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Shoulder Saving Tips – Part 1, Shoulder Don’ts

As we see more and more shoulder injuries in our clinic, one of the places our patients commonly hurt their shoulder is at the gym.

Unfortunately, what people do not know or realize is there are common exercises and approaches that many perform at the gym that may set people up for an injury.

In this blog, I want to address some of the common questions I get from patients as well as talk about some of the common training errors I see every day at the gym. 

This topic is far too long to try to compact into one article so lets start with talking about the DON’TS at the gym. Stay tuned for part 2!

  1. Never go behind the head with a bar
    This “don’t” applies mostly to lat pull downs and military shoulder press. Going behind the head places the shoulders in a fully externally rotated position and puts the ligaments in the front of the shoulder on a significant, potentially damaging stretch. In addition, in this position, the rotator cuff is not designed to produce force and asking it to do so could cause damage to the cuff especially if heavier loads are being lifted.


  2. Avoid dips
    Dips are a staple in all gyms, and is a great exercise to develop the chest and the triceps. However, this exercise is at the expense of the labrum in the shoulders. The labrum is a cartilaginous ring that deeps our shoulder sockets and provides a stability bumper in our shoulders. As the shoulder moves into extreme degrees of extension during the dip, the upper arm bone is shoved upward and then rotates from a backward to forward position on the rim of the socket. This shearing and rotational force can create a tear and detachment of the labrum from the socket. An injury otherwise known as a SLAP tear. Does this always happen? No, but this exercise has to be high on your high risk, low benefit filter when selecting it as an exercise.


  3. Don’t Bench Press or Push-up Incorrectly
    A lot of people do not realize that there is an incorrect way to do a bench press or a push-up. The key point is not to flare your elbows away from your side. The right position as you lower the bar or your body is to keep the upper arms at no more than a 45-degree angle to the torso. Flared elbows (closer to 90-degrees) has been shown to increase stress through the shoulder joint, the ligaments on the front part of the shoulder, and the subscapularis muscle (part of the rotator cuff).


  4. Don’t Do “Shoulder Day” at the gym
    This “don’t” makes the list because of the fatiguability of the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff works directly against the larger and more powerful deltoid to keep the ball of the shoulder centered in the socket. The rotator cuff fatigues well before the deltoid does which puts excessive strain on the rotator cuff and the labrum. Having a “shoulder day” where you are doing 3-4 or more exercises for the shoulders will exhaust your rotator cuff, and if you push through the fatigue to get your reps in, you will likely develop a problem.


  5. Ditch upright rows
    I am completely perplexed that this exercise still exists and is still being taught by personal trainers, physical therapists, and strength coaches. If I said to you, “I am going to give you an exercise that pinches your rotator cuff in between 2 hard bones and have you do it repeatedly,” would you do it? That is exactly what an upright row does. In this lift, your shoulder is maximally internally rotated which positions a prominent aspect of your arm bone right under the bottom of your shoulder blade. In between these two is your rotator cuff. Trying to raise your arm in an upright row will impinge your cuff eventually leading to tendinitis or a tear.


I could go on and on with more “don’ts” but I think the above hits the major errors I see and answers a majority of the questions I get in the clinic.

I hope this was helpful and look forward to Part 2 – Shoulder Do’s very soon.

Written By: Travis Manners, PT, SCS, CSCS, President and Founder

Do you experience shoulder pain? It is time to start getting on the road of recovery! Come in for an evaluation today.

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Jennie A., Collegiate Track & Field Athlete

Athletes’ Training Center has worked to specialize workouts to fit my athletic needs. The strength coaches have a one on one personal connection to fix minor details that have had a major impact on my athletic performance.