Preventing shoulder injuries while training with free weights

Beverly International Nutrition

Gary C. Bruns, BS, ACSM
Bodybuilding World Fall 1997

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One of the most common injuries in the gym is of the shoulder. The lateral, medial and frontal deltoid muscles are comparatively small muscles. These three muscles that make up the shoulder are at the focal point of most traditional lifts. Many experienced and inexperienced lifters tend to forget what tremendous work load we place on this muscle group and the associated joint. The seemingly constant nagging, achy pain, that one wishes would go away, is a persistent reminder that you are doing something wrong. Few people do anything different in their routine to rectify this potentially serious problem. They quit lifting for a while and, in some cases', rest is all that is needed.

Once a physician has determined that your shoulder injury is not serious or better yet before you become injured try following these recommendations.

"lifters tend to forget what
tremendous work load we place
on this muscle group and the associated joint"
Vic Lavender jr
  1. Always warm up thoroughly. Walking and running on a treadmill for a total of 15 minutes followed by a specific exercise with light weight for the muscle group you intend to work is typically sufficent. This will also help you start burning fat for energy earlier in your routine.

  2. Stretching exercises for those specific muscle groups you intend to work are great to do before and after each set.

  3. Avoid over stretching the shoulder girdle through ballistic type movements, especially while the muscle is under tension. An example of this is an improperly performed shoulder press. Bring the bar or dumbbells to approximately 1 to 3 inches above the shoulder and control the weight during the eccentric and concentric movement to avoid injury. Another example of an improperly performed exercise is the bench press. Instead of controlling the weight throughout a proper range of motion, the weight is dropped to the chest allowing the weighted bar to compress the ribcage a few inches, this pulls and recoils the ligaments and tendons of the shoulder with tremendous force. Depending on your own individual flexibility the bar should stop 1 to 3 inches from your chest. In most cases, in order to touch the bar on your chest, you most relax your shoulder girdle to allow for this extended range of motion. The bar should stop before this occurs.

    Watch someone do these exercises and you will see them relax and reposition there shoulders or arms, those allowing the bar to move closer to their body. This repetitive overstretching of the shoulder girdle will cause an acute or chronic injury to occur. Pectoral flyes and incline bench presses are also improperly performed using this ballistic type of movement and repositioning/relaxation of the shoulder. I have to admit, when I first start doing these exercices the way I have explain I felt like I was cheating or not going through a full range of motion. Please do not get this confused with loading the bar up and moving the bar a few inches and calling that a complete repetition. But, do understand the proper range of motion for a muscle. An individual may do these exercises wrong for years before encountering any problems, chronic overuse syndrome, or someone could hurt theirselve the very first time they lift.

  4. Do not relax the shoulders to allow for an extended range of motion. Bench press, incline bench press, flyes, shoulder press, lat pulldowns, lat low pulls, and T bar rows are a few exercises to avoid relaxing the shoulders while performing. This occurs at the beginning and end of the movement while working the muscles of the back.

  5. Do not overtrain. Cycle your workouts so that you are not overusing and overworking your shoulders. Do not try to train your shoulders like larger muscle groups such as legs, back, and chest. Trust me, you will not be able to do the same amount of sets for your shoulders as you can with your legs. It seems like common sense to me now, but I remember a time when I trained my chest, triceps ( including bar dips), and shoulders on the same day. I was definitely misguided at the time but I listen to my body and learned. While training other muscle groups, especially chest and back, you are indirectly training your shoulders.

  6. Train synergesic muscle groups to create a balanced muscular structure. It is important to train synergics muscles or muscles that work together. If you train your triceps directly and indirectly with exercises like pressing movements and do not train your biceps you would create and imbalance in these synergics muscle of the arm. Your triceps would become significantly stronger and larger, proportionately, than your biceps. This inbalance would leave you proned to bicep injuries. The trapizues muscles help support the shoulder girdle and work synergiscally with the deltoids on many lifts. It is therefore important to directly train the trapizeus for muscular balance.

