero problems, but is that you?
Talk with your coach about shoulder exercises that are appropriate for you. Hold your shoulder blades back and down (think about trying to put them in your back pocket) when you pull anything in the gym. Most importantly, never perform an exercise that is going to set you back because it’s not right for your ability level right now.
1. Morey Kobler, et al. Characteristics of Shoulder Impingement in the Recreational Weight-Training Population.” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. POST ACCEPTANCE, 25 September 2013. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000250
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