Pain After Shoulder Presses

Whether it's from a strict shoulder press in CrossFit or part of your circuit machine workout, pain in your shoulder can sideline your progress. Overhead movements, such as the shoulder press, put a significant amount of pressure on structures in this joint.

Overhead movements, such as the shoulder press, put a significant amount of pressure on structures in this joint.
Credit: Erik Isakson/Tetra images/GettyImages

If your shoulder pain persists for several days after working out, wakes you up at night or interferes with your daily tasks, you might have a shoulder injury, such as a rotator cuff tear. See your doctor before you continue to work out with a shoulder injury.

If you are unable to lift your arm, you might even have a tendon tear, which requires an urgent visit to your doctor, advises the Mayo Clinic.

Read more: What Exercises to Avoid With Shoulder Impingement

Shoulder Anatomy and Pain

The ball-and-socket shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body, allowing you to move your arm back and forth, out to the side and rotating inward and outward. As a trade-off, your shoulder is not very stable. Compare this with your hinged elbow joint — which is very stable — but only bends and straightens.

Your shoulder relies on ligaments and tendons for stability. Ligaments attach bone to bone, and tendons attach muscles to bone. In the shoulder, the tendons of your four rotator cuff muscles — supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis — primarily stabilize your joint.

Rotator cuff tendons lie on top of your humeral head, or the ball part of the shoulder joint. A projection from your shoulder blade, called the acromion, forms a "roof" over these structures. The space between your humeral head and acromion is called the subacromial space.

During overhead movement, such as the shoulder press, your rotator cuff plays a key role. Its tendons pull your humeral head down as you reach overhead to prevent pinching of the tendons between the humerus and your acromion.

When your rotator cuff is damaged or weak, the humeral head butts up against the acromion as you reach overhead. This can lead to a condition called shoulder impingement syndrome, according to Cleveland Clinic.

Read more: How to Recover From a Rotator Cuff Injury — Plus 4 Exercises to Help

Posture: Strict Press With Dumbbell

In addition to rotator cuff weakness, poor posture can cause shoulder impingement syndrome, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. Many people spend the majority of their time during the day sitting at a desk or commuting. This can lead to the shoulders rounding forward. Over time, muscles in the front of your shoulders and your chest can tighten, making it difficult to correct your posture.

Rounded shoulder posture further compresses the subacromial space, putting your rotator cuff tendons at risk of damage, particularly when you reach overhead. To help reduce shoulder pain during a strict press with dumbbells, use correct posture, as demonstrated by ExRx.net:

  1. Sit up straight with a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and down — as if you are trying to put them in your back pockets. Do not allow your shoulders to shrug up toward your ears.
  3. Raise your arms out to the sides at shoulder height and bend your elbows to 90 degrees. This is your starting position.
  4. Press the weights up toward the ceiling, bringing them together over your head.
  5. Slowly lower back down. Repeat 10 times, working up to three sets in a row.

Posture isn't the only factor contributing to shoulder pain with presses. Shoulder position can also cause pinching of the rotator cuff tendons, leading to pain. According to an article published in the April 2013 issue of the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, positioning the shoulder in 90 degrees of abduction with external rotation — the starting position for the dumbbell strict press — can pinch the rotator cuff tendons between the head of your humerus and the socket of the shoulder joint.

The good news is, this can be avoided by changing the starting position of your dumbbell press. Raise your arms in front of you to shoulder height, instead of lifting them out to the sides. Bend your elbows to 90 degrees as previously; then press overhead.

Barbell Shoulder Presses

What if you want to use a barbell? Shoulder presses performed with a barbell require more range of motion than their dumbbell counterparts — particularly in external rotation. Barbell exercises also require a strong core to stabilize both your trunk and the weight as you lift it overhead.

According to a small study published in November 2013 by the Journal of Sport and Health Science, shoulder external rotation is particularly important if you perform behind-the-head shoulder presses. If you have shoulder pain, it's best to avoid this exercise, which places your shoulder in a vulnerable position.

Use proper form with the barbell strict press to help avoid shoulder pain.

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Grasp the bar in the rack with an overhand grip, approximately shoulder-width apart.
  3. Dip below the bar until it is resting on your shoulders underneath your chin, in the front rack position.
  4. Step back from the rack.
  5. Keeping your elbows high, squeeze your shoulder blades together and tighten your abs and glutes for stability.
  6. Press the bar straight overhead, pulling your chin back to clear the bar. Do not bring the bar out in front to clear your chin — this will increase the strain on your shoulders.
  7. Lock your elbows out overhead and bring your head between your shoulders to complete the movement.
  8. As you lower the weight back down, pull your chin back to clear the bar.

Weight can be more easily moved overhead if you use your legs for momentum. This will allow you to lift heavier loads and also reduce strain on your shoulders. Try the push press used in CrossFit.

  1. Hold your barbell in the front rack position, elbows slightly in front of the bar.
  2. Dip down and bend your knees into a quarter-squat position.
  3. Drive up explosively by straightening your knees and squeezing your glutes. At the same time, punch your arms toward the sky as you lift the barbell and straighten your elbows.
  4. Lower the weight back down to the front rack position, and repeat.
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