As a pretty seasoned lifter, I’ve had my fair share of injuries — it’s just the nature of the sport. In fact, I get more questions about injury rehab than any other topic. That said, though, I can rarely offer much sound advice because injuries are so individual. It’s not enough to diagnose what’s going wrong. To truly rehabilitate any injury, you have to understand the underlying causes of the injury, learn how to address those, and be really, really patient. That process requires the help of a medical professional, whether it’s a doctor, a physical therapist, or some other knowledgable person you can work with in real life.
That said, I can certainly offer some advice when it comes to reducing the risk of injury, and, in my opinion, that’s a far better strategy than waiting until you’re already hurt!
Personally, my biggest “problem area” is the shoulder girdle. When I started lifting, I had no instruction and a very hard head, and a combination of very poor overhead pressing technique, overly-aggressive upper back work, and a complete lack of any type of pre-habilitation exercises, which led to some long-lasting problems. While these aren’t what I would consider significant injuries, they’re certainly annoying, and can at times interfere with my training.
If you have similar problems, you might find these tips and exercises very helpful.
Protecting the Shoulder Girdle
The first thing to remember when you’re dealing with the shoulder girdle: it’s subject to a hell of a lot of stress in powerlifting. The impact of the bench press is obvious, but holding a heavy weight in the low bar squat, and supporting a heavy deadlift all put strain on the joint itself, the supporting muscles of a the rotator cuff, pecs, and lats. So if you’re training those lifts frequently, your shoulders are taking a beating. On top of that, most powerlifters incorporate a fair amount of direct shoulder work into their routines.
So, you need to take some steps to minimize the stress the competition lifts are going to put on your shoulders. Again, this is highly specific to the individual, but in general:
- In the squat, you can widen your grip to reduce the shoulder mobility required to hold the bar in position. If you lose upper back tightness using a wider grip, try this trick instead.
- In the bench press, make sure you’re balancing the amount of internal rotation of the shoulder joint. More internal rotation will help you to recruit more of your pecs, but will also put more strain on the shoulder.
- In the deadlift, make sure to keep your scapula are depressed (pulled down) throughout the entire lift. This not only shortens the range of motion, but helps to avoid the habit of “shrugging” the weight to finish the lift, which can again hurt the shoulders, especially with a max lift.
If you try these techniques and still can’t control the stress on your shoulders, try revising your program so that you’re not performing the competition lifts as frequently. You can do this by “stacking” lifts and performing multiple competition movements on the same day (for example, always benching after you squat), so that you have more recovery time.
And, of course, always make sure to warm-up thoroughly!
My Shoulder Prehab Routine
I usually perform this routine the day after heavy bench pressing. It’s quick, but has been quite effective for me in maintaining shoulder health.
Warmup: Weighted YTWL
If you’re not familiar with the movement, be sure to check out this video:
Sets and Reps: I like to perform only the “standard” variations (no one-leg stuff) using very light weights — 5 or 10 pounds per hand — and going very slowly through the full range of motion in each direction. I perform 10 reps of each with no rest in-between. This is a great way to warm up the rotator cuff.
Again, make sure to check out the video if you’re not familiar with the movement. I strongly suggest you do use a wall for support (as shown), because otherwise, it’s very easy to “cheat” by allowing your elbows to drift forward of your shoulders, shifting the emphasis away from the rotator cuff muscles we are trying to work. However, this can be performed using other forms of resistance: dumbbells, cables, and bands are all good.
Sets and Reps: I perform 3 sets of 10 per arm using as much weight as I can handle with perfect form. This is typically 15-25 pounds per hand.
Lateral Raise Complex
I find strict, light lateral raises extraordinarily helpful for shoulder health. Don’t perform these in the way you probably see the typical bodybuilder doing in the gym: you have to keep your scapula tight (pulled back and down) throughout the entire range of motion in every direction, the traps and pecs relaxed, and the core tight.
Sets and Reps: I perform 25 reps in each direction, starting with side raises (usually the most challenging), and then front raises and bent-over raises. I then repeat for a second set of 10-15 reps in each direction with the same weight.
I like to finish with some very light stretching for the pecs, lats, and biceps. Keeping the surrounding muscles loose and healthy is key to avoid overworking the shoulders themselves.
While I certainly don’t have the biggest shoulders or strongest bench press, this program above has allowed me to consistently progress without detracting from my overall recovery. If you struggle with shoulders, I strongly suggest you give it a go, but don’t be afraid to use very light weights, or even no weight at all, for many of these movements. And of course, never push through anything that causes pain. Lastly, remember to work with a professional if your shoulder issues become severe enough to limit your training.
Do you have any go-to solutions for shoulder pain? Share them in the comments below — and good luck!
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.