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The real solution to shoulder pain sits between denial and fear, a grey area where you treat the pain, change your habits and keep training
March 7, 2016 :: 9:00 AM
It’s a problem plaguing most men I know over 30. Session after session, bootcamp after bootcamp, the shoulder pain complaints started to add up. I said to myself, “I need to start looking into this. Thank god my shoulders are OK.” Then it happened: I was doing a shoulder exercise and suddenly felt a pull. It led to a dull ache and plagued me for months. I joined the club, then started my research.
For many of us, the source of shoulder pain is a mystery. Most don’t know what the problem is, what started it or how to treat it. We become secretly depressed, frustrated and scared. Some forge on, labeling it a nuisance and continuing to do the same workouts—in pain. But that perpetuates the problem and sets you up for surgery. Others bench themselves and avoid all exercises that could aggravate it. I’ve found the real solution sits somewhere between denial and fear: a grey area where you not only treat the pain but change your habits and keep training.
Your shoulders, while resilient, are used more than almost any area of your body, and its nonstop nature makes it vulnerable when overloaded. Neuro-muscular therapist Maurizio Cavaletti is on the front lines of shoulder injury treatment. He says they’re often caused by a combination of the wrong exercises, bad form and, surprisingly, how you sleep. “When you sleep on your stomach, you are putting your shoulder in a constant state of impingement,” he says, adding a recommendation that you sleep on your side or on your back.
Shoulder injuries often add up to what many leading health experts regard as the most common diagnosis for shoulder pain, tendinitis. That’s where the tendon becomes inflamed, causing everything from aching, pinching, clicking and stiffness.
Cavaletti says the majority of his clients with shoulder injuries don’t suffer from actual structural problems but inflammation, and many can avoid surgery. “It should always be the last call,” he says. “The focus should be on proper form and mobility,” both of which he instructs in his private practice and in classes at local gym The Phoenix Effect. Of course, significant tears to the rotator cuff and labrum can require surgery, so it’s always best to get an X-ray or MRI to rule those out.
The first step in preventing shoulder injuries is eliminating the causes. According to the Mayo Clinic, rotator cuff injuries are most common in sports-related activities that involve overhead pressing. As a fitness expert, I unapologetically believe heavy overhead presses lead to the same end result: injury. I’m not saying don’t do it—I still do—but if you’re gonna go heavy, you better know your shit. Otherwise, someday you’ll pay the price.
Other exercises to avoid or go light on if you have shoulder issues include barbell upright rows and pulling or pressing anything behind your neck. These movements can put your shoulder in a compromising position.
After you’ve eliminated shoulder injury risk factors, the second step is to choose the right exercises. Below are three safe and effective options (2 warmups, 1 exercise) that can add size, definition and restore mobility. It’s possible to develop great shoulders and heal them at the same time. For me, it took staying in touch with my body, patience and an open mind.
1. Pec Stretch
Stand next to a wall, extending your arm along it. Rotate your body away, adjusting your arm higher and lower for maximum stretch. Do this for 30 seconds on both sides, two rounds.
2. Dumbbell External Rotation
On your left side, hold a dumbbell next to your body with your right arm, elbow bent 90 degrees. Slowly lift upward until the back of your hand faces away from you. Return to starting position and repeat 10 times, then repeat the exercise on your other side.
3. Face Pull
Stand in front of an upper-chest-level cable, holding onto both sides of rope. Step back with arms extended, feet wider than shoulder-width, a soft bend in your knees. Exhale, squeeze your core and drive your elbows past your back, pulling the rope handles outside of your ears. Hold and contract shoulder blades. Repeat.