Your training goal becomes the fading image of a midsummer night’s dream if you put yourself in the position of suffering from chronic shoulder pain and are unable to continue to do the type of training that is relevant to your goal.
I watch gym rats with their generic bro-splits that they found online, training their shoulders into unnecessary issues with an orgy of chest press, and anterior raises, and 15 variations of bicep curls backed up with poke-headed shrugs and, of course abs day (because, you know, abs). The only nudge I see at balancing this out is a largely useless high rep, high speed standing dumbbell lateral external rotation performed with weights lighter than the average hipster’s man bag. Because muscle activation. Or some other equally rubbish reason.
No, I don’t blame the gym rats – they’ve had some guy at the gym who looks like he knows what he’s talking about tell them that this is how training is done. And he’s probably had some other equally clueless guy tell him the same thing back when he was a good keen young man who was eager to find out the secrets to getting ripped for a festival.
But if you get talking to this guy, you’ll probably find out he has this ‘niggle’ in his shoulders…
So let’s look at:
- Why niggling shoulder pain is such a thing.
- Why bro-splits often cause the issue.
- Why training to relieve the issue is smarter than training around it.
- How to incorporate some sensible training into your program so that niggling shoulder pain is not something that derails your progress towards the image you have in your head of you, standing shirtless in your skinny jeans, rocking the deepest of fake tans as your pecs contract in time to the slow and steady clap of your admirers…. (Future articles will cover how to never fit into skinny jeans again…).
Points 1 and 2 we have already touched on. Bro-splits tend to have a heavy focus on anterior training – that is exercises that work the muscles on the front of the body. The goal is often hypertrophy of the chest, abs, and arms, so these programs place more emphasis on exercises that target these muscles directly. Posterior training – back, glutes, hamstrings, and in particular the back of the shoulders – gets little more than a cursory nod. And as for leg training… well, you aren’t going to fit into skinny jeans by training legs now, are you 😑
In this instance the shoulder can start grumbling with the inflammation caused by overuse of the anterior muscles. A grumpy anterior delt, an angry pec minor, and a skulky bicep tendon are not conducive to happy times in shoulder division. And in this situation the fix is easy – introduce posterior training in sufficient frequency and volume to balance out the anterior training that you are doing.
Some exercises you may include are snatch grip deadlifts, 90* single arm dumbbell rows, bench-supported rear delt flyes, and cable high rows.
Quick tip – a 20 sec stretch of your pecs and anterior delts before performing each set of your posterior work will allow your anterior muscles to relax and lengthen sufficiently to allow your posterior muscles to fully shorten through each rep.
Another reason for the development of niggling shoulder pain can be the over development of the muscles that internally rotate the humerus, and the coinciding underdevelopment of the muscles that externally rotate the humerus. There are some pretty big, powerful muscles that work to internally rotate the humerus – your pecs, anterior delt, subscapularis, and teres major don’t do it alone, they get help from your lats. So if, in addition to your bro-split, your back training consists mainly of lat dominant work such as pull ups, pull downs, and low rows, and there is not enough work to develop your scap retractors and the external rotators of your humerus, the resulting pull on your humerus into internal rotation helps to set up an environment that is ripe for impingement. The postural outcome is not ideal either, with the internally rotated gym-bro look being so not-hot right now.
Contrary to popular belief, your external rotators do not need to be trained as if they are the delicate, sensitive members of the muscle family. They are nuggety little guys that try their best and respond well to a functional hypertrophy rep range.
Some exercises your shoulders will thank you for include seated dumbbell external rotations, lying dumbbell external rotations, powell raises, poliquin raises, cable reverse flyes, face pulls, and cuban rotations.
If you are unfamiliar with cuban rotations, check out this easy-to-read article that explains how they evolved 🙂
Quick tip – train external rotators at the end of your work out on chest day, and either at the start or during your workout on shoulder day. On chest day, your external rotators are the muscles that maximally concentrically contract as you get to the bottom of your bench, generating force and keeping your shoulders stable so that you can push back up with full strength – so you don’t want them pre-fatigued. On shoulder day, training external rotation during your workout allows you to perform your shoulder training with better posture, which in turn allows the rest of your shoulders to be trained through your own true active range of motion, leading to the creation of a more balanced look.
The shoulder joint is a muscle dependant joint – this means it is dependant on strong, and well-balanced musculature to keep it stable and healthy. When I trained with Andre Benoit he explained it very well – think of the joint like a tent, with the muscles being the guy ropes that keep the tent up. If one side of the tent has guy ropes that are too weak, too loose or are pulling too tightly, the tent will be lopsided, and easy to knock down (injure).
If you do currently have a bit of niggling shoulder pain, training to relieve it is being shown to be so much more effective than training to avoid it. Thankfully we are well past the days where the recommendations of icing and resting were thought to be useful. In fact now the more beneficial recommendations are being made to keep the joint warm and mobile.
Firstly, get an accurate diagnosis of what your issue is. Words like bursitis and impingement get carelessly thrown around these days, so seek advice from a professional who works with shoulders – a sports physio or similar – and ideally also understands lifting.
Secondly, address the issue with exercises designed to strengthen the weaker muscles in your shoulders. Often these will need to be done with light weights initially, so leave your ego at the door 😉
Thirdly, if you aren’t experiencing shoulder niggles, prevention is so much better than what can be a long and boring cure. Integrate some of the exercises I mentioned above into your program. Train your external rotators efficiently and effectively.
My own personal experience of educating myself to maintain shoulder health and minimise chronic pain following a motor cycle accident has led me to train with physios, strength coaches, powerlifters, body builders, and yes, even cross fitters. The common theme that came through time and time again was “let go of your ego and do what you need to do.” I can tell you that having to take time off doing the type of training you love simply because you were too proud to cycle through a program that addressed the health and balance of your shoulders is no fun for anyone.
Yes, I was that guy.
If you are suffering from niggling shoulder pain and are uncertain how best to proceed, ask :). If an initial accurate diagnosis has ruled out tears and bursitis, a simple shoulder health program can resolve the issue very quickly.