When dealing with a shoulder injury or shoulder dysfunction, you've got one task (other than diagnosing the injury or guessing the source of the pain): Pick the right exercises to optimize the results as best you can while avoiding pain or excessive inflammation. Here are some options.
1 – Rack Viking Press
Assuming your gym doesn't have a Viking press machine, the rack Viking press is a great alternative. It's a pain in the ass to set up, but if you're willing to go to the trouble, it can be an effective way to load the shoulders while still being relatively shoulder friendly.
Many lifters find the Viking press to be an effective way to get strong overhead while avoiding existing shoulder issues. The advantage? It allows you to change your pressing angle to one that suits your anatomy by adjusting the height of the furthest safety pin (the one the bar is pivoting on).
Pressing either overhead or horizontally with a neutral grip offers some shoulder-saving benefits too. It limits elbow flare and offers a more stable position for the shoulder to press from.
More neutral-grip pressing like this could be the one simple change you make that gives immediate benefits to your shoulder health and performance.
2 – Landmine Single-Arm Press
When experiencing shoulder pain, limit the amount of work you do above 90 degrees of shoulder flexion, especially if it's a pain trigger. The angle of pressing here is effective for hitting the shoulders while the neutral grip adds to the shoulder-friendly nature too.
It's not often mentioned, but the landmine offers another benefit to cranky shoulders. The thickness of the end of the bar is like that of a fat-grip barbell. Many who experience shoulder pain claim to have less pain when using a thicker barbell.
We're not sure why, but it might similar to what we see with bottoms-up kettlebell pressing where there's an irradiation effect with increased shoulder muscle activation.
3 – Elbow Gripped Lateral Raise Iso
Overhead pressing can be a pain and inflammation trigger, but so can more isolated shoulder exercises like conventional lateral raises. Switch to performing lateral raises in the scapular plane of motion.
Instead of lateral raises to the side (frontal plane), try shifting the angle 30 degrees forward. Not only do the deltoid and supraspinatus have a more direct line of pull in the scapular plane, there's also increased activity of the external rotator muscles.
If using the scapular plane isn't enough to ameliorate pain, then you can try gripping some dumbbells in your elbows and doing iso holds instead (see video).
This works great for clunky shoulders, but it's also an excellent option for anyone who just wants to get their shoulder pump on. Bringing the dumbbells in simply shortens the moment arm and takes the wrists and elbows out of the equation. This makes it kinder on the shoulders while also helping those who have dodgy wrists or lateral elbow pain (golfers elbow).
If you really want to blow up your delts, try this:
- A1 Lateral Raises (Scapular Plane): 12-15 reps. Superset with...
- A2 Elbow-Gripped Lateral Raises, Max Iso: Hold for as long as possible using the same weight.
Repeat for 2-3 sets, then struggle with the steering wheel to drive home.
4 – Pronating Dumbbell Press
Swapping a barbell with dumbbells is an easy way to help prevent pain because the dumbbells offer freer motion and more natural shoulder movement. The space underneath the acromion process is already pretty tightly packed when you go overhead, and using a stiff barbell with an overhand grip doesn't help.
That's not to say a barbell military press should be labeled as bad, but like most everything else, it has a time and a place. While you're experiencing pain, though, switch to dumbbells, along with choosing a neutral or pronating grip.
Adding a 1-second pause at the bottom of each rep is also a good way to minimize shoulder stress while forcing more muscle contractile components to do the lifting.
5 – Accentuated Eccentric Landmine Push Press
The angle of pressing here is also relatively safe for most, providing you're okay with the explosive nature of this move.
If you're not ready for this, just scale it back a bit by pressing with two hands and lowering with one. You'll still get the eccentric overload, but it'll be a little less "jerky" on the shoulder.
6 – Eccentric Lateral Raise
Start doing your lateral raises in the scapular plane as explained earlier, but then combine it with some eccentric loading and you'll get one heck of a shoulder-friendly isolator.
Bending the elbows on the concentric (lifting) portion shortens the moment arm from the dumbbell to the shoulder, making the weight a little easier to handle. This also gives you the chance to focus on lifting with the elbows for pure isolation of the delts.
On the way down, the moment arm lengthens to a more disadvantageous position, weight-wise, thus providing some eccentric (negative) overload. That eccentric overload is great for your shoulder health and tendon strength, as well as creating some microtrauma and muscle growth.
Remember, Get Diagnosed First
If you're experiencing shoulder pain or dysfunction when overhead pressing, then seek a corrective strategy to help combat the weak link. You'll probably need a professional diagnosis for this because otherwise you're just guessing.
In the meantime, try slotting some of these exercises in your routine to avoid pain while still continuing to make progress.