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reduce pain when lifting: young man bench pressing

How To Reduce Pain When Performing Common Lifting Moves

Whether it’s shoulder pain during the bench press or knee pain during squats, plenty of people experience discomfort during foundational lifting exercises. This can deter them from hitting the gym altogether, or worse, lead to irreversible injury if they’re not using proper form or technique.

So why are certain types of pain so common during specific lifting moves and what can you do to mitigate them with both short-term fixes and long-term solutions? We tapped physical therapists for their takes on pain points associated with popular weightlifting exercises and how to find relief.

  • ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Eric ​Bjorkman, P.T., M.P.T., C.O., is a physical therapist with FYZICAL Therapy & Balance Centers. James Mortensen, P.T., D.P.T., is a physical therapist and regional director of FYZICAL.

1. Barbell Row

Barbell rows can sometimes cause lower back or wrist pain, says physical therapist Dr. James Mortensen, P.T., D.P.T., regional director of FYZICAL. “This pain can be due to incorrect hip hinge and/or poor grip strength,” he says. 

The short-term fix: Focus on maintaining a neutral spine and lightening your load.

The long-term fix: First, work on your rowing technique using a lighter load, suggests Mortensen. A few key pointers here: “Maintain a neutral spine, hinge at your hips to bring your torso to a 45-degree angle, and keep your core engaged,” he says. “Pull the barbell towards your lower rib cage with control, using your back muscles to initiate the lift and keeping your elbows close to your body.” Common mistakes to avoid include rounding your back, using momentum to power your reps, and overextending your neck.

Otherwise, improve grip strength by incorporating exercises like dead hangs into your weekly routine and strengthen your posterior chain with exercises like deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and pull-ups (or assisted band pull-ups), Mortensen says.

2. Bench or Chest Press

Every lifter does the bench or chest press at some point during the week—but the popular move is often a source of shoulder pain (and sometimes even back, chest, or neck pain).

In many cases, pain is caused by pressing too much weight, according to Eric ​Bjorkman, P.T., M.P.T., C.O., a physical therapist with FYZICAL Therapy & Balance Centers. However, it can also be caused by poor shoulder blade positioning and overall form. Often, lifters may churn through reps with their shoulders positioned too far forward instead of protracted (or pulled back).

The short-term fix: For an immediate fix, ensure your hands are positioned at least shoulder-width apart on the bar, suggests Mortensen. “This width allows for optimal muscle engagement, balancing the workload between the chest, shoulders, and triceps, while also minimizing the risk of shoulder strain,” he says.

Otherwise, ensure your shoulder blades are pulled back and down throughout your lift. This protects your shoulders and ensures your chest muscles are engaged effectively, maximizing pressing strength and reducing injury risk. (Of course, it’s also important to plant your feet firmly on the ground and maintain a slight arch in your back so you have a stable base to push from.)

The long-term fix: Over time, improving thoracic mobility and shoulder-stabilizer strength will help you bench pain-free, the experts say.

On the mobility front, dedicate a few minutes to improving your range of motion before hitting the weights. “Use a foam roller on your upper back for five to 10 minutes and do cat-cow stretches for one to two minutes,” says Mortensen.

And to strengthen your shoulder stabilizer muscles, add scapular pushups and resistance band pull-aparts to your warm-ups and accessory work lineup, he adds.

3. Deadlift

“The deadlift is a compound exercise that targets multiple muscle groups and can cause lower back pain if not done correctly,” says Bjorkman. The reason for this pain is usually due to lame form, poor core stability, or poor spinal alignment.

The short-term move: To avoid lower back pain when deadlifting, start by lowering your weight and checking on your positioning. Mortensen recommends keeping your feet a little wider than hip distance, engaging the core (brace your abdominal muscles as if you are about to be punched in the stomach), and maintaining a neutral (not rounded) spine.

Read More: 4 Deadlift Form Mistakes You Might Be Making—And How To Fix Them

The long-term fix: Over time, Mortensen recommends focusing on your hip hinge mechanics while deadlifting. This means you’ll initiate each rep by pushing your hips back and keeping your shins mostly vertical. Maintain a slight bend in your knees and keep the bar close to your body, almost grazing your shins and thighs throughout the lift, to ensure that your hips (and not your lower back) and the primary driver of the movement, he says. Push down through your legs and feet to engage your lower body as you lift the weight up.

Once you’ve got your form down, gradually increase your weight over time, Bjorkman says. Getting ahead of yourself on the weight front is the express lane to back pain.

4. Lunges

Lunges are a leg day staple everyone loves to hate—but you may dread them more than needed if you experience hip or knee pain throughout your reps. Though common, these issues are simple to fix. Often, they’re caused by poor knee tracking and/or lackluster hip stability. 

The short-term fix: The quick adjustment here is to focus on proper knee alignment and reduce your range of motion, explains Mortensen. Make sure your stance is long enough that your front knee never extends out beyond your ankle as you lower down, which places extra strain on the joint. You can also scale back to half lunges, in which you only lower halfway down to the ground, stopping well before your front knee makes a 90-degree angle. 

