I’ve made quite a few modifications to my training program as I’ve gotten older – some by necessity and others more precautionary in nature.  No single area has received more focus than my shoulders.  

Shoulder injuries are incredibly common, but not inevitable.
Shoulder injuries are incredibly common, but not inevitable.
Photo by Harlie Raethel on Unsplash

The shoulder joint lacks stability. As a result, it can move too far in any direction, which can lead to injury over time.

The Facts

  • By the time they are in their 50s, 13 percent of adults suffer from a torn rotator cuff, research suggests. That number increases to 31 percent for those in their 70s.
  • Shoulder issues make up more than one-third of gym-related injuries, according to the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
  • Shoulder impingement accounts for up to two-thirds of shoulder complaints, based on a 2014 review.

I’ve found several strategies to be particularly effective at minimizing the risk of shoulder injury.  This is how I injury-proof my shoulders.

5 Ways to Prevent Shoulder Injuries

Foam Rolling

Foam rolling is beneficial pre-workout to break down knots, scar tissue, and adhesions.
Foam rolling is beneficial pre-workout to break down knots, scar tissue, and adhesions.
Photo Credit: Pixabay

For the past couple of years, I’ve begun every shoulder session with self-massage. I spend five minutes or so using my RumbleRoller to loosen the muscles in my neck and upper back, as well as my chest.

As I’m always reminding my clients, tightness in those areas can lead to poor posture and inhibit proper movement of the scapulae. Soft tissue work like foam rolling can help break up knots that develop when you’re hunched over a desk all day. Posture has a significant effect on the joints and discs in your spine.

My foam rolling technique is simple: I position myself on the foam roller and start by rolling it slowly up and down my upper back. I find that 20 “passes” works well. When I hit a trigger point or tight spot, I pause and focus on it until the tenderness subsides. I do that on the sides of both shoulders as well. I’ll also roll out my lats and often use a tennis or lacrosse ball to loosen up my chest.

Smart Swaps

I’ve had to cut back on or replace some of the more traditional bodybuilding exercises that I performed regularly over the years, as they had begun to put too much stress on my shoulder capsule.   

For example, I now perform lateral raises with my palms facing forward and my thumbs up, lifting my arms at a 45-degree angle in front of me (in between directly out front and to the side). By doing them this way, I can strengthen the supraspinatus – the most commonly injured rotator cuff muscle – without impinging the tendons and nerves in that region. I’ve also been including additional scaption exercises like the lying dumbbell external rotation as well as the standing cable version. These target the infraspinatus, another commonly injured rotator cuff muscles.  

I seldom perform upright rows these days, also due to impingement concerns.  Instead, I work scapular retraction with the cable face pull.  This is my go-to exercise with clients who need to counter the effects of sitting for hours in a shoulders-forward position.

Farmer’s Walks

It might not seem like a traditional shoulder exercise but I’ve found these to be highly effective at improving the function of the shoulder girdle. The benefit of this exercise is that it’s mostly isometric, eliminating any movement that could irritate existing shoulder issues. As an added bonus, these challenge grip strength, tighten your core, and torch body fat. There’s virtually no risk of injury here.

I begin by standing with my feet shoulder-distance from one another and holding two moderately heavy dumbbells by my sides. I walk forward for as long as I can while holding the dumbbells and maintaining proper form. The key with these is to keep your core engaged, shoulders back, and chest out. If you can last much more than a minute, swap the dumbbells for a heavier weight. Count each carry as one rep. I do four total, with 60 seconds rest between reps.

Bent-Over Rows

They’ve been a staple of my back training program since I first stepped foot in a gym but rows also target the hard-to-engage muscles of the rear deltoids.  This makes them a great movement to counter poor posture but to maximize results from the exercise you need to keep the shoulder blades retracted throughout the entire set.

If you’re not able to pause briefly at the top of the movement, use a lighter weight. To maintain proper posture, it’s helpful to keep your chin tucked in slightly and the back of your neck elongated.

Single-Arm Bottom-Up Kettlebell Shoulder Presses

The single-arm kettlebell press is a safe alternative for strengthening the shoulder capsule.
The single-arm kettlebell press is a safe alternative for strengthening the shoulder capsule.
Photo Credit: Flickr

I try to include at least one unilateral exercise in each shoulder workout.  In this movement, the kettlebell is held upside down, which challenges the shoulder stabilizers. You will not need much weight for this one.  Here’s how to do it:

Stand tall with a kettlebell held handle-down against the front of the shoulder. With a tight core, press the kettlebell straight up toward the ceiling so that you end with your arm fully extended and the kettlebell above and just outside of and in front of the shoulder. Pause briefly and then slowly reverse the movement. Repeat for 10 to 12 reps before switching sides.

Neutral Grip Presses

A conventional overhead press involves shoulder abduction – lifting the upper arm up and out to the side – and internal rotation – turning the upper arm inward.

During this movement, the space between the top of the humerus bone and the acromion – the rounded end of the clavicle bone – decreases. This can result in the acromion impinging the tendons and tissues in that area and is a common cause of pain and limited functionality in the shoulder joint.

With the neutral grip variation of this exercise, the palms are turned in facing one another. This keeps the elbows close to the body, eliminating abduction, and minimizing the risk of shoulder impingement. I perform most of my chest presses in this manner, as well.

Combined with regular infrared sauna use and an anti-inflammatory supplement regimen, which includes curcuminfish oilWobenzym, and collagen, these common-sense shoulder training strategies have allowed me to stay pain-free while increasing strength and size nearly 20 years into my lifting career.