Alright, so we basically have shoulder pain figured out right? We've got pain relief creams, massage chairs, wands and guns, pills, potions and magnets. That should do the trick.
Shoulder pain continues to be a tremendous problem throughout the world and is one of the largest complaints physicians receive from their patients (1)... On top of this unfortunately a large chunk of folks with shoulder pain will end up with pain again after they've finally figured out how to get rid of it (2). Lastly, shoulder pain is a common problem in strength and fitness athletes (3,4,5,6). It is generally among the top 3 most injured areas of the body coming in neck and neck with low back and knee pain.
However, I think if there is one thing all experts can agree upon is that an ACTIVE approach to shoulder pain is still a tried and true (and inexpensive) way to reduce pain (7). What's even better is that strength training has actually been shown to be quite effective for getting out of shoulder pain with a multitude of different shoulder injuries (4). If you want to learn more about the most common form of shoulder pain check out my guide below:
Now, strength training being beneficial for the shoulder is absolutely music to our ears given how much we love lifting weights. But, if you're reading this article I'm already guessing your shoulder hurts but exercise isn't seeming to be helping, it may seem to be doing the opposite (causing more pain). It may seem like right now the exercise isn't doing the trick. So maybe it's not just all about continuing to exercise but applying the right exercises to help us get out of pain and back to training.
Side Note: In reality it's also about learning the basics about shoulder pain, modifying our lifestyle and training, and developing and implementing a plan of action to get out of pain. I've written an incredibly thorough guide on the subject you can check out HERE.
I put this article together to share with you my FAVORITE movements for getting out of shoulder pain and back to training. When choosing appropriate exercises we need to ensure that these movements are SPECIFIC to the activities we're trying to get back to. This article is for you if you want to get back to one or several of these activities:
- Weight training
- CrossFit (TM)
- Olympic Weightlifting
- Generally training hard in the gym...
So, if you have some shoulder pain or work with folks who have shoulder pain and are trying to get back to some heavy lifting in the gym, let's go over some movements to get the job done.
Disclaimer: The following is only information. Always consult a qualified healthcare provider before attempting to exercise your way out of shoulder pain. When in doubt get it checked out...
I've outlined my favorite movements by category. A well rounded rehabilitation program should contain a variety of movements, target specific areas of weakness and be specific to the activities you're trying to get back to (bench press, pull-ups, olympic lifts etc.).
I've also decided NOT to include the primary lifts in the gym. Although bench press and pull-ups can be helpful for getting out of pain I've decided not to include them or their variants in this list. However they certainly can and probably should be included in some form or another. If you want some help figuring out how to do this, click HERE to read an article to help you.
I've outlined my favorite movements by category. To make it easy for you to navigate the exercise waters I've also include a "quick navigation" section below. If you'd like to skip around and check out a particular section quickly you can do it there. Without further ado, my favorite exercises...
Rotator Cuff Work
Side-lying Dumbbell External Rotation
I like to keep some sort of direct rotator cuff strengthening in the majority of my shoulder rehabilitation programs. These exercises are tried and true in the rehab world and are great for improving dynamic stability of the shoulder joint.
Just also keep in mind that the rotator cuff is very active during regular strength training in the gym. For example the posterior rotator cuff is very active during pressing exercises and the anterior rotator cuff is very active during row exercises. For these reasons something like a bench press is actually an effective posterior rotator cuff strengthener.
Band IR (Elbow at side)
The DB sidelying ER and Band IR (elbow at side) are two of the absolute most boring exercises of all time but also very effective at strengthening the cuff and getting out of pain. Although extremely boring, these movements are a great first step for a very irritated shoulder and get the job done.
Band IR and ER at 90 degrees
Performing rotator cuff work with the shoulder at 90 degrees is a step forward in difficulty for the rotator cuff. In the beginning stages of rehab a cranky shoulder might not be able to handle cuff work here and in this case it's probably wise to start with the elbow at the side.
Band ER to Overhead Press
Once you're tolerating ER and IR at 90 degrees it may be time to move onto more challenging cuff exercises like this ER to overhead press variation. I like this exercise because we're getting the cuff active fully overhead which is exactly what we'll be needing if we plan on returning to heavy barbell overhead work.
Scapular Stability Work
Like our rotator cuff brethren, scapular stability exercises are also a tried and true (evidence based) method for getting out of shoulder pain and back to training. Here are some of my favorite variations:
Dumbbell A, T, Y
I consider these movements the basics when it comes to scapular stability and strengthening. They're a great first set of movements to master before moving onto more challenging exercises.
