You’re crushing your last set of push-ups, whipping battle ropes around, or charging through overhead barbell presses, when suddenly you feel it: Something is up with your shoulder.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 8.6 million Americans report physical activity-related injuries each year—and new research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research shows that of all the injuries we rack up in the weight room, a whopping 36 percent are shoulder injuries.
That’s no coincidence: The shoulder, which is a ball and socket joint, is the most complex—and has the greatest range of motion—of any joint in the body, explains physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault. Unfortunately, that freedom means that the rotator cuff (the network of ligaments, muscles, and tendons that hold the joint together) is inherently unstable.
When your shoulder moves too far in any direction, or you have muscle or joint imbalances, it’s almost too easy to land yourself with an injury, which can sneak up over time or strike fast—especially if you’re lifting heavy loads.
The rotator cuff usually feels the brunt of it; overuse can cause rotator cuff tendinitis, in which the tendons in the rotator cuff get swollen or inflamed, or even full-on tears, says Wickham. Impingement issues, which happen when the two main shoulder bones (the humerus and scapula) pinch tendons between them when you lift your arm, are also pretty common.
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Similarly, less-than-ideal bench press, military press, or snatch form can cause the shoulder joint to hyperextend or even dislocate (meaning the head of your upper arm bone pops out of place), explains Josh Hillis C.P.T., P.E.S., author of Fat Loss Happens on Monday.
Are Your Shoulders Safe?
A dull ache in your shoulder here and there might indicate a muscular imbalance or just that you used too-heavy a weight too soon. While this could set you up for an injury down the line, you don’t need to panic just yet. “Pain that is severe or sustained, and that you would rank as more than a five out of ten, however, is likely an injury that requires medical attention,” says Wickham.
To keep your shoulders in tip-top shape, you need to work on mobility. Since we spend so much of the day in sub-optimal positions (sitting at our desks, hunched over watching Netflix, driving), we don’t utilize our joints’ full range of motion, and can lose some over time, explains Hillis.
Spending a few minutes on mobility and range of motion before strength training ensures you can move safely and get the most benefit possible. Before your next shoulder day, try these two moves: First, get on the floor on all fours, with your hands and knees planted. Rotate at your wrists and knees to move your core in five slow and controlled clockwise circles and then five counter-clockwise circles. Then, cycle back and forth between a plank and downward-facing dog eight to 10 times. (You can also follow along with daily mobility videos from programs like Movement Vault or RomWod at home.)
Since the research suggests that shoulder issues often stem from bad exercise form, Hillis also recommends working with an exercise professional to make sure your technique and movement patterns are in the clear.