Pain should never get in the way of your upper-body gains. First, go get the problem checked out. Second, try these simple technique tweaks to avoid flare-ups and keep the progress coming.
1 – Do This Instead of Dumbbell Flyes
Irritated shoulders and dumbbell flyes aren't exactly a match made in heaven. What makes dumbbell flyes great for growing your pecs unfortunately makes them a horrible choice for cranky shoulders.
When you're using dumbbells, the greatest load comes at the point where you're at the bottom in the furthest stretched position. Even if you're doing them correctly – not over-stretching and maintaining an active range of motion for your pecs – you'll still be loading your shoulders in a compromised position.
That's not to say you shouldn't be doing dumbbell flyes. They can be a great bodybuilding exercise... but not if your shoulders are acting up.
Instead, try swapping them for cable flyes. Then, rather than doing regular cable flyes, try performing them standing slightly back in the cables. This changes the point of maximal load so you get more in the squeeze (contracted) portion of the flye, and less in the stretched portion.
How to Do It
- Most cable flye variations will work. You can flye high to low, low to high, or directly horizontal.
- Begin in your regular cable flye position, then step back a foot or two. You should now have your shoulders level with the cables or even a little behind.
- From here do your flyes as per usual. As your hands get closer in, the load will hit you more.
- Even if you don't have angry shoulders, this is a useful flye variation to load the fully contracted position more.
2 – Do This Instead of Bouncy Lateral Raises
Using momentum during the lateral raise is a surefire way to miss out on pain-free training and building size. Stop swinging the dumbbells. You're just wasting time. Momentum takes over when you swing and you lose mechanical tension on your delts.
Instead, drop down on both knees instead of standing. This decreases your ability to swing the weights. Use 3-second concentric tempo as you raise your arms up to shoulder level, then continue moving slowly for a 3-second eccentric as you lower the weights back down by your sides.
This controlled motion allows you to take advantage of time under tension. Pain-free range of motion is the key here for overall growth and development.
Think about it: Swinging the weights up means that each individual rep lasts one or two seconds at best. However, with this specific 3-second concentric and 3-second eccentric tempo, each individual rep will last at least six seconds.
That's the benefit here: more overall volume for your shoulders performed in an intelligent, pain-free format.
How to Do It
- Assume the tall kneeling position.
- Raise your arms up by your sides to shoulder level for a 3-second count.
- Lower them back down for a 3-second count.
3 – Do This Instead of Standard Dips
Okay fine, we're not completely swapping out the V-bar dip here. It's a go-to exercise for building triceps and chest mass. But unless your shoulders and elbows have a clean bill of health, things can get a bit dicey... so you'll need to modify them a bit.
Dips put your arms behind your body into glenohumeral (shoulder) extension. That's okay if it's controlled and your shoulders are built for it. But most aren't. This puts excessive force through the anterior ligaments of your shoulders and can pinch on the rotator cuff and long head of the biceps tendon.
Instead of trashing the dip completely, try this simple technique tweak:
Lean forward and lead more with your chest. You might have to take your legs behind you more too, but this isn't essential as long as you can get your torso more angled forward and less vertical. This results in a fraction less glenohumeral extension and better chest activation, which will support your shoulders more.
Also, play around with the width of grip you're using to better align your elbows and shoulders. A trial and error approach is best.
How to Do It
- Jump up to the V-bar and start at the top.
- Stick your neck out and angle your shoulders forward. You want your torso in a slight forward angle as opposed to vertical. Keeping your feet and legs back helps.
- Lead with your chest and only go down as far as you're comfortable. Stay away from the painful range or motion.
- If there's still pain, try narrow-grip floor presses or decline presses as your next option.
4 – Do This Instead of the Barbell Bench Press
Not every athlete has the ability to (or needs to) bench press with a bar. However, the everyday athlete looking to build upper-body size and strength would be wise to implement pain-free range of motion training strategies. That's where the Swiss bar comes in.
The Swiss Bar offers a neutral grip position, which can provide a much smoother bar path for the bench press. Ditch the bar and swap in the Swiss bar if you have cranky shoulders or limited range of motion. It's a much better bang-for-your-buck, without the excessive shearing forces on the glenohumeral joint that come with the barbell.
Most versions of this specialty bar come with a few different hand position options. This works well for lifters of all sizes since it caters to narrow, moderate, and wide-based neutral grip positions.
How to Do It
- Set up with your back flat on the bench.
- Drive your feet down into the floor to create a stable base with your hips and core.
- Choose the grip width that works best for you.
- Lower the Swiss bar to the chest with a subtle tap and then press back up.
5 – Do This Instead of the Standing Military Press
Not everyone is built to press directly overhead. This is more true in standing overhead presses where you're pressing more vertically than, say, seated overhead presses where the bench angle is different.
Exercises like the standing military press aren't inherently bad for your shoulders, and they don't cause shoulder impingement like some would suggest. However, pressing directly overhead can worsen shoulder impingement. This is because it closes down the subacromial space more (area under the acromion) leading to irritation, inflammation, and pain.
Although the likelihood of "closing down" the subacromial space is greater because of other factors involved (muscle imbalances and the shape of your acromion), it's best to avoid pressing directly vertically and with a stiff barbell to manage existing shoulder pain.
So take a seat. Use dumbbells and try either a neutral or pronating grip instead. Charles Poliquin was a big fan of the pronating-grip dumbbell shoulder press, since it works to take your shoulders through a large range of motion. It also allows your shoulders to move more freely, reducing the risk of wear and tear. Standing and pressing directly overhead can cause low-back pain in some folks too.
Try fixing your butt and back to a seat. Some also find having their feet up or on a wall in front feels more comfortable for their backs too, since you'll have shifted the position of your pelvis and limited lumbar extension.
How to Do It
- To avoid pain pressing directly overhead, try it seated. This will change your pressing angle depending on the inclination of your backrest.
- Use dumbbells and either a neutral (hammer) or pronating grip.
- As you press overhead, do not jam your shoulders back.
- If your shoulders still hurt, then try some landmine presses instead.
6 – Do This Instead of Kipping Pull-Ups
Kipping is another form of using momentum to bulldoze your way through an excessively high number of pull-ups in record time. Cool, but did you make any quantifiable progress? Likely not.
Also, all that kipping likely contributed to poor motion of the shoulder blades and a technique that you shouldn't be proud of. Drop the kipping.
If performing a full range of motion pull-up is too challenging for you, that's still not an excuse to use momentum. Instead, cut each rep in half by only performing the lowering (eccentric) portion and skipping the raising (concentric) portion.
What this does is allow you to key in on the most important aspect of the pull-up since you must control the eccentric portion with good technique on the way down.
Use a five-second eccentric for each rep. If that's still too easy for you, add some external load by wearing a weight vest, tossing a couple of chains on top of your shoulders, or slapping on a weight belt with plates hanging underneath.
That extra weight will make it even more challenging to control your body during the lowering portion of each rep. It'll also force you to keep each rep clean and pain-free.
How to Do It
- Stand on a box high enough to let you get into the top position of the pull-up.
- Grip the bar tight and lower down for a complete five-second count.
- Stand back up onto the box and repeat for reps.
One Last Thing
If there's still pain, just don't do it! Search for the exercises that'll allow you to load up while avoiding pain in the process. These simple swaps are a good start in finding the best training options to avoid temporary pain and enhance overall training longevity.