  7. Maintain proper posture and upperbody erectness while doing overhead presses. Make sure that your head, neck and torso are upright and straight throughout the overhead press. Do not dip your head forward or backward. Do not turn your head from side to side. Do not tilt your head back in an attempt to lift heavier weights or to get that last repition, it may be your last repition for awhile. When tilting the neck and upper body backward you become stronger in the press because you are now ultilizing the upper pectoral muscles and frontal deltoid muscles, try to train those muscles by doing incline bench presses not shoulder presses.

  8. Support your back sufficently. Any unwanted movement of the upper body during a lift overhead can result in a serious injury.

Yves Rocher Botanicals

Here is one workout schedule that seems to work very well for me. Keep in mind that when I started working out my body type was ectomorphic, I have a high metabolism, and I do not rely on anabolic steroids and other drugs to promote muscular growth.

Day 1- Legs and Calves
Day 2 - Off
Day 3 - Chest and Triceps
Day 4 - Back and Biceps
Day 5 - Off
Day 6 - Legs and Calves
Day 7 - Off
Day 8 - Shoulders and Traps
Day 9 - Chest and Triceps
Day 10 - Off
Day 11 - Legs and Calves
Day 12 - Off
Day 13 - Back and Biceps
Day 14 - Chest and Triceps
Day 15 - Off
Day 16 - Legs and Calves
Day 17 - Off
Day 18 - Shoulders and Trap
Day 19 - Back and Biceps
Day 20 - Off


I train the abdominal muscles and run almost everytime I train, of course this schedule varies and usually I take more days off than I have indicated. The key point to this routine is that I allow a longer period of time to elasped between my shoulder workouts than other muscle groups for recuperation.

Specific shoulder exercises:

Machine presses - Most well equiped gyms have a decent military press machine. Take the time to set the seat height and other adjustments correctly to prevent overstreching at the bottom of the movement. The "bar" should pass through an imaginary line horizontial with your torso and centered over the shoulder.

Dumbell presses - My favorite. Skip the disco "Arnold Presses". The shoulders should be kept stable throughout this movement, concentration is paramount and do not overstrecth at the bottom.

Front dumbell raises - Everyone has done these for years with little results, except for those so genetically gifted that their front delts grow when they do calf raises. A little variation in this exercise can go a long way. Do one side at a time. Pick up a 5 or 10 lb dumbell and stand erect with the dumbell at your side, palm of hand facing in toward your body and keep it in this positon throughout the movement. Keep your elbow slightly bent to protect the elbow joint from injury. Lift the dumbell up to shoulder height and back down. Do not swing the dumbell. The movement should be slow and methodical. Do a set of 12, 10, and 8 repitions each while increasing the weight. I have seen 300 lb professional bodybuilders do these with 35 lb dumbells. Strict form only. You may want to take your other hand and hold on to a squat rack or something to help support your body and maintain an erect posture. You will see improvements in your front delts very quickly.

Bent over lateral raises - Again, a little variation goes a long way. Bend over an support your body with one hand on your knee or a bench. Place the dumbell in the opposite hand. The dumbell should be grasped much like you would grap a barbell to do bent over rows and keep it in this position throughout the movement. Raise the dumbell in a line slightly above the shoulders. Squeeze the rear delt at the top of the movement and control the weight back to its starting position. I have a special bar that looks like one side of a v-bar that you use for tricep pressdowns. This bar attaches to the lower pulley of a cable machine. For the ultimate in front delt and rear delt exercises try bent over laterals and front dumbell raises as I have described using a cable system.

Behind the neck press - I use to love doing these, now I know better. Sometimes I still get the urge to do them and do them anyhow. If you do this exercise follow the same guidelines as previously described for presses.

Front Press - Do front dumbell raises as I described above and there will be no need to do these. If you do this exercise follow the same guidelines as previously described for presses.

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