Exercises That Could Hurt Your Shoulders (and What to Do Instead)

Sculpting sexy shoulders is at the top of many fitness fanatics "to-do" lists. And while including shoulder exercises in your overall strength training program is beneficial, there are a few things you need to know before stacking on the weight.

Shoulders may not get a lot of attention in the fitness world, but they're very easily injured. (Image: Jun/iStock/GettyImages)

"The shoulder is a highly injured area of the body, so it is advisable that you are not only working the larger shoulder muscles, but also the smaller stabilizing rotator cuff muscles," says Grayson Wickham, CSCS, physical therapist and founder of Movement Vault. "Any type of shoulder-intensive exercise has the potential to damage your shoulders."

If you don't have the necessary mobility and stability in your shoulder, Wickham says you're more likely to compensate by using muscles you don't mean to use or performing the move incorrectly. This can cause stress to the shoulder joint and surrounding muscles, ultimately leading to unnecessary wear and tear and even shoulder injuries.

Shoulder Exercises You Might Be Doing Incorrectly

With all this potential for a shoulder injury, you may want to consider working with a personal trainer, physical therapist or strength and conditioning specialist, especially if you're not sure how to execute the movement correctly. They can help you dial in your form and design a program that works best for you. That said, some exercises can hurt your shoulders more than others, especially if you're doing them incorrectly.

1. Bench Press: When doing bench press, Jessalynn Adam, M.D., a sports medicine physician with the Orthopedics and Joint Replacement at Mercy Medical Center says to be sure that your elbows don't drop below your shoulders. "Any motion beyond this point simply stresses the rotator cuff tendons and shoulder joint," she says.

2. Push-Ups: Similarly, Dr. Adam says that when you're doing push-ups, you want to avoid the end-range of motion and bend your elbows only to 90 degrees. Also, keep your elbows close to your body to avoid rotating your arm and impinging the rotator cuff muscles.

3. Overhead Shoulder Press: It's not uncommon to see people doing shoulder presses behind the head (or jutting their head and neck out too far during extension). Unfortunately, Dr. Adam says this places the shoulder in extreme external rotation, flexes the neck and leaves the shoulders with little mechanical advantage. This position, she says, often results in an excessive load of the rotator cuff and shoulder joint. That said, the shoulder press is safe to do as long as you keep the movement in front of your body.

4. Advanced Exercises: Certain exercises — like snatches, clean and jerks, kipping pull-ups and kettlebell swings — are more demanding on the shoulders, Wickham says. These lifts, if done incorrectly, can also cause shoulder injuries. All of these movements are perfectly safe as long as you have the appropriate mobility, stability and strength in your shoulders (as well as other areas of the body), know the fundamentals and can execute the lift, he says.

Shoulder Exercises to Avoid

While most exercises involving the shoulders are safe to do, there are a few the experts say should remain on the "do not include" list.

1. Triceps Dips (certain types): Dr. Adam suggests avoiding doing triceps dips with your hands on the bench behind you. "Most people do not have the shoulder range of motion for this exercise to be performed safely, and it loads the shoulder in a position of extreme internal rotation, which can cause shoulder impingement as well as excessively stress the biceps and rotator cuff," she says.

2. Upright Rows: The movement pattern you perform when doing an upright row also loads the shoulder in external rotation. Dr. Adam says this causes the rotator cuff to impinge against the shoulder, which can cause pain or injury.

3. Behind-the-Head Shoulder Press: "Overhead presses should not be done behind the head/neck since this places the muscles of the shoulder in extreme external rotation (and flexes the neck)," says Dr. Adam. The shoulder muscles have little mechanical advantage in this position, which Dr. Adam says, can result in an excessive load of the rotator cuff and shoulder joint.

Tips to Help Prevent Shoulder Injuries

Since the shoulder muscles are involved in a lot of everyday, upper-body movements, it's important to keep them healthy and injury-free. But sometimes that's easier said than done. Here, Wickham shares five tips for avoiding shoulder injuries when working out.

1. Focus on Flexibility and Mobility: When it comes to your workouts, Wickham says it's smart to be proactive with your flexibility and mobility not only in your shoulders, but every area of your body. "Being proactive means performing some type of stretching and mobility routine before your work out to ensure that you have the proper mobility to execute a lift," he says.

2. Stretch Throughout the Day: "Because most people spend so much time sitting at computers today, there are certain areas of the body that need to be worked on to ensure that your shoulders are working and moving optimally," says Wickham. His recommendation is to take breaks throughout the day to focus on mobility and stretching to open up your shoulders, chest and back.

3. Take It Slowly: "I see too many people that try to jump into very challenging and demanding lifts too soon and go too heavy," says Wickham. That's why he recommends spending time learning the movement and lifts, and do your best to perfect each one before you start increasing the weight you are lifting dramatically. And if you're a true workout newbie, perfect your form with no weight first before lifting anything.

4. Listen to Your Body: If you start to notice aches and pains (not just muscle fatigue or soreness), Wickham says this is your body sending you a signal and telling you that you need to either back off of the movement or scale the movement in a way that doesn't cause you pain. "You should never be pushing into a pain outside of muscle soreness."

5. Work With a Trainer: Both beginners and seasoned gym-goers can benefit from working with a fitness expert. If you choose to go this route, Wickham says to make sure you seek out a skilled professional such as a coach, trainer or physical therapist who's familiar with the type of training you're doing. "This trainer can expedite the process when it comes to learning specific lifts and movements."

How to Safely Include Shoulder Exercises in Your Workouts

Training your upper body means you're going to recruit your shoulder muscles to assist in many of the movements. That's why it's important to know how to safely incorporate shoulder exercises into your fitness routine. Wickham says how you go about it depends on your goals and level of training.

"Someone that is looking to build muscle and train in a bodybuilding style workout split will train differently than someone that is training in a powerlifting style, CrossFit style or general fitness," he says.

If you have four to five days to train each week, Wickham says you can work the shoulders one to two times a week in isolation or as part of a full-body workout. However, if you're going to do a heavy shoulder workout, it's advisable to not work that area for one to three days afterward to allow for proper recovery.

In general, Dr. Adam says to consider doing shoulder exercises with a "thumbs up" position when incorporating them into an overall workout. This position is healthier for the shoulder.

That said, if this still causes pain in the shoulder area, Dr. Adam says to stop doing it or try a modification. She also likes to include functional exercises that target multiple muscle groups. For example, she says an exercise like the farmer's carry engages both the core and shoulder stabilizers.

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