The long-term fix: Over time, you can gradually progress from half to full lunges as you feel strong, stable, and pain-free.

You’ll also want to work on hip mobility and strength, Mortensen suggests. “To improve hip mobility, perform dynamic stretches like leg swings and hip circles before lifting,” he says. Meanwhile, “strengthen the hip abductors with exercises such as side-lying leg lifts and banded lateral walks.” Add these exercises to your warm-up before deadlifting and include them as accessory moves, as needed. Balance and stability drills like single-leg stand can also enhance your foundational strength and help you lunge with greater ease and safety.

5. Overhead Press

“The overhead press is an exercise that targets the shoulders and can cause neck and shoulder pain if not done correctly,” says Bjorkman. “Improper form and/or too much weight can be the cause of this pain.” Limited shoulder mobility and poor scapular stability can also turn this staple move into more of a pain than a shoulder-builder, adds Mortensen.

Short-term fix: For the time being, stick to lighter weights and make sure your posture is perfect, says Bjorkman. Keep your back neutral, your core engaged, and your ribs knit in tight. The dumbbell should move straight up and down.

Long-term fix: For best results over time, you’ll also want to address shoulder mobility and strengthen scapular stabilizers—and keep those high-priority as you increase your load, shares Mortensen.

To work on mobility and scapular stabilization, incorporate moves like resistance band shoulder presses, scapular retractions, and wall slides into your warm-ups and accessory work lineup, Mortensen says. You can also practice sound technique by overhead pressing a PVC pipe or really light dumbbells before getting into your working sets. These will improve your control and foundational support so you can press with solid form and make gains instead of winding up with pain.

6. Pull-Up and Chin-Up

Nailing pull-ups and chin-ups will leave any gym-goer exhilarated—unless, of course, they’re coupled with discomfort. Often, these moves cause elbow or shoulder pain, typically because of limited shoulder mobility and/or strength, according to Mortensen.

Short-term fix: From the get-go, reduce your range of motion and use bands for assistance, suggests Mortensen. 

Long-term fix: Work on shoulder mobility by doing arm circles and thoracic spine rotations to improve range of motion before hitting the bar, he says. Also, “strengthen the rotator cuffs with targeted exercises such as internal and external rotations using resistance bands,” Mortensen says. 

Once you’ve added these to your routine, you can gradually progress from assisted pull-ups to regular—and, from there, increase your volume.

7. Romanian Deadlift

Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) are just as beloved as traditional deadlifts, but you may experience common issues like hamstring or lower back pain if you’re not careful. Often, these are due to excessive lumbar flexion (lifting from your lower back and not your legs) and/or hamstring stiffness, according to Mortenson.

Short-term move: First order of business? Swap for lighter dumbbells or take some weight off the bar and keep your spinal alignment perfect by maintaining a neutral spine and bracing your core, Mortensen suggests.

Long-term fix: The long-haul resolution here involves addressing hamstring flexibility and strengthening the posterior chain, Mortensen says. To ensure those hamstrings are supple and ready to work, do some dynamic stretching (think leg swings) and static stretching (think seated forward bends) before and after deadlifting. You can beef up that posterior chain by ensuring lower-body workouts include glute bridges, lunges, and squats. Unweighted, resistance band, or light glute bridges also make for a great pre-RDL warm-up.

8. Squat

Squats are one of the most popular exercises in weightlifting—and for good reason, considering they target multiple muscle groups, notes Bjorkman. Sadly, they are also notorious for causing lower back pain for reasons like weak core muscles and poor hip and ankle mobility, as well as knee pain because of poor form or limited hip mobility. 

Short-term fix: If you’re experiencing lower back pain from squatting, take some time off until it settles, Bjorkman recommends. If it’s knee pain that ails you, reduce your load and adjust your stance by pointing your toes out slightly. That should help somewhat for now!

Read More: Does Your Butt Wink When You Squat? Here’s Why 

Long-term fix: To support your lower back over time, work with a reduced load and execute proper form by keeping your knees behind your toes, maintaining a neutral spine, and bracing your core, says Bjorkman. You’ll also want to address hip mobility with stretches (think runner’s lunges) before and after getting after it. 

As for knee pain, improving ankle mobility and strengthening hip abductors will help. To improve ankle mobility, regularly perform ankle dorsiflexion stretches, such as calf stretches and ankle circles. Foam rolling your calves can also help enhance your range of motion and reduce stiffness, Mortensen says. Exercises like clamshells, banded lateral walks, and side plank hip dips can help build strength in your hip abductors. Incorporate them into warm-ups and lower-body strength sessions.

The Takeaway

Incorporating a variety of exercises to help strengthen different muscle groups can help to prevent overuse injuries. “It is essential to maintain proper form and technique when lifting weights to avoid pain and injury,” shares Bjorkman. “It is also important to listen to your body and take short breaks or lower weight when necessary.” By following these tips for some of the most common weightlifting moves, you can safely and effectively enjoy the benefits of weightlifting.

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