Side Plank "T"
Once you get the basics mastered it's probably time to move onto some more challenging shoulder variations
Forward / Backwards Crawls (Weighted and Unweighted)
I am an enormous fan of crawls for helping to get out of shoulder pain. They just have a ton of benefit really:
- Scapular stability and strength
- Serratus anterior, rhomboids, low, mid and upper trap work
- Core elbow and wrist strength and stability
- Posterior neck strength and endurance
- Generally well tolerated when other forms of pressing are not
On top of this they're fun to perform and take minimal to no equipment to perform. Just keep in mind they're pretty challenging and aren't always the best exercise to start with for irritated shoulders.
Shoulder Friendly Pressing
Often times with shoulder pain, pressing exercises can really hurt. For this reason we want to find some variations that feel better on the shoulder. On top of this, pressing exercises will help to strengthen the backside (infraspinatus) and top side (supraspinatus) of the rotator cuff along with the pecs, delts and triceps.
When at all possible we want to keep pressing in the training program. Just keep in mind that some shoulders won't tolerate pressing at all initially and you'll have to back off pressing until things cool down and then start back up with easier press variants. Here are some of my favorite shoulder friendly press variations:
Dumbbell Floor Press
I'm a big fan of partial range pressing when normal bench press variations don't feel good. The DB floor press can be a nice addition to a shoulder rehab program. It's also great because it's a unilateral exercise helping to bring up the strength on the painful side.
1/2 Kneeling Landmine Press
Often times the landmine press is a nice variation when normal overhead press variations are really hurting. You can play around with the angle of pressing (more or less overhead) by leaning forward or backward to find a plane that is well tolerated.
Swiss Bar Bench Press
In the video below we go over some more of my favorite bench press variations that are shoulder friendly including the swiss bar press (Starts @2:55). Check it out.
Shoulder Friendly Pulling
Generally speaking, most folks with shoulder pain have much more trouble with pressing exercises than pulling or rowing exercises. Early in rehab it's helpful to substitute out some pressing and replace it with extra pulling to continue getting a nice training effect for the upper body without irritating the shoulder further.
With that being said, pulling can still be an issue if you have shoulder pain. Here are some of my favorite variations for those with shoulder pain
Dumbbell Chest Supported Row
Barbell Inverted Row
Single Arm Dumbbell Row
Single arm rows are a phenomenal rowing exercise but they also build tremendous shoulder stability on the stance arm on the bench. This is a nice added benefit.
Renegade Row Variants
Renegade rows are great for all of the same reasons as single arm row variations but they take the stance side arm's job and kick it up several notches. On top of that the core ends up getting a lot of good work as well. Lastly, keep in mind that this is a more advanced shoulder exercise and probably not the best first pick for a really irritated shoulder.
Well, that's a wrap! I hope you enjoyed this article on my favorite rehab exercises to help you get out of pain and back to training.
If you liked this article and want a little more guidance on how to get out of shoulder pain I have a completely done for you training program to help you get out of pain and back to training. It's called "Ultimate Shoulder".
I've taken the guesswork out of finding the right amount of sets and reps and which exercises to use and which to avoid. It's all 100% outlined. Consider it your roadmap to get out of pain and back to training.
My shoulders feel better already,
Dan Pope DPT, OCS, CSCS, CF-L1
- Whittle, S., & Buchbinder, R. (2015). Rotator Cuff Disease. Annals of Internal Medicine, 162(1), ITC1. doi:10.7326/aitc201501060 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25560729
- Luime, J. J., Koes, B. W., Miedem, H. S., Verhaar, J. A. N., & Burdorf, A. (2005). High incidence and recurrence of shoulder and neck pain in nursing home employees was demonstrated during a 2-year follow-up. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 58(4), 407–413. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15862727
- Mehrab, M., de Vos, R.-J., Kraan, G. A., & Mathijssen, N. M. C. (2017). Injury Incidence and Patterns Among Dutch CrossFit Athletes. Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine
- Winwood, P. W., Hume, P. A., Cronin, J. B., & Keogh, J. W. L. (2014). Retrospective Injury Epidemiology of Strongman Athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(1), 28–42.
- Strömbäck, E., Aasa, U., Gilenstam, K., & Berglund, L. (2018). Prevalence and Consequences of Injuries in Powerlifting: A Cross-sectional Study. Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, 6(5), 232596711877101.
- Keogh, J. W. L., & Winwood, P. W. (2016). The Epidemiology of Injuries Across the Weight-Training Sports. Sports Medicine, 47(3), 479–501. doi:10.1007/s40279-016-0575-0
- Pogorzelski, J., Fritz, E. M., Godin, J. A., Imhoff, A. B., & Millett, P. J. (2018). Nonoperative treatment of five common shoulder injuries. Obere Extremität, 13(2), 89–97. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5976697/