Shoulder Pain From Weightlifting

Lifting weights helps keep your muscles and bones strong. But what if you have shoulder pain after exercising?

Some soreness after exercise is a good thing. Credit: Cavan Images/Cavan/GettyImages

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between normal post-workout muscle soreness and actual injury. If you find that your shoulder pain is accompanied by redness, warmth and swelling, follow up with your doctor.

If you notice a deformity in your shoulder, immediate swelling and severe shoulder pain after lifting something heavy, or are unable to move your arm away from your body, Mayo Clinic recommends that you get urgent medical care.

Read more: Chest Workouts and Sore Shoulder Joints

Experiencing Shoulder Pain After Exercise

Some soreness after exercise is a good thing. It's the micro-tearing of your muscle fibers that causes them to get stronger. But how much shoulder pain after exercise is OK?

The timing of your shoulder pain and the type of pain you experience can give you information about the underlying cause. If you sustain an injury, you'll likely have shoulder pain when lifting weights immediately after it occurs. Pain from injury is typically sharp — it's your body's way of telling you something is wrong.

If you notice top of the shoulder pain after a workout, especially if it's been 24 to 48 hours since you hit the weights, it's most likely caused by delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This condition produces an aching pain or soreness that is often accompanied by stiffness. According to the American Council on Exercise, DOMS typically resolves on its own within 72 hours after your workout.

You are more likely to experience DOMS if you've recently increased the amount of weight you're lifting during your shoulder workout. The good news is you're unlikely to experience the same soreness again until you make your next jump in weight, according to ACE.

DOMS is also caused by eccentric muscle contractions. During these movements, the muscle is lengthening even though it's contracting. For example, the eccentric portion of a shoulder press occurs as you lower the weight back down. To help reduce your risk of DOMS, avoid spending too much time in the eccentric phase of exercises — sometimes referred to as "negatives".

Dealing With Shoulder Impingement Syndrome

Shoulder pain when lifting weights is often caused by a condition called impingement syndrome. According to a study published in the September-October 2017 issue of the Indian Journal of Orthopaedics, up to two-thirds of all cases of shoulder pain are caused by this condition.

The ball-and-socket shoulder joint relies heavily on muscles and tendons — particularly the rotator cuff — for stability. When these structures are weak or torn, shoulder mechanics are negatively affected.

One of the jobs of the rotator cuff muscles is to pull the "ball" part of the shoulder joint down as you lift your arm overhead. This prevents your upper arm bone from butting up against the bony roof above it, formed by a projection from your shoulder blade. Your rotator cuff tendons are located between these two bones, as described by Cleveland Clinic, which puts them at risk of being pinched as you reach overhead.

The space between these two bones is also reduced when you position your shoulder at 90 degrees — lifted straight out to the side with your hands pointed up toward the ceiling. This position is used in several shoulder exercises when weight lifting, such as overhead presses, bench presses and the lat pulldown, as demonstrated on ExRx.net.

Continuing to exercise with shoulder impingement can cause your rotator cuff tendons to fray as they rub between your shoulder bones. Over time, this can cause the tendon to rupture completely, requiring surgery.

Impingement-induced shoulder pain when lifting your arm can be reduced by fixing your posture and using proper form. If you spend a lot of time sitting with your shoulders slumped, your posture could probably use some work.

Poor posture while doing a shoulder workout further closes down the space between the bones in your shoulder joint. Before you perform any shoulder strengthening exercises, squeeze your shoulder blades together and down, as if you're tucking them into your back pockets.

Impingement caused by rotator cuff weakness can be treated with a specific strengthening program, under the supervision of a physical therapist.

Read more: 12 Moves for a Stronger Core and Better Posture

Tweak Your Workout

Just because you have shoulder pain when lifting weights, doesn't mean you have to abandon your goals. Small changes in your choice of exercises and the way you perform them can help keep you on track.

If you typically use a barbell or free weights for your shoulder workout, consider swapping them out for lever machines until you pain subsides. Lever machines support the weight for you — unlike a barbell or free weights, which recruit your rotator cuff and core muscles to help stabilize the weight as you lift. Lever machine exercises can also be performed safely without a spotter.

Small changes in your body position during a workout can help reduce shoulder pain after exercise, too. For example, close-grip bench pressing requires less shoulder rotation — particularly if you keep your elbows close to your sides. If lateral raises cause you pain, try raises with your arms in the scapular plane — halfway between straight out in front and out to the side, as described in a February 2016 article published by the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy.

Reducing Shoulder Pain After Exercise

Shoulder pain after exercising can also be reduced with home remedies. Apply ice for 10 to 15 minutes at a time every few hours for the first 48 hours after your workout. Place a pillow under your arm while sleeping to open up the joint space and relieve pressure on your rotator cuff tendons. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications can also be beneficial.

Be sure to warm up before your weight lifting routine to increase blood flow to your shoulder muscles and help reduce risk of injury. For example, perform 10 minutes of exercise using an upper body ergometer or rowing machine before you hit the weights.

If you continue to have shoulder pain when lifting weights, despite making changes to your posture and technique, see a physical therapist for an evaluation and individual exercise program.

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