Tips for safe and effective shoulder training

Thursday, January 4, 2018. Author Matthew Kershaw

Shoulder anatomy

2018 is here and with it comes a host of New Year’s fitness goals and resolutions. One of these might be to hit the weights, and there’s a multitude of reasons why this is beneficial. Resistance training has repeatedly been shown to improve many aspects of health, from the microscopic level, such as improving insulin sensitivity, to the more visible results, such as improving body composition and increasing lean mass.

When it comes to joints and mobility, strengthening of the muscles and tendons around a joint can reduce the incidence of injury and, when maintained through the years, helps to combat frailty and prevent falls.

However, proper caution must be taken when resistance training. Poor form when lifting can create impingements within your joints or add unnecessary strain on the surrounding muscle tissue. Impingements, whereby tendons rub or catch on tissue or bone within a joint, can result in damage to muscle and connective tissue. This is especially true when poor lifting form develops into a chronic habit, which can lead to pain and discomfort when performing everyday tasks.

To help you with your lifting technique, we at FitnessGenes are going to put together a series of articles discussing the issues you may face when working out the most commonly injured joints. We’ll also suggest improvements to your form to help you to avoid any tissue damage.

In this article, we’re going to focus on one joint that is constantly exposed to potential damage: the shoulder joint.

The shoulder joint

The shoulder is a very complex joint.  Even the simplest of lifts, if performed improperly, carries a risk of injury to the joint. The shoulder contains many muscles, some of which move the shoulder in a range of motions, while others stabilize and anchor the joint, preventing dislocations.

The main muscles that move the joint are the deltoids. These muscles abduct the arm to the front, side, and rear, and they must all be trained equally to avoid a potential injury through an imbalance of strength. Equally strengthening all three deltoid heads improves your posture because it prevents one dominant deltoid head having stronger resting tension than its opposing (antagonist) muscle, which can result in the joint being pulled forward or backward.

In addition to the deltoids, four stabilizing muscles hold the joint in place and ensure that the head of the humerus doesn’t dislocate from the scapula when moving. These four muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis and teres minor) combine to make the rotator cuff. You won’t be able to see these muscles as they are covered by the overlying pec major, deltoids, latissimus dorsi, and trapezius.

The four rotator cuff muscles are often forgotten in training plans, but it is essential that they are trained correctly and just as often as the deltoids. Neglecting to look after these rotator cuff muscles is the main cause of training-related shoulder injuries. Pain when lifting is most commonly caused by impingements of the supraspinatus, whereby the muscle is pinched between the top of the humerus and the underside of the acromion (a bony protrusion from your scapula). Poor lifting technique is often the culprit here, but injury can be easily avoided with a few tweaks to your form.

Injury avoidance

Reducing the incidence of impingements

The best way to avoid training-related injuries in the shoulder is to train using the most natural movements and range of motion possible. When performing an exercise, be sure to ask yourself how you would normally move in this situation in your daily life. If the position you’re in during the exercise feels uncomfortable or restrictive, the likelihood is that it will cause you some issues.

A common piece of “advice” to avoid,  is rotating your arm so your thumb points towards the ground to work your anterior (front) deltoid. The anterior deltoid raises your arms up in front of you and helps to push things up above you when lying down, so exercises such as the dumbbell front raise or an incline bench press will work them effectively. While rotating your thumbs towards the ground does place an emphasis on the anterior deltoid, it also stretches your supraspinatus directly underneath your acromion, increasing the likelihood of an impingement taking place. By contrast, keeping your thumb pointing in front of you or towards the sky (where possible) opens your shoulder capsule and rotates the head of the supraspinatus away from the site of impingement, minimizing your chances of catching it between the two bones (humerus and scapula).

Not Overloading the Joint

Overloading the joint can be due to an error in judgment and/or an error in form. Here are four tips to incorporate into your shoulder exercises to ensure your shoulders remain injury free.

Firstly, don’t lift a weight that is too heavy for you. If you can’t complete reps with a full range of motion, the weight is too heavy, and you risk your body leaning forward or backward, placing unnecessary stress on your stabilizing muscles and your back. Reduce the weight and focus on form. You’ll get more from properly performed exercises.

Secondly, make sure your arms are in a natural position. I see a lot of people locking out their elbows when performing raises to keep their arms straight. Your joints don’t naturally sit in locked-out positions, so when you lift, your elbows should have a slight bend in them to support your joint. Having dead-straight arms increases the mechanical stress on both your shoulder and your elbow, creating a shearing force on your joints. Over-bending your arms (commonly caused by lifting too heavy) places the weight in front of the muscle you are targeting, causing your stabilizer muscles to work extra hard to keep your joint steady. For instructional videos, please check out our exercise guide in your Members Area.

Thirdly, when bench or overhead-pressing, it’s never sensible to lower the bar behind your neck. Again, think about how natural and comfortable the exercise feels. If you had to lift something above your head in a real-life situation, it gets pulled up to your chest, then above your head. Lowering the bar behind your neck means you are required to lower your chin, which extends the muscles in your neck and trapezius, placing stress on muscles that surround your deltoids, destabilizing them in the process.

Finally, when performing raises, your arms should stop when your elbow is level with your shoulder and your upper arm is parallel to the floor. Continuing to contract past this point puts huge mechanical stress on your joint because your deltoids aren’t designed to handle this range of contraction without the exercise becoming a shoulder press. 

Maintaining Strength of the Rotator Cuff

The often-forgotten muscles of the rotator cuff will need to be strengthened alongside your shoulder workouts to strengthen the deltoids. This is imperative as the rotator cuff helps to stabilize your joint as you progress through heavier resistance or more complex movements. As the name suggests, the rotator cuff is strengthened by rotating your arm in place, so adding resistance to a rotation exercise will train these muscles effectively.

Two simple rotator cuff exercises to strengthen these all-important muscles are external and internal rotations. Both exercises can be performed with either a cable machine or a resistance band tied around a post or other anchor.

For both exercises, your elbow should be tucked by your side (imagine holding a piece of paper under your arm) and your forearm should be at a 90-degree angle to your upper arm, parallel to the floor.

For external rotations, hold the handle or band so that your arm is pulled across your body by the resistance. From here, keeping your elbow at 90 degrees and your arm tucked in place, rotate your arm away from you as far as it will comfortably go. Return the handle or band to the starting position in a controlled manner and repeat as necessary. This helps to strengthen the infraspinatus, supraspinatus and the teres minor.

For internal rotation, simply change your body position so that the handle or band pulls your arm away from the body and rotate it inwards, towards your torso. This will primarily help strengthen the subscapularis and the supraspinatus.

To summarize, when it comes working-out your shoulders this year: keep your thumbs up, your movements natural and your weights manageable.

Matthew Kershaw recently joined FitnessGenes.  He has a Bachelor's degree in Nutrition, Exercise, and Health and is currently working on his Master's degree in Applied Sport and Exercise Nutrition.  Please read Matt's other FitnessGenes blog In defense of meat

Need help choosing a plan?

Use our Plan Advisor to determine which genetically tailored diet and exercise program best fits your needs.

Find out